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October 31, 2014
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Reading Every Day

Parents today can feel a lot of pressure when it comes to reading. They know that children need to read well to succeed in school, thrive in a workforce changing so fast that all workers need to be learners, and to get the most out of their lives. Parents also know that their children will be tested early and often on reading skills. That has many parents wondering how to teach their children to read. But that isn’t really the question. Learning to read is actually a one-time process most kids accomplish in just a few years in school. But learning to read doesn’t do any good if the child doesn’t put that skill to use. The better question is, what can I do now to ensure my child will be a better reader later?

A child needs to learn more than how to sound out the word “alligator.” He needs to know what an alligator is. It doesn’t help to be able to read a sentence if she doesn’t understand it. One of the main things that separates successful readers from struggling readers is the number of words they hear and say, even before they reach school. So make sure your child hears and says as many words as possible. You can do this by thinking about the things you do every day, and how you can add to the number of words you use.

Start with the way you talk with your child. Try narrating your day. Imagine you are a radio announcer describing everything you do. It may feel funny to you, but the funnier it seems to your child, the more engaged he will be. If she doesn’t talk yet, look her in the eye and speak to her, then pause and wait for a response. Even if all you get is a gurgle, you are teaching your child that speaking is a give and take. If your child is beginning to speak, then take every opportunity to build on his language. If your child speaks in broken phrases, repeat what he says back in full sentences. Repeat back the words he says with descriptive and comparison words. Cookie? You want a cookie? This brown cookie?  This round, brown cookie?

Singing builds language skills by slowing down language, repeating words and phrases and introducing new words you might not use when you speak. It doesn’t matter that you aren’t a trained opera star; children’s senses are not fully developed yet, and they will be interested in listening to you. Get them singing with you, and you double the effect.

Playing is important for building the background children need to understand language. Children explore their world through play. Engage your child in talking about what she is playing and introduce new words for the ones she already knows. Take field trips to expand language even more. The zoo, museums, parks… take your child with you when you get your oil changed.

Of course, the best way to introduce new words to children is to read to them. If you think you read to your child enough, double the time you spend. It is well worth the investment. Don’t hesitate to read the same books over and over. Repetition builds vocabulary and grammar. Don’t have the time to read to your child three, four, or even five hours a day? Audiobooks are a great way to fill the gap.

How long do you have to do these things? You can probably stop thinking about adding words to your child’s world about the time he moves out. Learning to read is a one-time, short-term task. Becoming a reader is a life-long pursuit.

Michael Sullivan’s new book, Raising Boy Readers, is due to be released in November.

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