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Tips for helping children learn to read

Father reading to child
Credit: iStock.com/ PeopleImages

Most parents are aware of the importance of reading with their child from a very early age – the more a child reads, the greater they’re able to build crucial cognitive and literacy skills.

Studies show it’s never too late or too early to read to your child and it’s also important to read to your children for enjoyment so they fully engage in the story.

But are parents doing enough? Research into reading aloud by Murdoch University1 shows more than half of children are not being read to at home, leading to calls for parents to keep reading aloud to children as long as possible.

Research author and literacy expert Dr Margaret Merga says reading supports a huge range of skills.

“It supports the development of important literacy skills such as reading comprehension, oral reading fluency, vocabulary development, syntactic knowledge, word recognition and a range of other related areas. The more a child reads, the greater these benefits,” Dr Merga says.

“We also know that children’s literacy skills can stagnate and even decline if they go through periods without reading exposure. This is why it’s important to establish and maintain a reading habit across the life span in both our children and ourselves.”

Both comprehension and decoding are vital components of learning to read, and shared reading opportunities between parents and their children are valuable opportunities to support children’s reading skill development, discuss reading in the context of pleasure while checking for understanding, and foster positive attitudes toward reading.
Dr Margaret Merga

Co-author Dr Susan Ledger claims the reading brain has been likened to a symphony orchestra with various parts of the brain working together.

“As complex as reading is, neuroscience and technology is able to target key learning centres in the brain that identify neural pathways the brain employs to read.

“The capacity to connect and link the new, to what we already know, is vital to learning. David A Sousa in his book How the Brain Works describes how the brain takes in information by deciding whether to retain or drop it. Information is most likely stored if it makes sense and has meaning.”

“Author Michael Rossen suggests fun, pleasure and enjoyment helps make meaning, not simply decoding. However, many things may ‘go wrong’ when trying to teach or learn how to read and in particular how children make meaning of text.”

Dr Ledger says children who are struggling to read often blame themselves, or they lack self-confidence and feel they are not smart enough.

“Some are ashamed of their lack of ability to learn how to read and this often impacts results in other areas of curriculum,” Dr Ledger says.

“Some children have difficulty executing the action of reading and require specific diagnosis and intervention.

“The more we understand the specific learning difficulties, the better we can address them and the more confidence students can gain.

“It’s now possible to visualise changes in brain function. With the support of interventions many of these difficulties can be ameliorated with remediation interventions.”

When it comes to dyslexia Dr Merga says this is a case of the brain working a little differently.

“It’s important to note that dyslexia is not related to intelligence alone, but rather to recognisable patterns of abnormal brain function, which is why very intelligent children can also be dyslexic,” Dr Merga says.

“Children with dyslexia can still be capable readers, though they face greater challenges, which is why it is beneficial to work with an educational psychologist to find strategies that can support your child.”

When teaching children to read, most researchers agree that a single approach such as whole word only, or phonics only, will not meet the learning needs of children.

According to Dr Merga, when we use phonics as one of our strategies to teach reading, we should always teach phonics using real words. (Phonics involves the explicit and systematic teaching of the relationship between speech sounds and the spelling patterns that represent them.)

“Both comprehension and decoding are vital components of learning to read, and shared reading opportunities between parents and their children are valuable opportunities to support children’s reading skill development, discuss reading in the context of pleasure while checking for understanding, and foster positive attitudes toward reading,” Dr Merga says.

Being able to read is one of the most complex skills we learn in our lifetime. According to Dr Ledger, reading requires our brains to process information in complex artificial ways.

“This is why students regardless of age and background struggle to read. Dr Paula Tallal, an authority on language-learning disabilities, suggests that brains can change and learn at any age and be rewired for reading,” Dr Ledger says.

“When teaching reading, we need to understand what reading is and how children read. Reading is a simulated language experience constructed by our brains to make meaning of text.

“Some refer to it as a code. Learning to read is the process through which our brains learn to build the virtual machinery required to read.”

Dr Ledger says it’s crucial children are exposed to an environment that promotes a love of texts and reading so they can develop an inherent desire to access the wonderful world of literature and learning rather than simply learning the skills required to read.”

Top tips for parents helping children learn to read:2

  1. Give it all your attention: Make it quality time. Choose a suitable time and place that is device free, comfortable and one which children will associate with enjoyment and routine.
  2. Engage with the story: The aim is to read for enjoyment, so immerse yourself and your child into the story, don’t make it a comprehension task and keep interruptions to a minimum. However, simple recapping (where are we up to?), prediction (what will happen next?) or sharing responses when reflecting on what you read (why do you think…?) will encourage cognitive and critical thinking skills.
  3. There is no age limit: It is never too late or early to read to children.
  4. Pick a text you both enjoy: Choose a book of interest or humorous book that you can both enjoy and use to trigger future conversations to help make meaning. (poetry, fiction, nonfiction)
  5. Don’t worry about your style: Just be you! If parents can’t read listen to listening tapes, TV books, poetry recitals and reading sessions at your library. If you can, simply read it with passion and interest, fluently. Begin with shorter sessions and build up once you are confident.

1 Ledger, S., & Merga, M. K. (2018). Reading Aloud: Children's Attitudes toward being Read to at Home and at School. Australian. Journal of Teacher Education, 43(3). http://dx.doi.org/10.14221/ajte.2018v43n3.8

2 Reading to children for enjoyment (Merga, Gardner, Roni & Ledger, 2017)