Most children today can read a limited number of books by the time they read Kindergarten. There is even a push in a growing number of circles to insist that children know how to read before they enter Kindergarten. Many parents recognize that it is not unusual for a child to enter first grade with limited reading skills, yet a certain panic sets in if this same child struggles through a basic reader in grades two, three, and beyond. What can you do if your child knows the basic letter sound, but still struggles in reading?
Reading has many facets, which makes it difficult to teach. When we talk about reading, we mean phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency. Most struggling readers are weak in a couple of these areas, which brings them down in the other areas they are not really struggling in. The trick to improving your child’s reading ability is to find where s/he is struggling the most and improve that area, while not completely ignoring the others. In this article, I will briefly address each of the four facets of reading, though I will need to explore each in further detail in future articles.
The first facet of reading is phonics. Phonics is also called decoding – learning to sound out the letters in a word. This usually begins by learning the names of letters with the alphabet song, then matching the name of the letter with the shape of the letter, then matching the sounds to each letter. After this step, the child needs to learn what is called “chunking.” This means they need to learn that some letters when they are together always make the same sounds, so they do not need to sound out individual letters. Word families are a common example of chunking. Children learn the “-at” sound, then they can create the words “mat,” “sat,” “hat,” “rat,” and so on. Learning blended sounds is also necessary. For example, “th” makes one certain sound that is different from the “t” and the “h” individually. To make these “families” of words connect in their heads, it is very helpful to do activities where these words are together. My daughter and I made a “Reading Village” on our wall. In this village, we made houses out of construction paper. For the roof, we made the common sound, like “-at.” Then in the house, we listed words as we found them in books that fit into that family spelling. We had several houses in our village, though as the year progressed, we changed from houses to kites, with the common sound in the kite with the words attached as ribbon to the tail. Phonics is usually the first step that children learn in reading. Most children understand the letter sounds, but some older readers never quite learned chunking techniques. After this step, they can go into syllabication (sounding out words by syllables instead of individual letters), which I will explain in another, later article. By spending a small amount of time reviewing some of these, older struggling readers will quickly see progress.
Secondly, Vocabulary is essential to developing a strong reader. Vocabulary refers to understanding the words. Many struggling readers, especially those who come from multi-lingual families, may be able to sound out the words, but they may not understand what they mean when they are sounded out. Vocabulary issues can easily be addressed orally, by talking about the meanings of words. When reading a book, if a child is having difficulty sounding out a word, say it for them. Then ask if they know what it means. If they cannot explain it, they don’t understand the word, even if it is one they have heard regularly. If my fourth grade students were talking too much, I would commonly say, “My classroom is not a social club. Save it for when your work is finished.” One day, several months into the school year, one of my students cautiously held up her hand and said, “What is a social club?” I looked at her, surprised, and in that pause other students added, “Yeah. What is it?” I explained it was a place where you go to hang out and talk with your friends. After that, when I said it, the students nodded their head and I saw much greater results. Later, when we read a story with the word “social” in it, all of the class was able to read it well and make sense of it. Putting labels (cards) on items around the house will also help your child recognize common words and connect the word with the item. I was amazed every year with the number of students who did not know what a chest of drawers was, yet they all had one at home in their rooms! If a child is struggling with reading, having them read definitions over and over will NOT help unless the words and definitions are repeated aloud, worded in many different ways, and used on a regular basis.
The third facet of reading is comprehension. Comprehension describes understanding the concepts or ideas in the text. One of the best ways to assess what a child understands is to have the child tell you about what s/he just read silently, with NO INTERRUPTIONS!! It is very difficult to sit and listen to a child repeat a story back to us without asking questions – we as adults feel like we are not doing our job if we don’t ask questions. However, save the questions until the end. Don’t write them down, either. When a child is retelling what s/he just read, he needs to have your complete attention. This is much easier to do with short stories (a story with a few paragraphs is even better), though make sure they are on the level your child is being instructed on. This way you can read it before you sit down together and know what to expect. If s/he says something wrong, wait for them to finish retelling the story, then ask a question about the part that was wrong (i.e., “Are you sure the wolf was a friend of Little Red Riding Hood?”) If they still get it wrong, ask them to reread the story - silently. If they correct themselves, have them explain why that is the answer. These conversations do not need to be written, and they do not need to be lengthy discussions. It should take the child about 5 – 10 minutes to read the story (if they want to read it again, let them, but they cannot read it while they are retelling it. They can tell you when they are ready to retell the story). Then it should take no more than 5 minutes to retell the story. If your child does not understand the story or makes three or more mistakes, go down to a lower level book. The purpose is for your child to understand and explain what s/he read, so don’t worry if your fifth grader has to drop down to first grade level books for a while. You will be surprised how quickly they will move back up, and this time knowing what is being read! This short exercise should be done two to five times per week (once a day) if your child is struggling with comprehension.
Finally, fluency is being able to read at an easy-flowing, speedy pace. In schools, this is usually an objective, but it is also usually ignored because it is not on state tests. However, in my mind, it is one of the most essential aspects of reading. Difficulty in fluency is also frequently misdiagnosed as one of the other facets of reading. If it takes a child ten minutes to read half of a page, he will not remember what was read at the end of that time, so fluency is very important and strongly connected to comprehension. The good news is that it is easily remedied. In the classroom and at home, this was one of the first issues I addressed and continued all year. I would create a PowerPoint slideshow using 20 words. In the classroom, I used Spelling words (which are supposed to be easily read at the grade where they are taught). At home, where my daughter was not as old as my students, I began with the Dolch Words (a list of high-frequency words which you can easily find using any search engine on the internet). I simply made a slide show with one word per slide (with a font of 106). I made sure the word was in the same place on every slide. Then I let the slide transition to change every 2 seconds. I called this “slow.” We ONLY used this speed when I introduced the words, when I would read the word as it popped up and they would repeat it. I took the same slide show and changed the transition to change every 1 second, this I called “fast.” Students read this on their own, but aloud as a class choral reading. After a couple of days (even though they wanted to, I NEVER allowed them to go beyond this speed too early), I would increase the speed to 0.05 seconds, which was called “super fast.” On these days, we would read the words on “fast” and then change it to “super fast.” I used this the last 6 years I taught, and our reading specialist was always amazed how well my students could read. With struggling readers who are older than 8, I would use Spelling words (if you use them) and I would make another show of Dolch Words, beginning with the pre-primer level, but never having more than 20 or 25 words per slide show. For 9 years or older, I would make 2 slide shows per week. If your child is younger than 8 or has special needs, I would just use the Dolch Words, starting with only ten words and building up to twenty. This activity only takes a couple of minutes per day, but it is truly worth the time!
Phonics, Vocabulary, Comprehension, and Fluency are all vital facets of the “diamond” of reading. If a child is struggling, work with him or her to discover the cause of the difficulty and address it. Reading is one of the most valuable tools we have, and it is vital in today’s society. Using these simple skills, your struggling reader CAN learn to read – and love it!