Tweaks Parents Can Make to Help Their Struggling Readers
My fifth grade students were just settling into our literature and writing class one day when Sammy slipped out of his seat, walked up to my standing desk, stuck this post-it onto the surface right next to my computer, and without a word, turned and sat down again.
Nothing could have surprised me more. Or warmed my heart more. Sammy had begun the year doing everything he could to remain invisible and detached. Lack of engagement, almost zero class participation, little homework completion. I knew he felt vulnerable as his skills were poor.
But somewhere along the way, he experienced a turn-around. Had my class suddenly become more engaging? My teaching more inspiring? It would have been gratifying to think I’d made such a difference, but I knew that wasn’t it.
Something else had made a difference though. Here’s the story of what happened.
Many thanks to Don Winn, leading dyslexia expert and award-winning author, for inviting me to share this story.
Did you know that according to the latest NAEP—our nation’s report card that tests students in fourth and eighth grade every two years—65% of fourth graders and 66% of eighth graders in the United States did not perform as proficient readers? (NAEP 2019)
Equally as concerning, research tells us that 75% of students who do not read on grade level by third grade will never catch up. (Children’s Reading Foundation)
Why is it that 3 out of 4 students will remain behind? And what is happening with students in the 25% who do manage to make gains and become proficient readers?
Observations I’ve made in over three decades teaching elementary school children convince me that there is one variable that’s most powerful and effective in moving children into reading success.
In our latest conversation, author and dyslexia expert Don Winn and I discuss these issues: why children struggle and how they can be helped.
Part One of “The Power of Stories During Difficult Times:” My Conversation with Author Don Winn
Last month author Don Winn hosted a chat with me about the comfort reading can bring to children (and the rest of us) particularly during hard times. 2020 may be in the rearview mirror, but our challenges don’t seem to be letting up just yet. A daily dive into a good book with your child can be just the thing to bring you both comfort—and pay longterm dividends.
Here’s the video interview you can watch again or, if you prefer, read.
Did you know that The Invisible Toolbox is available on audio too? It’s not only a quick read, it’s a fast listen, too, at just two hours. Here’s what Adrian, the youth services librarian at the Westmont Public Library, has to say about it:
“You may have heard that it’s important to read aloud to your child from birth, but you may not have heard why…”
The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence is available on audio as well as paperback through these links:
Jane Goodall’s list of accomplishments is well known, but what may not be as widely recognized is how she came to be the remarkable woman she is today.
From early on British born Jane loved animals. In 1935, on the occasion of King George V’s silver jubilee celebrating 25 years on the throne, her father gave one year old Jane a stuffed chimpanzee in honor of the birth of Jubilee, a baby chimp born at the London Zoo the very same year.
Jane traces her early fascination with animals all the way back to her own little Jubilee who resides with her still in her childhood home in England. But it wasn’t until she was a little older that this affection expanded into a passion that would ultimately draw her into a career that changed the way the world understands animals.
She became an avid reader who found her way to the books that were right for her and, because of those books, she found her life’s passion.
As a young girl Jane grew into a voracious reader and spent hours at the public library or perched on stacks of books at her local second hand book shop. When she could save a little money, she was occasionally able to buy one. In a lovely letter to children published in A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, Jane explains how these books inspired her future:
“…in the summer I would take my special books up in my favorite tree in the garden. My Beech Tree. Up there I read stories of faraway places. I especially loved reading about Doctor Dolittle and how he learned to talk to the animals. And I read about Tarzan and the Apes. And the more I read, the more I wanted to read.”
At the age of ten Jane decided that when she grew up she would go to Africa to live with the animals and write books about them. And that is just what she did.
Jane’s story beautifully illustrates the power books have to inspire the human imagination.
One can’t help but wonder…what if Jane had grown up in a different time? Consider the present for instance. What if she’d had access to screens and the internet and never fell in love with reading as she did? Would Jane Goodall have become the person she is today?
By reading to our children from the beginning and supporting their love of reading throughout their childhood, every child’s imagination can be sparked and ignited.
Books have a unique capacity to fire the imagination. Neurologists now know that we humans experience reading fiction as if it’s actually happening to us. All parts of the brain are engaged when we read, not just the region that processes language—which is what we used to think. The deep and organic engagement that comes with written text doesn’t happen with fiction depicted through images on a screen. A book that a child becomes immersed in, however, literally becomes a part of them.
Jane read and reread the Tarzan books, developed a crush on the noble savage himself, and was quite put out at his choice of a partner. “He married the wrong Jane.”
Fortunately for Jane and for the world, she grew up in the time that she did. She became an avid reader who found her way to the books that were right for her and, because of those books, she found her life’s passion.
What does Jane’s story have to say to us today? Simply this. As parents it is our responsibility to nourish our children’s inner worlds.
Jane was fortunate in having parents who encouraged her to believe she could do whatever she set out to do. They also supported her love of reading.With the myriad distractions parents and children face today, helping children find their way to the books that inspire them is a taller order than it was in Jane’s time. But, it is definitely doable. By reading to our children from the beginning and supporting their love of reading throughout their childhood, every child’s imagination can be sparked and ignited.
Your baby has found their walking legs, and now—full of their own power and personal agency—sitting and looking at a book with you just doesn’t happen. They are on the move. Staying stationary and listening to a story? Yeah, right.
“I try to read to him, but he scoots off my lap and starts playing instead. Now what?”
This is a fairly common lament that I hear from parents, but it’s easily dealt with. Your little one doesn’t have to be on your lap or next to your side to benefit from your reading aloud to them. I’ll explain why in a moment and also share some tips for how to get around this.
But first, I want to remind you why it’s important to begin reading to your child from the beginning.
When you read to your baby you’re gifting them with tools they will use forever. One gift is that reading a story trains your child to pay attention. Some may balk at the word ‘train,’ but the fact is the ability to pay attention is a life skill that must be practiced in order to be learned. It happens, ideally, on the lap of a parent, and whether it’s taught—or not— will have long-ranging consequences for your child.
Along with learning to pay attention, your child also learns that being read to is a rewarding experience. You will have created buy-in for listening to a story and your child will likely eagerly look forward to it.
However, regardless of when you started reading to your child, there’s no need to worry when they won’t sit still for it.
Here are 3 simple tips for reading to that busy body:
1. Establish a read-aloud routine to match your child’s rhythm.
It’s easiest to encourage on-lap story time when your child’s energy level is not in high gear. When my son was a toddler we had two regular daily story times. Right after his bath and just before bedtime was perfect because he was already in wind-down mode. The other time was just after a nap when he was just re-awakening to the world. A bottle, a cuddle, a story or two, and then he was back in business.
2. Keep an eye out for a window of opportunity when you know your child needs a break.
You know as well as I do that there are moments when you’ve both just had it. When your little one is exhausted, but not yet ready for a nap—and you may be too. Grabbing a picture book or a book of nursery rhymes and settling down for a few minutes on the sofa or your favorite comfy chair may be just the thing to help them—and you—recharge. I always found these moments of downtime to be a welcome pause. Your child will too.
3. Read to that busy mover anyway.
Some children are simply wired to move more than others. Maybe your child simply won’t sit still long enough to listen to an entire story. No worries. They may prefer sitting on the floor playing with Thomas the Tank Engine. Let them be. Read to them anyway. They can hear you.
Here’s the secret to why reading to your child is beneficial, even if they aren’t sitting by your side or on your lap while you’re doing it. Your child will pick up on your feelings about what you’re doing. If you are enjoying the story—or at least the reading of it, and sometimes we really do have to work at that by having some fun doing voices—your child will absorb that. They will be listening to you even if they aren’t looking at the pictures. They may even circle back to check in and then return to their play a few times.
The key to reading to that active child of yours is simply to relax and have fun. Enjoy that story, regardless of whether you have a rapt audience sitting on your lap. Because if you do, you can be sure your little mover will too.
“It is never too late to parent yourself as well as your child.”
Once a parent understands that reading to their child is not just a good thing, but an essential thing that will enable them to reach their potential and bring great joy—fears and anxieties might emerge. A parent may wonder, how can I help my child fall in love with reading when I don’t love it myself? Where do I begin?
Excerpt from The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence:
Tool #1: Parent Yourself
“Parents who struggled with reading as children or who have never really discovered its pleasures for themselves may feel helpless or ill-equipped to lead. My advice to them is that this is not only your child’s golden opportunity to grow; this is your opportunity as well. One of parenting’s greatest benefits is having the chance to rework or recover experiences that we may have missed out on in our own childhoods. Do not misunderstand; I’m not promoting the type of vicarious living we see on the Little League field when overly aggressive parents relive their dreams of baseball glory through their children. The benefits I refer to have to do with the fact that when we raise children they open up new experiences to us through the worlds they are drawn to. This can happen with reading as well. If your experience with reading was difficult or unremarkable, doing right by your child gives you an opportunity to rework and overcome that. It is never too late to parent yourself as well as your child.”
Parents, you are not alone. There are tools and support out there for you to help you give your child the best possible start.