This article is the second in a series aimed at empowering parents to enhance their children’s education.
Many children struggle with reading proficiency. While some may be able to read each word with a fair amount of accuracy, many have not mastered reading comprehension. Educators often notice this while children are reading aloud. It occurs when the brain is so focused on decoding the written word into a sound that is recognizable and correctly pronounced, that no effort can be given to decoding the meaning. Even seniors in high school can demonstrate this problem.
It works a little like reading in another language. One can learn enough phonetics in the new language to read it quite fluently – all while being unable to translate the meaning.
Remedying this problem can be very frustrating for secondary teachers – who by state and federal standards should be teaching analysis and evaluation, not basic reading comprehension. Quite bluntly, teachers don’t have time in class to teach struggling children this all-important skill because they should have already learned it by their 8th grade year. Yet every fall fills our classrooms with students who are not yet on a fifth grade reading level. Their success is severely handi-capped by this ongoing problem as they are unable to progress toward the analysis nor toward the evaluation demanded of upper-level students, much less the synthesis involved in writing.
[NOTE: Clearly, this does NOT refer to students with learning disabilities like dyslexia, et cetera.]
When parents decide to work with their children on reading comprehension, whether as a pre-schooler or a teen, many resources can be utilized. I will divide them into age groups to make the resource best match the student.
Quite commonly, children in this age group may learn to read aloud fluidly. When teaching a child this age to read, really the most important method is to simply read to them and then with them. Children this age are soaking up language and its usage at an astonishing rate. For teaching reading to this age, I recommend nursery rhymes.
A book on nursery rhymes provides several important functions for this age group. First, they are brief. Due to their brevity, a learning reader can easily parse meaning from them and laugh at their silliness. The stories of cows jumping over moons and spiders frightening those who would prefer to eat their curds and whey in peace are engaging. Characters are simple and story lines resolve quickly. Secondly, nursery rhymes are poetry. Poetry has long been a tool for memorization used by story-tellers before a culture could read or write. Because these stories have meter (their “sing-songy” quality) and rhyme, a child can easily memorize them. Children enjoy the ability to predict the rhyming word, much like their fascination with a jack-in-the-box. Memorization is an important step. Finally, when a child memorizes a rhyme, they are able to begin associating it with what is in print.
Long before I could read indiscriminately, I was able to “read” a favorite storybook by rote. I knew what part of the story applied to the pictures and could re-tell what my parents had read to me word-for-word. Because it was word-for-word, I was able to match each word with the appropriate collection of letters. This is how I began learning to read. Comprehension developed as I applied sound and meaning to the written word.
While nursery rhymes are ideal, children can easily memorize any short book they hear read often. Repetition is very important to children this age because that is how they learn. They memorize and rely on predictions. They begin inferring a relationship on their own with no direct-teaching.
When teaching a child this age to read, don’t worry about focusing on “sounding the words out” as they tell children in early elementary. The written English language requires memorization and relies very little on phonetics when compared to other languages like Spanish. Don’t be afraid to give your child the word they are struggling with until they are able to recognize it on their own.
Ages 6 – 8
Most of what I said for the first age group still applies, though this group will demand a bit more substance. When our youngest was six in the early part of last summer, she demonstrated reading comprehension problems as a first grader. At her mother’s house (she is my partner’s child – but I certainly claim her), she does not do a lot of reading and does not have a lot of books, but rather spends a great deal of time in front of a screen. Many students her age spend their time similarly. I simply decided to create the same tradition with her I had created with my own daughter (who is now 14). Now, she reads with everyone in the house and has vastly improved her comprehension.
First, I chose a hefty-sized book off the shelf and we began reading. Winnie the Pooh, The House at Pooh Corner, is a perfect choice for this age. The vocabulary is challenging and the usage of words (many hyphens, odd spellings, some dialect) is very useful. I began by reading to her and she quickly wanted to read some on her own. When she had read a paragraph, I asked her what she had read. She always seemed caught off-guard, as though it were an unexpected question. She began re-reading it and I told her to simply summarize — another problem for many secondary students. When she learned that she would have to give me a report, she began working on her comprehension, sometimes reading a sentence more than once for meaning. This is what I was wanting. Soon, she was laughing at the foibles of a silly old bear and his friends.
We are currently reading Mary Poppins and, with her dad, A Children’s Treasury of Mythology. My daughter and I read The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, The Chronicles of Narnia,The Hobbit, The Silly Book, The Odyssey (a children’s version), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (really anything by Roald Dahl), Charolette’s Web and many more books that similarly capture a child’s imagination. These stories not only help children to love reading, but set their imaginations and creativity on fire. It gives them a strong background on
classic literature at the same time. And watching the movie afterward is a huge treat!
Don’t overlook the benefits of poetry for this age group either. Shel Silverstein, the perennial favorite, is as much fun as the poetics of Dr. Suess.
The following age groups are going to need help learning to enjoy reading if they have not previously spent time in books. The best way to do this is to choose an interesting book and read it together, taking turns. While I do NOT recommend tests or quizzes (this often kills the joys of reading), I do recommend having your child summarize what we read last before beginning and asking them questions as you go along. Questions should sound like, “What do you think about that?” or “Why do you think she did that?” or “What would you do if you were in that situation?” In other words, ask questions that require your student to step into the lives of the characters, building empathy and making connections to the literature while being a part of natural conversation.
Ages 9- 12
This age group wants to move out of what they consider “children’s lit” in favor for something a bit more daring. I whole-heartedly recommend reading aloud with each other children’s poetry. Not the nursery rhymes belonging to toddlers, but the poetry that stirs their wonder and asks questions. Good anthologies of children’s poetry are widely available and many include pieces from famous poets.
I also recommend beginning series of books with them. This age group would also enjoy The Chronicles of Narnia as a series, but also Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time Series. Harry Potter, a modern classic, is a wonderful series for this age as well. I also highly recommend Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. This series teaches strong vocabulary skills and plays with anachronisms. Adults of all educational backgrounds find little “Easter eggs” buried in passages. A Thousand Cranes is a story that could pair well with Diary of Anne Frank for a WWII theme.
My daughter and I read No Small Thing; The Shakespeare Stealer; I, Coriander; and The Giver at this age. Her favorite of all was Pictures of Hollis Woods. She and many other students enjoy the Goosebumps series.
If your child has been reading for as long as mine has, her interests have taken on a life of their own by this age. Realizing she has no barriers to what she may enjoy, she finds herself reading whatever books are on the shelf. At our house, that could mean poetry by Langston Hughes or Rumi, novels by Stephen King or Mark Twain, even college textbooks on psychology and engineering. Building a library full of variety for a child like this is of obvious
importance. (And if you really want to see your children actually read, you could live like we do – sans internet or television services. That’s another entry for another day.)
However, if your child is struggling with reading comprehension at this age, chances are they’ve already developed strong feelings regarding reading. They have likely decided they aren’t good at it and would rather not feel the failure that comes with trying. This age is a critical time to begin intervening.
To combat these feelings, the reward of reading must be great. I believe that most children, regardless of their hormonal mood-swings of this age, regardless of their extra-curricular interests, still crave the undivided attention of their parent(s). Enter the world of young adult fiction.
Some of the best young adult books are truly engaging for all ages. Though they are geared to young adults, they are often mesmerizing for anyone. When a story grabs us, it never truly lets go. Unwind is an easy-to-read/hard-to-put-down novel for all age groups. The Pigman transfixes readers of all ages. Stephen King’s books may be more enticing to some this age. To Kill A Mockingbird delivers a powerful opportunity for discussions on history, justice, and ethics. Short stories appeal to this age group as well. I recommend “A Rose for Emily,” “The Lottery,” “The Yellow Wallpaper,” “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” “The Gift of the Magi,” “The Open Window,” and “The Scarlet Ibis.” Often, these are available in an anthology that would include them all. Anything by Edgar Allen Poe, Kate Chopin, Mark Twain, or Edith Wharton are usually wonderful reading. And the best part about short stories from these authors is that they are easily printed from the internet, royalty free. Remember, many of these stories contain more rigorous vocabulary. This means they are filled with words we don’t commonly use. When a parent is able to model for their student how they will look up words they don’t know or use context clues to figure them out, it really underscores the importance of vocabulary and continually learning.
Let me also recommend for this age group adventure stories. Treasure Island and Call of the Wild are perennial
favorites, as is Peter Pan. Dave Barry wrote Peter and the Starcatchers – the story of how Peter Pan came to be. Endless other classics are easy to find.
Ages 15 – 18
Students who are struggling with reading at this age may benefit from the books and stories I mentioned in the previous paragraph. For these students, I’d also recommend the popular series Twilight, the Virals series, and the Pretty Little Liars series.
For those who are more advanced readers and need something interesting and perhaps challenging, try the dystopian novel genre. These books are usually favorites for students. I recommend parental guidance in this genre, as parenting styles greatly vary and some of the material may not be suitable for your child. (Summaries of these books are widely available on the internet.) George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm are wonderful places to begin in this genre. Alas Babylon is a good book for initiating these works as well. Other titles are I am Legend, The Road, The Hunger Games (series), and Brave New World. The Handmaid’s Tale is one of my favorites, but certainly has more mature content.
Another genre that may capture your child’s imagination is Gothic literature. This includes Dracula, Frankenstein, A Picture of Dorian Grey, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Jane Eyre, Fahrenheit 451, Lord of the Flies, Phantom of the Opera, Clockwork Orange, and several other similar works. To Kill a Mockingbird is another Gothic piece students love. Modern Gothic writers are Stephen King, Kate Morton, Lemony Snicket, Joyce Carol Oates, and Anne Rice.
For the advanced, try reading Shakespeare’s plays together. www.nofearshakespeare.com is a wonderful resource for parents and students to analyze more complicated language structures and learn iambic pentameter. Students this age will likely study Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar or Othello, and Macbeth or Hamlet in high school. Students usually really like these stories. If you’re interested in a comedy, I recommend Much Ado About Nothing, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and A Comedy of Errors. Really, King Lear, Henry V, and The Tempest are all favorites of students as well. Many film versions are available after you’ve read them and I highly recommend any film directed by Kenneth Branaugh. You could also draw comparisons to other films, such as Henry V and Braveheart.
I highly recommend The Importance of Being Earnest for a Victorian comedy. A Flea in Her Ear is a wonderful example of a Farce. For modern plays, I recommend The Boys Next Door for a drama/comedy, and ZAP! By Paul Fleishel for a genre-crossing comedy. The subject matter is quite mature, but The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer-Park Housewife is another good play that pairs well with A Streetcar Named Desire.
Reading with your child is rewarding and a great way to build your relationship. The fact that your child’s academics and education will grow is an added benefit. I’m very interested in knowing what books you recommend reading with children as well as what will you and your child read tonight.