Tips to Improve Children's Reading at Home

Updated on February 20, 2018
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Michael is a third grade teacher who works with a high percentage of students who are English Language Learners (ELL).

Reading is fundamental. You’re aware of that, because you’re doing it right now! For children, reading is one of the most important skills they can master. Reading is a prerequisite for any subject; without the ability to read, children can’t readily pursue what they’re passionate about! Below you’ll find some advice and ideas to help your students be better readers by practicing at home. Please note I have experience mostly in upper elementary (3rd-5th) where students are supposed to have already grasped the fundamentals of reading (although of course not all of them do). What this means is I tend to approach teaching reading more holistically, or through organic reading experiences, versus sitting with students and practicing diphthongs, digraphs, and so on. However, I can provide some tips and strategies that I use in the classroom when I must focus on specific skills.

Also, if you are a parent reading this because you want to help your child, I would like to give you a high five. Or two. Parent involvement is a HUGE predictor of student success. Without further ado, let’s get into the nitty gritty.

Last (and I swear I’m done after this), although I will recommend resources for purchase and online, if you are a parent and need help with resources, please ask your child’s teacher. We are more than happy to help parents who are involved in their child’s education. Plus, most of us have access to an enormous amount of resources and printer paper/ink. I have to bang on mine sometimes to get it to work, but I’ll make the sacrifice.

Identify What Your Child is Struggling With

Finding out what exactly the child is struggling with is the first step. Yes, there are different components that will depend on the child’s age and understanding of the English language. Identifying their weaknesses and strengths will help you cater your practice time more towards what they need (spending less time on what they don’t).

A motivation board in my classroom. I use this to motivate my kids who are struggling (with reading as well as anything else).
A motivation board in my classroom. I use this to motivate my kids who are struggling (with reading as well as anything else). | Source

Understanding Sight/Basic Words

Sight words (or basic words if it makes it easier) are words in the English language that students should be able to read instantly and without pause. Most of these words do not follow common spelling patterns, either. Some examples of sight words are:

  • and
  • the
  • blue
  • come
  • again

Teachers commonly use Fry’s Sight Words, which lists about 1000 sight words. Don’t print all of them out and spend days practicing them (yet). Ask the child to read a passage from a kid book that you think is appropriate for their age level. Do they read most of these “easier” words effortlessly? You can probably rule out sight words as something they struggle with. If they get stuck on these words, it’s assured they’re not going to be able to read anything. Find a sight word book or list, or better yet sight word flash cards. Practice with the child every day if possible. I tend to go with the grade level x 10 approach for how many minutes a student can do homework and practice after school. For K and 1st, I would say no more than 10 minutes. Second grade can do 20 minutes a day after school, and so on. On the weekends, go nuts. Just give them some time to play and be kids, too!

Fluency

Fluency is how accurate and fluid a child can read. Some children are great at fluency but terrible at comprehension (the next part). Some students are the opposite. I tend to be more concerned with the former then the latter. Students who can read fast but don’t understand anything are not going to be successful readers.

Typically, teachers test fluency using pen/paper tests or using software. At my school, we use software and students are given a minute to read as much as they can, which comes up with a words-per-minute score. We have a matrix that tells them where exactly the child should be close to during critical times of the year (beginning, middle, and end). For you, I would suggest that you don’t try to replicate that and just keep it simple.

Grab a child’s favorite story and time them for a minute while they read. Instead of trying to count the words per minute, look for the following:

  • Is the child pausing while reading or not? If they do pause, is it a natural pause (period, comma), or is it because they took an extra second to read a word?
  • Does the child sound natural when they read? Robot readers might indicate a child is putting all their energy into deciphering the words versus reading fluidly (though some kiddos just read like that)
  • When they come across big words, do they chunk them (break them apart into appropriate syllables) or do they chunk them awkwardly?

If you see that the child is a fluent reader, go ahead and move on. If they aren’t, spend a little time each day practicing fluency. Take one passage/page of a story and time them. Then, make a game out of it! Tell them they must beat their “score” of how many words they can read in a minute. It really does only take a minute or two each day. Fluent readers are important because they are less likely to become fatigued by reading (which leads many students to hate reading).

Comprehension

Comprehension is the ability to understand what we read. That’s important; if we don’t understand what we read there’s no point in reading!

To test your child’s comprehension, you can find passages with questions already made up online or from textbooks. But, you can also come up with your own questions for free! Think about questions that start with the basic question words: who, what, when, where, why, and how. If your child can answer these questions easily, they have basic comprehension. From there I would work with the child’s teacher to see what skills they are working on in class and what you can do to help.

If the child cannot answer these questions, consider slowing down. Comprehension is a hefty skill, and it takes time to learn. Depending on the age of the child, you might try the following:

  • Draw a picture of a character in the story. Help the child come up with single words to describe that character (sad, happy, funny).
  • Write/draw one thing that happened in the beginning, the middle, and the end.
  • Ask the child one thing they liked or didn’t like about the story and why.
  • Ask them to reread the paragraph/page the answer is found in.

Like I said, this part is going to take patience. Comprehension is something that, in my opinion, just kind of comes naturally with exposure to reading. Which leads into the next part.

Read Every Day

Like, every day. If you want to learn to ride a bike, you have to get on there and ride it. If you want to be a professional football player, you’ve got years of practice ahead of you. Reading follows the same flow. I would follow the same rule as I said earlier, grade level x 10, to determine how many minutes a day a child should read. Please don’t make a third grader read for two hours a day (unless of course they want to and are genuinely excited about it), because you may make them start to hate reading. We want to avoid that. Also, let the kid read whatever he wants to! The goal here is to engage them. If they want to read stories about Pokémon, let them. If it has lots of text and is at their level (don’t let them be lazy and read kindergarten books if they’re reading at a 2nd grade level), let them do their own thing.

Grade Level
Time Spent Reading After School (suggested)
1st Grade
10 minutes
2nd Grade
20 minutes
3rd Grade
30 minutes
4th Grade
40 minutes
5th Grade
50 minutes
Reading is "fun" damental.
Reading is "fun" damental. | Source

Model Reading Yourself

If you are the parent or a prominent figure in the child’s life, they’re going to want to do what you do. If you tell them to read, but you play video games all day, guess what the child’s probably going to want to do? Even if you don’t like to read, sacrifice 30 minutes of your day and fake it. Read an online newspaper or something and try to seem interested. An especially good strategy at any age in elementary (and maybe even early middle school) is to read to the child. The younger the child, the more important it is that they get to hear fluid and energetic reading.

Express Interest

The last thing I can say is that you should express interest in the child’s reading adventure. If you catch them reading, be excited! Ask them questions about what they’re reading about (if they can answer those questions, at least). Ask them if they can read it out loud to you. Tell them you are proud of them for making the choice to read besides using the TV/PlayStation/etc. Children are extremely perceptive of your actions and words, so use them wisely.

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