3 Ways Parents Can Help Their Child Learn to Read — and Read to Learn

Reading proficiently by the end of third grade — a major predictor of future educational outcomes — is one of the most important benchmarks in a child’s academic journey.

Having a strong foundation upon which to build reading ability empowers children to reach their full potential, but many kids face serious challenges. Only 35 percent of fourth-graders — one in every three — are able to read proficiently, according to the 2013 Nation’s Report Card.

Because the end of third grade typically marks the transition from learning to read to reading to learn, children who have significant gaps in their reading ability will fall increasingly far behind in their comprehension across all subjects. Poor reading ability can affect motivation to learn and may prevent a child who is otherwise just as intelligent as another from being able to keep up with her peers at school.

Reading proficiency statistics do not indicate much year-to-year improvement beyond grade four — the same percentage of students (roughly 35 percent) remain proficient until grade twelve. Even worse is the fact that students are usually not able to make up this difference as they get older. This suggests that when a student falls behind in reading skills, she is not just losing ground in this area, but in every academic pursuit related to it. A gap in reading comprehension opens and exacerbates gaps in other areas of knowledge, too, widening the gulf between high- and low-achieving students. The other 65 percent of fourth-graders — those capable of basic or below-basic reading — are four times more likely than their peers to drop out of high school without a diploma, according to a study from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

This study concluded that third grade is a pivotal point — the spot that can make a difference in the long-term outcomes of many students. As a result, many states have created educational policies to retain third-grade students who lack reading skills and are not ready for promotion to fourth grade.

It goes without saying that getting involved with your kids’ reading can improve their chances of success in school, but what are some important early steps? Here are three ways parents can help their child learn to read so she can begin reading to learn.

1. Read to your child.

Reading to your child is an easy way to foster reading enjoyment and develop vocabulary and language skills. It’s never too early to introduce book-reading and set the foundation for learning how to read. It is important for kids to understand the fundamentals of reading as early as possible so they can begin learning from written language and feel confident in school. As a bonus, parents can ask their child comprehension questions about stories to engage her even more.

A large Scholastic report explains that 59 percent of parents read books at least three days a week to their children between the ages of 6 and 8. Of the children between the ages of 6 and 11 who are no longer read books aloud, 40 percent said they wish their parents kept reading to them regularly. And 78 percent said they liked this activity so much because it represented special time shared with a parent. Not only does reading aloud help deepen your relationship with your child, but it also helps expose her to deeper concepts, a richer vocabulary, and a broadened worldview.

2. Listen to your child read.

Parents should help their child learn to read as early as possible. This exposure to written text will help her to further develop grammatical understanding and comprehension skills. Parents should use simple picture books and help their child pronounce words as entireties. When she isn’t able to handle a given word, parents should step in and help her sound it out. Parents may choose to follow along silently with their child or read aloud simultaneously. Either method will provide corrective feedback as needed — for pronunciation, punctuation, pace, and inflection.

Children should read books aloud daily throughout elementary school. Parental involvement in listening to their child read can go a long way towards achieving fluency — the ability to read a text accurately, quickly, and with expression. After children learn how to read, parents often expect them to continue reading books silently on their own. While building independent reading habits is important, fluency and comprehension are further developed through the process of reading aloud. Developing strength as a reader takes practice, persistence, and hard work.

As children get older, it is also essential for them to continue to read frequently and be exposed to a variety of genres to build and maintain reading proficiency.

3. Teach your child literacy skills.

The most popular learning-how-to-read strategies parents use are the first two: read to your child and listen to your child read. The National Institute for Literacy, however, recommends that parents help their children to learn specific literacy skills. This method was found to be twice as effective as having parents listen while their children read aloud — and six times more effective than having parents read to their children — in creating strong readers. Reading together is still strongly encouraged, but the meta-analysis concluded that providing actual instruction in specific literacy-related skills is ultimately the best method for parents to help their child learn to read.

Pre-reading skills are crucial to early literacy. A child’s reading ability in first grade is linked with her having worked with these components before beginning kindergarten. Parents can teach their kids many of the skills that are predictors of later academic success — as identified by two UC–Berkeley professors. These include alphabet knowledge (such as letter-sound correspondence); phonological awareness (like rhyming and remembering familiar sounds); name writing; and rapid, automatic naming of letters, digits, and colors.

Reading Rockets, a U.S. Department of Education–funded literacy organization, agrees. It explains that a solid understanding of phonics — such as letter-sound blending, consonant combinations, and vowel combinations — can greatly improve a child’s ability to read unfamiliar words fluently. Kids also need to be able to recognize common whole words (also known as sight words) easily.

Teaching these difficult concepts on your own to a child can be tough, and though there are many free options available online, parents may find more success by getting literacy tools directly from educators. Enrichment programs for reading — such as Kumon — enable parents to help their children learn how to read by equipping them with literacy resources to facilitate reading instruction.

Parents can also ask their child’s preschool teacher or a kindergarten teacher for support in teaching their child to read at home. In addition, many public libraries offer free, voluntary reading programs to teach kids how to read.

Working with programs like Kumon, which provides well-established curricula and individualized instruction, represents a great way for your child to learn (at first) how to read and (later) how to read to learn. By seeking supplemental education, children will be able read proficiently and stay ahead in school.

Making the decision to enroll in an enrichment program for reading sets an important foundation for both short- and long-term success.

Find more reading tips and advice from Dominique Ciccarelli and other Noodle Experts.