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By James Clements, posted on 2nd June 2020

Learning at home: Reading to learn

In a previous post, we looked at teaching your child to read. In this post, we’re going to think about what you can do to help your child when they can read already.

Once they’re reading, it’s tempting to think that our work is done – as long as we encourage them to read every day, all will be well. For many children that’s probably true, but schools carry on teaching reading all the way through primary school for good reason.

In later primary years, and indeed throughout our lives, reading becomes one of the principal ways in which we learn. Reading teaches us about the world, about language, and about what it is to be human. Once a child can read, there are still lots of ways that we can carry on supporting them, setting them on the path to a lifetime of enjoyment and learning.

What do I need to know?

In our earlier post, we looked at the two strands that make up reading: word-reading and comprehension. Word-reading means recognising the letters and words on the page, and comprehension is about understanding the ideas they represent.

Although reading is a bit more complicated than this, thinking about reading as being the product of these two things helps us to think about how we can support our children to improve as readers and become the sort of people who learn new things through their reading.

For children who have learnt to read already, we have another focus: fluency. Reading fluency is made up of:

  • Speed. Can they read the words on the page quickly and easily enough, both in their head and when reading aloud? This is a common underlying problem for children who don’t like reading. If they are constantly having to stop because they’ve got stuck on a word, if it takes a long time to read anything, or if they are struggling to read the longer books their friends are reading, it can be pretty dispiriting.
  • Accuracy. Do they read what is actually says on the page or do they skip over words, filling in the text with words that aren’t there based on what they think it should say? This can be an issue for children who found learning to read very easy. Sometimes this doesn’t matter too much – these readers still get the gist of what they’re reading – but it does mean they can miss important information.
  • Prosody. A technical word that means they can they read with expression (taking the punctuation into account), using soft and loud voices, and reading quickly or slowly when the text demands it. This is partly about reading as performance – it is these elements that make listening to a story enjoyable. However, prosody is also linked to comprehension. We can show our understanding when we read by slowing down and adding emphasis at a moment of suspense or booming the voice of our villain when he speaks.

So, what can we do?

There are lots of things we can do to help our children develop as readers even after they have learnt to read.

1. Practise word-reading and phonics (occasionally)

If our children can read already, the chances are they’re pretty good at the word-reading part. Most experienced readers don’t have to stop and sound out a word very often. But sometimes we do. If we come across an unfamiliar word, perhaps something very technical, then suddenly our phonic decoding skills (which we used to rely on far more often) come to the fore again.

For older children, this is likely to happen more regularly when they get to secondary school and they have to read texts full of technical vocabulary in subjects like science or geography, or unfamiliar names from history.

Giving children the chance to practise this every so often is useful for keeping these skills fresh. This doesn’t have to be a formal thing. You might find a non-fiction text with some tricky words in it to read together (dinosaur books are great: piatnitzkysaurus or micropachycephalosaurus, anyone?) or fiction with unfamiliar character names (myths and legends can help here – The Iliad features Idomeneus and Aesymnus for starters). The chances are that watching you struggle to sound out some of the words will be both reassuring and hilarious to children in equal measure.

2. Practise reading fluently

When to comes to reading fluency, practice makes perfect. To help our children develop in this area there are a few tried and tested things we can do:

  • Rereading. Stopping to reread a page or section again can help. The second time you read it will be easier, as the words will be familiar and the focus can move from word-reading to expression and pace.
  • Echo reading. This is where you read a sentence or short section to them and then encourage them to echo it back to you in the same way. It provides a direct model that they can copy and is especially useful if they come across a very tricky word, a complicated phrase, or something that might be read in a particular way. Try it out with the punchline of a joke or when a character shouts in anger.
  • Preparing to read aloud. If your child is struggling to take notice of punctuation, asking them to perform a short section aloud to an audience could be really useful. Work through the passage together, looking at the punctuation and thinking about what it tells the reader. Then think about how it might be read: is the character in a particular mood that dictates how they’d speak? Is it a non-fiction text that needs to be read clearly and with authority? Is it a funny passage that needs a light and humorous tone? Knowing that you’re going to have an audience (a sibling or grandparents on the phone) gives a reason to invest time and effort in the process. If you don’t have a live audience, then practising to record it on film or as an audio clip also works well, with the added benefit of being able to watch it back and see how you got on.

3. Ask them to summarise what they’ve read

This is the simplest way of checking their understanding and teaching them to be aware of when they have or haven’t understood something (the holy grail!). Every so often – but especially after a particularly important or tricky section – simply ask them to summarise what has happened. You can help build their comprehension skills with seemingly straightforward questions like:

  • What happened to Paddington in that scene?
  • What have we learnt about robots from that paragraph?
  • What is Isadora thinking here?
  • Why do you think the author used trudged instead of walked? What does the word mean?

This might be better than giving them a passage to read followed by a traditional set of reading comprehension questions – as much as possible reading at home should be enjoyable, rather than seeming like a lesson.

4. Talk about the things they’ve read

While reading at home can be a solitary pursuit, at school it is often a social activity. Sharing opinions, explaining why you like or dislike something, talking about what you’d like to reread or read next, and making recommendations for others are all ways of developing as a reader.

Your child might like to keep a record or diary of their reading, but the easiest way to do this is through talking. That might be with you, other family members (grandparents are likely to be very happy to receive a phone call and hear all about the latest book their grandchildren have read), or even classmates via video chat.

One of the easiest ways of recording children’s reading is to take a photo of them holding up the book they’ve just finished and making a face to reflect what they thought about it (a smile, a grimace, a terrified gurn). Once all of this is over, putting them together as a montage will be a lovely way of reminding them of all of the reading they’ve done at home.

5. Carry on reading aloud to them

Once they can read, it is tempting just to let them get on with it. As I’ve suggested already in this series, reading aloud is possibly the most useful thing we can do while we’re at home with the children.

Listening to books be read aloud is just as important for confident readers as it is for younger readers. It gives children a model for what fluent reading can sound like, it introduces them to books and language that they can’t read independently yet, and it’s fun. Find out more about reading aloud to older children in this post.

6. Encourage them to read a lot

Thankfully, the most useful thing we can do to support children’s reading is also the most enjoyable. Reading is a virtuous circle: the more time children spend reading, the more likely they are to become confident, keen readers. The greater their skill and confidence and the easier they find reading, the more pleasure they are likely to take from it and the more they will learn.

If we can find some time while they are at home to read to our children, listen to them read, and let them curl up and read to themselves, it might be one of the best things to come out of these strange circumstances.