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5 ways parents can reinforce their children’s reading skills at home

Rebecca Brownell and Tiffany Jones | April 2, 2024

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Every March since 1998, the National Education Association has used its Read Across America initiative to promote literacy and encourage a love of reading among children. It’s a wonderful program that features guest readers, book scavenger hunts and character dress-up days to bring stories to life. Amid the celebration and fanfare, though, the nation must face an inconvenient truth — many kids struggle with basic reading skills, and the solution cannot be found solely in the classroom.

The problem is real and pervasive, proven through data that’s unmistakable. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reports that approximately 37% of American fourth graders and 30% of eighth graders score below basic proficiency levels for reading. In fact, only roughly one-third of fourth, eighth and 12th graders are proficient readers.

Parents, let this be a wake-up call. While teachers play a crucial role in helping students succeed, it is parents who hold the key to unlocking a new level of literacy across America. There is no time like the present to change the future, and recognizing the issue is step one.

The ability to read is arguably the most powerful tool on Earth. It allows children (and adults) to make sense of the world. Higher literacy rates are associated with healthier populations, less crime, greater economic growth and higher employment rates. Reading exercises the brain, reduces stress, motivates and teaches empathy. 

Especially compelling for parents working to raise successful, career-ready kids is that literacy bolsters academic success and access to economic opportunity. When children excel in reading, their confidence grows, writing skills improve and comprehension in other subjects, even in math, increases.

Research has found that people who had higher reading and math skills as children ended up with higher incomes and better housing and jobs as adults. Participants’ reading and math ability at age 7 was linked to their social class a full 35 years later.

The implications are even more reason for parents to take notice and get involved in their child’s reading journey. Building a strong foundation early is crucial. But so is getting help. The earlier a child who needs reading help gets it, the better. Parents can ensure their child’s struggles don’t get overlooked by knowing the signs and advocating for them.

So, what should parents look for?

Signals that a child is struggling to read include trouble breaking words into sounds; limited knowledge of letter names and sounds; difficulty rhyming; skipping words in a sentence; and guessing words rather than trying to sound them out. 

Parents can start to become their child’s champion by contacting the teacher or principal to share their concern and asking for further evaluation. Schools often conduct screening assessments like DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills) to determine if a child needs help. If so, they will identify the problem areas, such as phonics, fluency or comprehension, and create a plan that encompasses the type of support and level needed. Parents can also consult their child’s pediatrician, since doctors are well-versed in childhood developmental benchmarks.

But parents can also reinforce at home the reading skills learned at school. Here are suggestions for promoting literacy that have little or no cost.

  • Audiobooks: Instead of always playing music in the car, switch it up with an audiobook. These are free and instantly available through free library apps like Libby.
  • Keep books places kids frequent: Having books around gives kids the opportunity to interact with reading materials on a daily basis. Keep some in the car, bathroom, pretend play areas, living room, bedrooms and other places kids frequent so they always have access. Borrowing library books is free, and many libraries have even done away with late fees.
  • Letter play: Remember playing with magnetic letters on the fridge? Younger kids still love this. It reinforces letters and sounds through a visual experience. Parents can also write letters in sand or Play-Doh and use foam letters in the bathtub.
  • Positive association: Sign up for reading challenges sponsored by libraries, where kids earn free rewards. Simply changing your phraseology from “you have to read” to “you get to read” can have an impact on a child’s mindset.
  • Games and Songs: You can turn anything into a game when it comes to little ones. As they begin reading, encourage your children to read one page and you read the next. Or read and then stop on a word you know your child can supply; shouting it out builds confidence. Build on younger kids’ reading skills with short sing-along videos featuring subtitles that connect what they hear to the words they see. For older kids, try karaoke. Use songs your child isn’t familiar with, so they’ll sing the lyrics by reading off the screen instead of from memory. Both activities promote reading fluency, word recognition and comprehension.

Whatever supports parents choose, this March is a great time to start changing the literacy trajectory, improving children’s lives and fostering their lifelong love of reading. This cannot be someone else’s problem. If parents don’t step in, who will?

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