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5 Top Tips for Helping Your Child Learn to Read

by Lydia Cockburn | 8 March 2019

Why is it that learning to read is a walk in the park for some children, but a nightmare for others?

You might do everything the teacher tells you, getting your daily reading practice in without fail, but find you are seeing less and less progress. Meanwhile your friend’s child of the same age, at the same school, doing the same things is clearly surging ahead.

This is not about being a competitive parent! It’s about being sure your child is going to be okay.

Evidently, different strategies are required for different learners, leading to a lot of conflicting advice being put out there for parents. There are, however, some universal truths about what will accelerate the process of helping your child to read, regardless of circumstance.

For that reason, my 5 Top Tips presented below are quite general, but they are crucial. If one of them is neglected, you could find yourself heading down a difficult path. Follow them, and you will find the process becoming a whole lot easier.

1. Teach them to decode words, instead of using sight-recognition

Let’s make this one clear from the start. Although different children benefit from different strategies for learning to read, the goal is the same: being able to decode words automatically. That is what reading is.

Some people will dispute that, but then we work with thousands of struggling readers each year with our Easyread System and they are almost all trying to read by recognising whole words. When we switch them to decoding with our trainertext approach, they become good readers every time. We even guarantee it!

Some adults teach children to learn words off by heart and recognise them by sight, because they believe that this is what we are doing when we read fluently. This misconception is understandable, because a proficient reader knows a word so instantly that it feels like he/she is simply recognising it.

But then how do you explain the fact that you can read this:

A flib of squines zoodled their way to the wricker, crundling around the plirt.

If we read by simply recognising words, how can we explain our ability to interpret completely new ones? In an instant, most literate people can read these nonsense words that they have never encountered before, because their brain is doing an automatic decode of letter patterns to work out the sounds that they are most likely to make in that position in the word.

The same thing is happening when we read normal text.

Fluent decoding is akin to a kind of automatic brain calculation which works out what the most likely sounds are in relation to the letter patterns. Granted, a small element of this calculation could be the context of the word, and the overall look of it (especially when we’re speed-reading), but the primary part of the calculation is the letter patterns and the sounds they can correspond to.

It only becomes subconscious and automatic after quite a bit of practice. In other words, reading is a skill; you start off by doing it consciously (performing the different parts of the action with careful thought), and after more practice, you find you can do it subconsciously. Compare this: anyone who can drive a car begins by learning all the different mechanisms and movements involved. After fumbling around with them for a while, making plenty of mistakes, they eventually find that their brain is doing all the hard work for them. Now they can drive a car while barely thinking about it, even holding a conversation at the same time.

Anyone who can decode subconsciously (i.e. read fluently) began to learn to read by decoding consciously as a child. In real terms, this means sounding out (“d… o… g…”) and blending (“…dog!”).

So whichever of the multiple phonics methods you choose to use, make sure it is a type of phonics; the practice must involve the child correlating the sounds to the letters. After a while spent sounding out and blending, the child can start to break down the words in their head, at which stage it might seem like they are just recognising the word. What has really happened is that the brain has calculated the likelihood of certain letter-sound patterns, and so the decoding has started to happen subconsciously.

Most children do fine with the phonics strategy used at school (usually synthetic phonics.) A significant minority, for a variety of reasons, find this extremely challenging. So the next task is to find an alternative way to teach them decoding, if that is the case.

2. Identify their strengths and weaknesses

When things aren’t working out for a child trying to learn to read, their teacher often tells the parents to just keep practising. In reality, the parent and child are often doing just as much reading practice as everyone else, but to no avail. This makes it a very annoying piece of advice to receive!

If this is your situation, alarm bells should be ringing, telling you that the method the school is using is not playing to the strengths of your child. If conventional phonics is clearly very hard for them, and has been for some time, then it is not going to magically start working with more practice.

You need to work out what is easy for them, and capitalize on that.

If it is easy for your child to learn phonics rules – great! Keep doing that.

If it is easy for your child to concentrate for 5-minute periods, but not longer, organise your reading routine around that.

If it is easy for your child to sight-recognise words… well, this is of course an exception to the rule! It may be easy, but it is not working towards the right goal. It is going down a completely different path, to a different end point which does not represent fluent reading. Head down that path, and you will have to come back to the start point to get onto the right one.

However, if sight-recognising words is easy, that usually indicates a strong visual memory: a strength which can be utilized to make decoding feel easy.

What you need is a way to get the child decoding words via visual cues (as opposed to auditory cues like phonics rules). A highly effective method is the trainertext visual phonics that we suggest on this site. Distinctive characters representing the sounds are placed above the letters, guiding the child to sound out the word.

So playing to their strengths is important, and equally so is addressing their weaknesses and accepting that difficulty is not normally due to lack of effort. You can check out the 9 Main Causes of Reading Difficulty that we track in the Easyread System.

For instance, imagine Rebecca can say the sounds that she thinks the letters correspond to, but she then struggles to blend them together to get the word. Her parents have a think and decide to help her work on this by playing a simple game: Rebecca has to think of a word, break it apart into the sounds, and then blend them back together to make the word. She does this a few times a day for about a week, and then she begins to find it much easier to blend sounds in her reading. High fives all round!

So simple! Indeed, often the solutions are obvious once you know what the problem is. So take some time to recognise and sympathise with your child’s difficulty. Think critically about what could be causing it, and come up with some fun ways to work on those areas of weakness.

Here is a useful guide for the types of things that can cause difficulty with reading.

3. Be positive

This may sound like a condescending piece of advice, as parents are constantly being told to be positive around their children. It is, however, surprisingly hard to maintain in reading practice, especially when you are putting in a lot of effort and getting little progress in return. It has made the list because positivity is extremely powerful for accelerating progress.

We’ve already discussed taking a positive frame of mind when identifying your child’s weaknesses. This is crucial for responding to those weaknesses in a helpful way.

During the reading practice itself, be sure to focus on the successes, no matter how small, rather than the shortcomings. In the early stages, you can even follow each correctly sounded out letter with a little “yes…” or “good…”, such that your voice is always in the background, providing encouragement every few seconds.

The power of this routine lies in the positive association that your child will come to have with your voice, as they hear it supporting them throughout reading time. That then allows you to help when something is difficult and they have made a mistake. If your voice only interjects when they make a mistake, it can trigger a stress reaction, because they automatically start to have a Pavlovian link: “I’m hearing mum/dad’s voice, so I must have done something wrong”. It sends a message to the learner that they are not doing well, and they might start to think about giving up entirely.

When you do need to help, avoid the word “no” like the plague! Instead, try to say something like “Almost!” or “Let’s take another look at that word” or “That is a tricky one, let’s do it together”. Children tend to show much less resistance to this kind of language, especially coming from somebody they trust.

This routine of carefully worded support will also help you to remain engaged and observant during the reading practice, so that you can identify your child’s strengths and weaknesses more easily.

Children need to be willing to do their reading practice, and this is an easy way to make sure that is as simple as possible. If they are scared that they are going to be made to feel like a failure, of course, they won’t want to engage.

4. Keep it short and fun

While we’re on motivation, the other important factor is making the sessions themselves fun. In the Easyread System we maximize our use of games as much as possible. We aim to get the children asking to do their reading practice each day.

Try to find enjoyable, varied and consistently new reading material which your child is interested in. Although it’s fun to return to old classics, it’s better to keep reading new things. That way children can’t just rely on their memory to read the book, but really have to work it out, i.e. decode!

Think up some games you can play to get them decoding words, perhaps using trainertext visual phonics characters to make it easier for them.

Use apps or computer games which get children decoding. With some of these it will be tempting to let your tablet be the teacher, so be careful to remain engaged; try to keep up your support routine.

Set a short time limit on the reading session, and stick to it. This is especially useful for strugglers, who feel much less stressed about their reading practice in knowledge that it will be over after 15 minutes, whatever happens.

We are often drilled with this idea that more practice equals more progress. But in reality, short, fun, focused, regular sessions are the key.

You’re going to have to do a lot of reading practice to achieve progress, because it takes time for the brain to map all of those letter-sound patterns English has to offer. So don’t underestimate the importance of keeping your little learner engaged. Short, fun sessions are the way to go!

5. Reread phrases for fluency

We talked earlier about decoding eventually becoming automatic for children, at which stage they can start building fluency. But sometimes it seems that they are stuck sounding words out for ages. There is a very simple way to accelerate this transition from decoding consciously to decoding subconsciously: rereading phrases.

Children learning to read put a lot of effort into decoding words, especially in the early stages. Every child needs to move from this very conscious “work it out” mode to fluent, automatic reading.

To accelerate the transition, have them reread each phrase of 3-5 words once they have decoded the words on the first read-through. They should do this reread before moving on to the next phrase.

Most times they will be able to do this quite fluently on the first reread. If it still requires a bit of letter-by-letter decoding, it’s worth doing it once more, so that it sounds as fluent as possible. Then move on to the next phrase.

We’ve seen this routine make a fantastic difference to the rate of reading advancement experienced by users, so much so that we make it one of our 7 “Golden Rules” for achieving a good outcome with the Easyread System.

Why does it make such a difference? Rereading the phrase allows the brain to practise performing the automatic decoding process, aided by the fact that those particular letter-sound relationships are sitting conveniently in the short term memory. In the process of the reread, those correspondences come to be transferred to the long term, procedural memory systems (i.e. the subconscious), where fluent reading takes place.

This development of the procedural memory system will be much enhanced if you deliver a big “YES!!” as the child completes the reread, because it will deliver a mini dopamine spike, which enhances memory creation.

It’s easy to see how if you skip this step in your reading practice, the transfer of decoding to the procedural memory would take a lot longer. So try bringing this into your child’s reading routine. If you find that you’re getting through less material in each session, don’t worry. It’s a classic case of quality over quantity; the payoff will be immense, and you’ll see decoding becoming automatic at a much more impressive rate than before.

Let’s Recap

So, now you have five ways to facilitate the daunting task of helping a child learn to read. Here’s a recap:

  1. Teach them to decode words
  2. Tailor practice to their strengths and weaknesses
  3. Be positive
  4. Keep it fun and brief
  5. Reread phrases for fluency

I recommend keeping these five points as a list (you could copy and paste them into a note on your phone right now!) and checking in on them every week. Treat them like a set of traffic lights, where each one needs to have a green light for you to proceed. Any red or amber lights will need a bit of attention.

Good luck!

Lydia Cockburn is an Easyread System Manager and frequent contributor at Helping Children to Read. When not coaching students and families in overcoming barriers to reading, she can often be found playing music or football.

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