Is Your Child Ready to Read?
By Melinda Greenberg
Put a group of new parents together and they’re sure to begin comparing the ages at which their children reached certain milestones, such as when they took their first steps or uttered their first words. What becomes clear is the disparity of the ages at which their children achieved these developmental stages—a scenario likely to be replayed as the same children approach kindergarten and their parents discuss their development as readers.
Fortunately, there are guidelines that can help parents determine whether their children are developing these skills at the appropriate age and whether there is cause for concern if their child is not reading. The time frame over which reading skills develop and are honed generally spans from entering kindergarten to exiting third grade.
According to the report America’s Kindergarteners, released in February 2000 by the National Center for Education Statistics, “Most children enter kindergarten with beginning reading skills.”
The study found that “82 percent have print familiarity skills such as knowing that print is read from left to right; 66 percent recognize letters; some can read words; and just a few can read and understand simple sentences.”
Elaine Czarnecki is a reading specialist with the Center for Reading Excellence, a partnership of the Johns Hopkins University, the Maryland State Department of Education and Kennedy Krieger Institute that provides technical assistance, professional development, direct services and research and development to help all Maryland students reach their reading potential. She notes that even though few kindergarteners are reading at the beginning of the school year, they should be exhibiting the signs of reading readiness that can be nurtured in the preschool years.
“The child should be able to gain the meaning of a story by listening to it, attend to the story and then discuss it by answering simple questions about it,” Czarnecki says. “The child’s attention span should be growing stronger and he or she should be able to speak clearly to convey ideas effectively. Conversations with adults is one of the best ways to build a child’s oral vocabulary, which is why it is so important for parents to talk to their children. Of course,” Czarnecki continues, “reading aloud to children and talking about the story is another way to foster oral language development as well as [expand their] attention span and love of reading.”
Children entering school should also be aware of concepts basic to print media, says Czarnecki. “Children should be familiar with how a book works, the way you turn the pages—that print tracks from left to right and top to bottom,” she says. “They should be able to recognize their favorite books by the covers. Parents should see steady progress in their child’s oral language development and a growing awareness of the way print works to convey meaning.”
Maria Zozulak, a reading coach at Thomas Johnson Elementary School in South Baltimore, says that third grade is often a time when a student who may have struggled in the past “really takes off” with his or her reading. “The child may develop an interest in something and want to read all about that subject,” she says. “[Children] really become readers when they recognize that reading is both pleasurable and necessary.”
Due to developmental differences and the wide range of experiences children bring to school, there will always be a range of reading performance in first grade. For this reason, it is important to consider your child’s starting point, as well as current reading performance. If you have concerns about either one, schedule an appointment with your child’s teacher. The teacher works with your child every day, and can discuss ways you can support your child’s reading at home. If your school has a reading specialist, the teacher can arrange a meeting with her, as well.
According to Ben Schifrin, head of Jemicy School, an independent school for children with dyslexia, there are some children whose reading difficulties can go undetected until third or fourth grade because they are able to memorize books rather than actually read them.
“A bright child with a strong visual memory can memorize the vocabulary words that he or she needs to get by in the first few years of school,” Schifrin says. “But by fifth grade, symptoms of a learning disability may appear because the child’s memory cannot hold any more words. When parents read with a child, they need to make sure he or she is actually reading the words.” BC
Melinda Greenberg is a local freelance writer and the proud mother of two voracious readers. (Article originally published 09/02 -updated 09/08)
Raising a Reader
As parents and caregivers, you can help lay the foundation for a love of reading and nurture your child’s development. Reading aloud with children is an essential component to language development and is one of the most important activities for preparing them to succeed as readers.
Here are some things you can do to raise a lifelong reader:
Make time to read. Try to read with your child every day at a regularly scheduled time. If possible, choose a time when you can be relaxed and not rushed. If you have more than one child, spend time reading with each child separately, especially if they’re more than two years apart. On days that are particularly hectic, bring a few books along when you take your children on errands. Making an effort to read to children on a regular basis sends the message that reading is worthwhile.
One more time…PLEASE?! As every adult who cares for children knows, they often ask to hear the same story again and again. Children delight in knowing what comes next and often learn a favorite book so well that they can “read” it on their own. That favorite story may speak to your child’s current interests and emotional needs, so it’s important for the adults in their lives to be patient during this phase. Young children are eventually ready for different stories if they are continuously exposed to a variety of books.
Slow down. It’s not just what you read to children, but how you read that matters. If adults rush through stories or read without enthusiasm, children quickly lose interest. Try to read with expression and use different voices for the characters. Reading at a leisurely pace with occasional pauses gives children time to take in what they hear, mull it over and imagine the people, places and events. Pose a question or make a remark that will prompt the child to think, express himself or relate the story to his own experiences. It’s also a good idea to follow children’s cues. Sometimes they are caught up in the story and don’t want stops and detours along the way.
Choose books with care. When you read together often, you learn a lot about the kinds of books your child likes and understands. Visit the local library and involve your child in deciding what to bring home. Selecting books that relate to what’s happening in your child’s life at that time is a good way to ease transitions and allay fears about upcoming events. Topics such as potty training, new siblings, adoption or moving to a new home are covered in a variety of books that are written specifically for young children.
Surround children with reading material. In addition to library books, children also like having some books of their own that they can read whenever the mood strikes them. Affordable used books can be found at yard sales, thrift stores, secondhand bookstores and public library book sales. Consider subscribing to a good children’s magazine—children love having something come in the mail just for them!
Don’t pressure children about what or when to read. Nagging children about their reading habits may cause them to resist reading all together. Some school-age children choose to read only comic books or fan magazines after their homework is completed. Try not to criticize—after all, they are reading. If a child makes a mistake when reading aloud, don’t interrupt. If the mistake doesn’t change the meaning, let it go.
Show that you value their efforts. Nothing is more important for fostering readers than showing genuine enthusiasm. Ask your child to read to you, a younger child or a special visitor. Talk with him about what he is reading and respond positively.
(Courtesy of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.)