Educators across the country consistently emphasize to parents the importance of reading on a daily basis with their child. Many recommend, at a minimum, reading for 20 minutes per day. Gaining better reading skills is like the most difficult tasks in life. It takes practice. The more you practice the more likely you are to improve.
Not only do children need practice learning to decode challenging words, they also need practice in thinking about and understanding what they read. Understanding what you read is, of course, the ultimate goal of literacy. Our hope for all children is that reading opens up lifelong opportunities to become more literate by gaining more knowledge through text. The more children read the more they build background knowledge, which gives them the capability to develop a complex network of understanding.
Unfortunately, the recommendation to parents about reading with children typically starts and stops with just asking parents to be consistent. Often times well-intentioned parents who want to make sure their child is understanding what they are reading will ask questions along the way. If your child doesn’t know the answer, you simply tell your child the answer to the question before moving on to the next section.
If you’re not careful what happens is your child learns a habit of “learned helplessness.”In other words, over time your child begins to learn that a non-answer will lead to you supplying the answer. What’s the use of putting effort into figuring it out if the answer will be supplied regardless?
This habit of “learned helplessness” can be especially challenging for parents working with a child with dyslexia, learning disability, or ASD.
So how can parents learn to support understanding of text and avoid children developing a habit of“learned helplessness”?
The goal of this article is to provide you with a couple of simple steps to support your child in understanding text and getting the most out of your reading time together. Like anything meaningful, it will take a bit of time on your part but what’s more important than making sure your child is equipped with the literacy skills necessary to function in the 21st century.
The first thing you need to do is take a look at the text beforehand and pick out one or two key vocabulary words that you can talk about. When selecting words, avoid picking the most difficult words. Rather, pick challenging words that represent the big ideas of the reading. Think about this way.If my child only remembers one or two things about this text what would best support his gaining more knowledge on the topic?
After you pick the words, you can simply think of a simplified definition of the word to discuss with your child prior to reading. For parents who want to take it a step further think about putting together additional supports of understanding of the vocabulary by including visual representations, sentences using the word, synonyms, examples/non-examples, and even discussion questions. Now you’re ready to begin reading.
When you stop and ask your child a question and they have trouble answering, do not simply give them the answer and move on. Instead, re-direct your child to re-read a reduced amount of that text that contains the answer.
For example, you read three paragraphs with your child and then you say, “Tell me what this is about?” and your child doesn’t know the answer. Instead of telling them the answer simply say, “Re-read the first paragraph again and think about what this section is about.”If necessary continue to reduce the amount of text you ask your child to focus on to the sentence level or word level until they start to get to the heart of the meaning. Parents need to think about this way: rather than telling your child answers you require and facilitate your child finding answers from within the text.
What this routine does is help your child understand the process of reading requires thinking about the meaning as you read. And rather than “learned helplessness” you are instead building essential “habits of mind” in doing what most of us do automatically when we don’t understand. Think about it. When you read challenging text for the first time that is difficult to grasp, what do you do? Typically, you re-read the text more carefully looking for clues to support your understanding.
In summary, I recommend that parents pre-teach the most important ideas from the reading and rather than give your child answers to questions asked, require them to find answers in text. You support them with this by reducing the amount of text you request them to re-read. I am confident that these recommendations will better support your child’s development and maximize the benefits of spending time reading with your child.
The ideas from this blog are based on the findings from the following study:
Solis, M., Scammacca, N., Barth, A., Roberts, G. J. (2017). Text-based vocabulary intervention training study: Supporting fourth graders with low reading comprehension and learning disabilities.Learning Disabilities: A Contemporary Journal. 15(1), 103-115.
Dr. Michael Solis is an assistant professor of special education at the University of California Riverside Graduate School of Education. His line of research focuses on vocabulary and reading comprehension interventions for students with reading difficulties in grades 4–12 within multi-tiered systems of support. Currently, Dr. Solis serves as the Principal Investigator for an Institute of Education Sciences Goal Two grant to develop reading interventions for students with autism spectrum disorder. Prior to his work in higher education, he was a special educator, reading specialist, and literacy coach for 10 years. He is enthusiastic in helping parents and other educators learn how to translate findings from research to practical strategies that support literacy improvements for children. He can be reached at:
Phone: (928) 310-2866