Get the right books
Children who are weak at reading want to be better. They tend to choose books that are too difficult for them and pretend they are better than they really are. It can be very difficult to get across to a child that this won’t help him or her improve. Many, many times I’ve seen children looking at the pictures while pretending to read. This is a complete waste of time for school aged children who need to be able to read independently.
‘High interest, low skill’ books are often presented to children who are struggling with reading. They usually appear very simple to an adult but many of these books are still way too difficult. When a child can’t read them, the conclusion is often that there’s something wrong with that child. Now of course it is sensible to investigate the possibility of learning disabilities, but test results often show that that there are no such disabilities – the child is just very weak at reading. Having said this, these hi-lo books are great when a child does have basic reading skills but just doesn’t like reading. The topics are very engaging.
The bottom line is that a child needs to be able to read 95% of the words easily when reading independently. That’s usually works out to all but three or four words on the page. It’s really important to make sure the level of text is right for your child’s current reading skill. This is because, with reading, confidence is everything.
What to say when your child gets stuck
It’s tempting to tell your child the unknown words and hope that he or she will remember them, but there are far more effective ways to help an early reader. What should you say to help when that first unknown word comes along? What sort of prompting is appropriate?
When your child hesitates before attempting a word, ask (in a conversational tone of voice) Can you see something in the picture to help you? or What’s happening in the story? or What’s the information about in this book? (This last one applies to books that are informational rather than narrative.) When he or she has had a try at reading the word (whether correctly or incorrectly), ask Does that make sense? If they read it incorrectly, then ask What would make sense there?
These sort of prompts are about the meaning of the text.
You can also prompt your child to use their knowledge of how language works and the structure of oral language and grammar. When he or she hesitates before attempting a word, ask What would sound right there? When they’ve had a try at reading the word (whether correctly or incorrectly), ask Can we say it that way? If they read the word incorrectly, then say Try again and think what would come next.
These are structure prompts.
Another appropriate way to prompt is by getting your child to focus on the initial letters or clusters or patterns of letters and the sound they make. When he or she hesitates before attempting a word, ask What does it start with? or Can you start to say the word? or Can you get your mouth ready to say the word? (Asking them to look for smaller words they know within the unknown word can also be very helpful.)
When your child has had a try at saying the word (whether correctly or incorrectly), ask Do you know another word that looks like that? or You said…… Does that look right?
If they read the word incorrectly, then ask Do you know another word that starts with those letters? or What do you know about letter patterns that might help?
These are visual prompts.
When and when not to prompt
You are trying to build up your child’s confidence in his or her ability so you need to allow time to have a go at working a word out before you prompt at all. This is usually known as ‘wait time’. ‘Wait time’ is something that any adult can have trouble with. Either we’re in a hurry ourselves or we’re trying to help too soon to save the child from embarrassment (which is giving the child the message that we don’t think they can do it). Often, children become lazy and rely on automatic help. It takes practice to hold back but you’ll be surprised at the results. A ‘wait time’ of 10-15 seconds or so is recommended. Try it!
If your child can’t work out a word in that amount of time, follow the instructions above for meaning, structure and visual prompts. Two prompts are enough. Any more would make it seem like too big a deal.
If your meaning, structure and visual prompts don’t work, you should read the situation carefully. If your child is showing signs of stress, ask Would you like me to tell you the word? Don’t just say the word because they are likely to feel disempowered and that will not help to build confidence. By asking if they’d like you to tell them, they are still in control of their own learning. There’s a big difference.
If your child says Yes, just say the word calmly without making any fuss. You don’t need to say anything else.
If he or she says No (but you can see they’re getting frustrated), help by breaking up the word with your fingers and saying Let’s break it down into chunks.
For example, if the word is ‘brown’, you’d point out the br and say This part says brrrr. Then point to the n and say This part says nnn. You know those two chunks.
Then point to the ow and say I can help with this chunk. It says oww, just like the oww in cow. So when we put the chunks together in order we get brrr, then oww, and then nnn. See if you can put them together. If they can’t do this, say it for them. You will need to work on phonological awareness exercises in this case. If they can put the sounds together, say That’s right and move straight on.
If he or she says No (and wants to keep trying to work it out) that’s great. If they can’t work it out, or if they come up with the wrong word, just say the word correctly once and move on.
You’ll find that some meaning, structure and visual prompts work better for your child than others. Every child is different. To find out which type or what questions your child relates to best you need to try them all.
Also, by giving meaning, structure and visual prompts you are getting your child to think about the text in a broad way. This helps avoid the ‘barking at print’ that is very common with children who have become so focused on decoding words that they have no idea of the meaning of the text.
Experiment with giving different types of prompts for different words (not the whole lot for one word.) Keep up the variety while you learn how your child responds to each type. And if you find that over time (ie weeks) your child responds best to visual prompts, throw in the other types as well from time to time to keep that broader thinking going.
Your two goals
- Take away the stress for your child…by making sure he or she can read 95% of the text independently
- Help them build up confidence in their ability…by prompting appropriately in different ways