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Recognizing Risk Factors and Making Reading Fun

Excerpted from Sylvan Learning’s Successful Student Magazine

By: Eva Dienel

Recognizing the Risk Factors

The first step in preparing children for reading success is recognizing when they are having difficulties—often a difficult task in itself, says Barbara T. Bowman, president of Chicago’s Erickson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development. When children are first learning to read, educators don’t always know whether they are really struggling or just going through the natural learning process. “Kids are enormously different, and there’s a maturational component when learning to read,” says Bowman. “But if they are really having problems, we don’t want the difficulties to go on so long that the students are not getting the help they need."

Instead, Bowman says, it’s easier to catch those children who may develop difficulties by recognizing the risk factors. According to the National Research Council's book, Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children, several at-risk groups include students who:

  • Don’t have access to reading-related resources at home or in their communities;
  • Attend schools with chronic reading failure;
  • Do not speak English as their first language;
  • Have parents who had or have reading difficulties;
  • Have hearing or language impairments;
  • Were not exposed to reading activities before they began school.

Three Instructional Elements

According to the book, the basic element of reading instruction, regardless of reading level, should cover three areas—the identification of printed words, comprehension and fluency. Identifying printed words incorporates two skills: understanding the relationship between letters and sounds (the alphabetic principle), and memorizing irregularly spelled or “sight” words.

Comprehension means that students understand what they read and can predict upcoming ideas, summarize main points and realize when they don’t understand words. Fluency is the ability to identify words so swiftly that comprehension and enjoyment result.

“These are the three basic elements, but there is a need to integrate those things in the instruction. They have to be put together,” says Catherine Snow, Henry Lee Shattuck professor in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University.

What Parents Can Do

Although teachers should be the principle reading instructors, parents can support their children’s progress at home by encouraging reading, creating a reading environment and minimizing the risk factors.

When parents read and discuss books with their children, they enhance the experience children receive in school by making it a fun and important part of everyday life. “If you start early, reading can be identified with something just as pleasurable as eating,” Bowman says.

Snow adds, however, that even children in junior high can learn to enjoy reading through family activities. For instance, for a fifth-grader who reads at a third-grade level, parents can read age-appropriate text aloud to help improve comprehension. “Even if the materials students are using are age-inappropriate,” Snow says, “parents can read to kids [above their ability level] to ensure they’re getting the language skills and vocabulary.”

Most of all, Snow emphasizes that even students having difficulty should learn to enjoy reading—and that’s where parents are best in the position to encourage their children. Whereas children must practice assigned reading at school, at home, families can share favorite books, play word games and generally make reading fun. “With poor readers, so much attention is given to learning that they often don’t get the chance to read and read for pleasure in ways that keep them motivated to learn how to read,” Snow says.