Some kids take to books like Curious George to trouble. But even for them, learning to read can be pretty daunting. After all, putting letters and sounds together and deciphering their meaning is tough.
For Ann Sackrider’s son, Hudson, it was really tough. “Even when he was in third grade, he had a hard time grasping how letters form words,” says the Brooklyn, NY, mom. “It was sad to see him wrestling with it.” So she gave him constant exposure: telling stories, keeping and reading books in every room, and talking about characters. In other words, she made reading something to look forward to instead of dread. You can, too!
1. Make it a game.
Cuddling over a book shows your child that you’re his biggest fan. But it’s hard not to step in quickly when he struggles. What to do instead? Talk to him about the story to help him work it out, says Richard Gentry, Ph.D., author of Raising Confident Readers. Discuss the pictures, hunt for words he knows, or ask him if the story reminds him of an event that’s happened to him. Also help your child pinpoint where he’s gone wrong — see if he can spot the little word inside the larger one (“at” inside “hat”).
2. Go to the dog(s).
Sounds crazy, but reading to animals can help boost a child’s skills. How so? Because animals are nonjudgmental — they can’t criticize and they can’t correct — so kids feel safe reading aloud to them. If you don’t have a dog, ask a friend if you and your child can dog-sit or see if your local library offers a program where kids can read to specially trained therapy dogs. “Kids learn best by teaching someone else,” says Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. “So whether they read to the puppy, the guinea pig, or Grandma over Skype, the unconditional positive feedback they receive will make them feel better about themselves.” (Same goes for baby sibs!)
MORE: How Reading Aloud to Animals Can Boost Kids' Literacy Skills
3. Get crafty.
Add a few books you make together to the reading rotation, suggests Gentry. Your DIY book can be about trucks, pets, or another interest. Start with a few words on a page (“My cat is in the basket”), a favorite photo on each page, and a simple title (My Animal Book). You can even publish it on websites like Storyjumper.com.
How does homemade hone fluency? Reading about the familiar is fun, says Gentry. Plus, repetition builds up the brain’s reading circuitry. “Every time you point to a word in the story, it reinforces the connection between symbols on the page and the sound and meaning of the word.” For instance, once your child recognizes the word bunny, and you show her that the b makes a buh sound, look for other words that begin the same way with the same sound to help build up her sight words.
4. Shorten sessions.
New readers can easily get overwhelmed. To figure out how long your child can last, compare his attention span when he does similar activities, like coloring, says Borba. Once you’ve got a clue, use a timer to gradually lengthen the session so that your child is reading for longer and longer stretches. “It’s like gently stretching a rubber band without snapping it,”she adds. “If your child knows he only has 15 minutes to read, he’ll be more focused and engaged — and the spurts will be more productive.”
5. Look past books.
No need to limit reading adventures to books — trips to the grocery store can be great teaching experiences, says Borba. Your kiddo can create a shopping list and find those items at the store. Little sports fans can use trading cards to discover more about favorite players. “And don’t overlook the obvious, like word games on the back of the cereal box. Kids won’t even realize that they’re learning while they eat,” says Borba.