So your 4th or 5th grader reads up a storm, polishing off an enormous Harry Potter title in a single weekend. You'd been feeling pretty smug, when other parents can't get their kids to open a book.
But today is different. Today, the homework involves doing research — using an encyclopedia, maybe. Or even just reading a chapter in that fat science or social studies textbook. Now your ace reader is telling you it's just too hard, maybe even impossible! And when you open the textbook, you also want to howl. Who wrote this stuff, anyway
Given the fix your child is in, it's important that you not panic as well. Of course, anyone who's struggled with a keyboard or a soccer ball knows the path to mastery can be a bumpy one without a good coach. These strategies, offered by teachers and reading specialists, can smooth the way:
- Check the reading level. Most teachers already know this, but parents are usually in the dark: many textbooks are not keyed to the right grade level. So what's a parent to do? Try reading the chapter yourself, and talk about it with your child to help her grow more familiar with the topic. Pick out the key concepts and vocabulary, and have a conversation about them. Look up words in the dictionary together. Even better: try to find some angle of interest to your child.
- Make it easy to wade in. You can also help by introducing some easy books on the same topic to break the ice. Choosing a book with easier vocabulary makes the research rewarding — and helps your child feel successful rather than frustrated. If you try this approach, don't tell your child the book is aimed at a younger audience. Just use the book to get him started. This can be a particularly useful approach when your child is the one to pick a book that is just too difficult. You'll know it instantly, since he'll stumble over the vocabulary and fail to understand the main ideas. If you're stumped for an easier alternative, ask your local librarian for help.
- Don't play teacher. As your child struggles, it can be tempting to jump in and start acting like a teacher, poring over textbooks, hammering away at concepts and vocabulary. When you feel this urge coming on, resist it! Instead, take her to the library or bookstore. Talk about what interests you about the topic. Tell stories about your own research projects as a kid. Be supportive and encouraging. But don't judge your child's performance. Instead of asking, “What's the main idea?” or “What did you learn?” you can ask your child, “What did you think of it?” or “Did you agree?” That way, you get her to think about it, but you are not evaluating her performance, like a teacher would.
- Show your child the shortcuts. Textbook editors provide a roadmap to reading for information; all you have to do is point it out. Help him recognize and use cues such as:
- the table of contents
- key words in boldface type
- titles summarizing the main idea
- subtitles tracking the main points in the argument
Focusing on these clues helps children learn to analyze and organize information.
- Expose your child to the world. Reading sticks when children have more knowledge about the world. That's because experiences provide a context for the words and ideas. Trips to museums and travel are nice, but such learning happens every day. A trip to the aquarium makes reading about sharks easier and more interesting. Talking about the organic fruits at the supermarket makes studying pesticides or pollution more relevant.
- Be empathetic. When the whining reaches fever pitch, the books go sailing across the room, and your child loses all patience, you may be tempted to lose yours as well. But hang in there. The worst thing you can do is make your child feel stupid or incapable. Instead, remind yourself how frustrating it can be to learn a new skill. Let your child know how you've struggled to gain new skills, had to break things down, step by step, to make progress. Let her take a break, have a snack, joke a little, and then come back to the text. When things are calm, help her talk it through.
- Get help when problems persist. If your child's frustration persists, however, don't delay in getting help. Your child may have memorized words, for example, instead of learning phonics. Or he may have trouble moving from the simplest ideas to more complicated ones. Your child's school should have a reading specialist who can diagnose such problems, help your child gain fluency, or recommend additional help, if necessary.