Five Strategies for Creating Better Readers

My child is behind in reading, what are the options? The common answer is simple: Children have to read more. But, what if my child isn’t enjoying reading? Or struggles while doing so? What else can I do?

Reading is not a skill just for school; it must be one for life; therefore it must be an enjoyable experience. We all know that it is important to read to babies from birth. It makes a significant difference in a child's development of language, cognitive skills, and memory, as well as introduces them to concepts of stories, letters, numbers, shapes, and information about our world. However, once children enter school and become independent readers, we expect reading to improve by further independent reading. This works for the very best readers who lose themselves in books. But what happens when your child isn’t the best reader in the class? What happens when they do the minimum amount of reading possible? Here are five ways for children to master and enjoy reading.

1. Listen to books on CD. Research shows that "a combination of reading and listening to the world of an engaging story can be extremely beneficial in the classroom.” For my eleven-year-old son, Nicholas, reading was always a challenge. He would take five minutes to read one page of a Goosebumps book. Skilled readers can read such books in one hour or less. At this time, our family lived in Lubbock, Texas—a middle-of-nowhere city on Texas's high plain. It takes a six-hour drive (one-way) to visit Dallas, a similar length of time to visit San Antonio or Santa Fe, and over ten hours of driving to Denver. The school librarian recommended we listen to books on CD. So, we did, for hours on end.

Listening exposes the reader to the language at the rate of their peers allowing them to enter a new era. Background knowledge, story structure, vocabulary, and enjoyment are all enhanced by listening. Listening to books such as Kathleen Karr's Gilbert and Sullivan Set Me Free, includes the music of Gilbert and Sullivan at the beginning of each chapter. This adds a dimension not available to a reader, adding much more to the story's whole. Books with full cast audios have different voices for each character, engaging readers easier. Our family may have started listening when we traveled, but it soon expanded to listening while playing at home, traveling around the town, and listening at home for pure enjoyment. My students who have made the greatest gains in literacy were the ones who listened to the most audio books. Listening puts struggling readers on par with the skilled readers.

2. Turn a child’s favorite book into a "readers theatre drama." I use this strategy with every struggling reader from grades one to ten. What is the difference between teaching a first and a tenth grader? The books I choose to use with them. By turning books into a drama, characters come alive. They feel pain, embarrassment, joy, and laughter. And when a character has such emotions, the whole of a person is involved, just like professional actors. The readers cannot be bored when they are the character. Misunderstandings, or lack of comprehension, are more easily identified as an action is required. Actions show in their body language, voice, and their costumes. And when one has prepared a play, it must be performed. Re-reading is essential as students want to be fluent in their reading.

The best readers are active readers. By being active, they can engage in the text, make connections, ask questions, re-reading passages, and look for additional reading. Readers theatre creates active involvement in books. Take a book your child loves and re-write it as a script. Or, take a look online, like Aaron Shepard Readers Theatre, whose scripts are free to download. 

3. Watch the movie, then read the book. As a child, I was not a great reader and it took me many years to become a reader. Once I tried to Anne of Green Gables, but gave up. There were too many words which didn’t seem to take me anywhere. One day, the movie was on TV and I watched it. The movie gave me an arch to the story that I couldn’t see by reading. The characters took shape and I was hooked. It became a book I just had to read. Not only did read the book, but I invested in the whole series. Today, I am still swept up in the relationships of Anne, Matthew, Marilla and Gilbert.

4. Talk about books. What do you like? Dislike? What stands out in your memory? Living in Lubbock, our favorite books included the Hank the Cowdog series by John Erickson. As a family, we'd laughed at Ericson’s use of language and his ability to connect unrelated words to add further humor to the drama faced by the characters daily. We loved Bruce Coville’s Aliens ate my homework.  And I know when my son started repeating sentences or phrases in the voice of the characters, it was a clear sign he enjoyed reading.

5. Listen and read along with the book before reading independently. This strategy can be a bit difficult if you are following audio speed. Follow the audio version for a short period of time, and then have a parent read along with a child, and just ahead of the reader. Or, read the same passage a number of times. Keep the experience enjoyable and listen more before trying to follow the text.

Different strategies work for different readers. Try a few, see what works, and commit to the most effective. 

References: Godsey, M. (2016). Listen to this. Literacy Today, 34 (3), 28-29.

Nicholas passed his thesis—one step closer to his Ph.D.

In February 1996, the school diagnostician called my son, Nicholas, "the worst child I've seen in twenty years of teaching!"

In Lubbock, Texas, Nicholas met his best, most influential teacher, Emma Leyendecker Lovering Stewart, whose words I like the way you think placed him on a positive academic trajectory. Yesterday, after five and half hours, he completed his Viva (oral exam) at Oxford University—one step closer to completing his Phil. What an extraordinary achievement!

Nicholas defends his thesis!

The consequences of poor achievement in literacy in the early years are pervasive,
having detrimental effects on future school performance
, cognitive capacity, self-esteem, motivation to read  and school retention.

It is a big week for the Letchford family! This week, my son Nicholas takes his final oral examination to complete his DPhil from Oxford. This is the same boy the school diagnostician called, The worst child I’ve seen in twenty years of teaching! It has been a very long road, culminating in this major event. As a seven-year-old, Nicholas failed to learn to read in his first year of school. Testing showed he had less than ten words, limited concentration, no spatial awareness, and no strengths. It is possible that this year could have defined his future. Thankfully it didn’t.  

The challenge for me, as a teacher, parent, and educator, is overcoming labels which limit children’s futures. I now work tirelessly to have students learn to read by writing poetry, engaging my struggling readers in both reading and writing with both the student and the teaching loving learning! 

The above quote derives from an academic article by Reynolds, Wheldall, and Madelaine (2011).  
(Cunningham & Stanovich, 1997; Ensminger & Slusarcick, 1992; Juel, 1988)
(Stanovich, 1986)
(Rose, 2006)
(Chapman, Tunmer, & Prochnow, 2000; Morgan, Fuchs, Compton, Cordray, & Fuchs, 2008)
(Bost & Riccomini, 2006; Ensminger & Slusarcick, 1992)