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Helping Your Kid Learn to Read Is Not That Hard

Photograph by Twenty20

My son learned to read when he was 4. Reading was always his favorite activity (well, when he wasn’t playing with cars). He has a memory that leaves me in awe, and he began memorizing words almost the moment he could talk. Day after day, he sat cuddled in my lap, repeating words and pointing to them on the page. One day, he took over.

At 7, he reads books written for sixth-graders. They call him a “high flyer” reader in school but, to him, reading is the ultimate act of relaxation. He can often be found curled up with his stuffed animals reading "Percy Jackson" or nonfiction books about a wide variety of topics. Like his mom, he enjoys reading to decompress at the end of a long day. Thankfully he still enjoys reading with me, too.

My daughter, however, had a much different experience. Independent reading came a little later for her and on her own terms. Believe it or not, the push to read in first grade left her feeling stressed. She actually started to avoid it. So I took matters into my own hands.

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We went to the public library and searched out books of interest instead of books on “grade level.” Whenever possible, we also checked out audiobooks to play while we read together. I read to her until my eyes closed in exhaustion each night. (Years later, I still do.) She snuggled up next to me while I brought the stories to life. That was how she learned. She learned by listening and allowing the stories to take her away on great adventures. One day, I heard her re-reading one of her nature fairy books to one of her dolls. I smiled as she worked her way through the pages with ease.

Don’t waste your time on those reading scores this year.

Eventually, she began choosing some books “just for her” and some books “for us.” While she also likes to curl up with a good book and a cozy blanket, she still prefers the connectedness that reading together inspires.

It’s no big secret that kids are assessed a lot in school these days. Reading scores come home in the report cards, and parents Google the scores to find out what they mean. Is she on grade level? Is she above? Is she below? Does she need a tutor? What the scores don’t show is that sometimes kids have yucky days and assessments aren’t a ton of fun. Some kids dread reading aloud but read near fluently when allowed to read alone (or to a doll or stuffed animal). Some kids rush through the assessments to get back to something more interesting. Tests and assessments paint only a tiny corner of the canvas. When it comes to learning to read, parents have to learn to stop stressing the reading scores.

Here are some ways to make reading fun that will engage even reluctant readers:

1. Let your child choose

I know what it’s like to really want my child to enjoy a book that brought me joy at that age. In my heart, I thought that my daughter would love "Island of the Blue Dolphins." Sadly, the thought of being left behind to live alone in a cruel world was too much for a child who believes in the power of family, and that book wasn’t such a winner for her. That was the last time I made a book suggestion.

Let your child find the books that appeal to them. In one million years, I never would have predicted the love that my son has for Percy Jackson and mythology. Let your kids comb the stacks and find books that interest them. Maybe someday they will read the classics, but for right now let them read the books that leave them feeling fulfilled.

2. Don’t force reading out loud

To this day, I never force my daughter to read out loud to me or anyone in the family. If she wants to take the lead, I will happily sit back and listen. Otherwise, I let her read on her own or I read to her.

Some kids are uncomfortable reading for a live audience but will practice on their own when they think no one is listening. Talk about it. Empathize with your kids. Talk about the time you read your favorite book to your favorite stuffed animal. Better yet, ask if they want to read stories to a toddler-age friend or cousin. There are ways to make reading out loud fun without adding stress and fear of judgment to the mix.

Maybe someday they will read the classics, but for right now let them read the books that leave them feeling fulfilled.

3. Keep your bedtime reading routine

Many parents think that the moment a child can read independently they should step away from reading together at night. I disagree. If you want to raise a lifelong reader, the best thing you can do is to continue spending time reading together.

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Reading isn’t just an academic skill. Reading is a family activity, a great escape, a stress management tool and a springboard for imagination and adventure. When parents continue to read with their kids as they grow, they strengthen their bond by spending quality time together.

Don’t waste your time on those reading scores this year. Build your family reading muscles by spending time together with a good book, instead.

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