All parents want their children to realise their potential at school. A weakness in one area, such as handwriting, reading or numeracy, can lock bright children out of other areas of the curriculum. When a child falls behind it can undermine confidence and self-belief.
As parents we want to help but feel overwhelmed or underqualified. We don’t know whether our input is effective, and it’s easy to lose heart (and patience). It’s also hard to find time.
The Irish Times has consulted experts in the primary learning and support, and identified key areas that cause problems for primary-school children. The result is a 10-minute-a-day plan that helps parents support the work of teachers and helps children progress in stubborn areas.
In the coming weeks we will hear from a range of learning experts in literacy and numeracy.
This week we look at reading fluency: the ability to decode letters and words with enough confidence to understand and enjoy reading.
Many children struggle with reading, and a supportive parent can make a big difference. The 10-minute-a-day routine is simple, requires no training or expensive equipment and gives parents a chance to enjoy quiet interaction with their children that will stand to them in all aspects of learning.
Here's the first part of our expert advice.
Little and often
A fluent reader reads smoothly and with expression. Limited fluency, or “dysfluent reading”, demands so much energy to work out what the words are that there is little opportunity to think about what they mean. The child can read, but without getting the gist of what it was all about.
It is easy to become frustrated when your child’s reading is dysfluent, but there are simple ways we can help our children.
All children learn differently, so it is worth asking your child’s teacher for guidance. But the following tips are generally applicable to a wide range of children.
Do not underestimate the value of investing a little time each day in your child’s reading. The adage of little and often is the best way to avoid frustration and build confidence.
Some elements of the process, such as learning high-frequency words, will be tedious, but if sessions are brief and regular it will keep your child motivated. Establish his or her current level of reading and work from there. Material that is too difficult is frustrating, but easier material can be too babyish. There is a range of reading material that interests older children but is less challenging to read.
While working with your child you may sometimes feel impatient or disappointed. Even the faintest sigh or roll of the eyes will be picked up. Remember, it is not about where the child should be but where he is and how you can help him move forward, step by step.
Remember, if you know that your child’s reading level is not on a par with his peers’, he knows it too. An important part of your role is to make him feel better about where he is and the progress he is making.
Have patience and try different approaches. Remember to enjoy success.
When your child finds a level at which he is reading fluently, let him stay a while and consolidate it.
When it comes to literacy, overlearning is a good thing. They will use these skills forever.
If you think of fluency as the ability to read with expression, then the reader needs to be able to understand the author’s meaning. Learning to read is an integrated process and is not easy for most children. It has to be developed through years of purposeful activity, and parents can play a very important role.
If your child is struggling with reading, the first thing to remember is that you are not alone. If you are frustrated with the situation, you can be certain that your child is too. Don’t create anxiety with unreasonable expectations. Seek help and a more rounded solution.
The first step starts with the school. Schedule a meeting and ask the teacher what they have observed in relation to your child’s skills and what they might recommend.
When a child experiences difficulties with fluency, parents sometimes try to address them with long, intense sessions of reading at home. Short spells of 10 minutes each day are far more productive.
Find a quiet reading corner in the house and furnish it with reading material of interest to your child. Make your sessions in the reading corner calm, inviting and enjoyable, and don’t overdo it. Leave them wanting more. Your child will be more motivated to read a book they have chosen themselves in the library or bookshop.
Don’t make older children read books for younger children. There are books that are pitched at older readers with younger reading-age profiles. They are known as “high interest, low readability” books, and you can get them from educational publishers, at school or from libraries.
As a final tip on fluency, I often recommend a speech and drama club. Reading and acting out lines is a great way to build fluency and helps children engage with text in a more meaningful, purposeful and expressive way. BARRY MORRISSEY
The series is compiled by Louise Holden and Gráinne Faller
Seven steps to more fluent reading
1In a busy home, finding time and space for quiet reading is perhaps the most difficult challenge, but the results are well worth it. Create a spot where reading sessions always happen – a corner of your child's room for example. Find a time that works, maybe just after dinner or just before bedtime. Even try getting up 10 minutes earlier in the morning.
2Choose the right reading material. It has to be interesting but not frustrating. Don't give a child reading material with content that is too babyish for them. There are books for children whose reading level is behind their interest level. If you can't get your hands on such material, try compiling material from the internet or newspapers in the form of a project that interests the child.
3Start with a conversation. What is this book going to be about? What does the title suggest? What do the pictures suggest? These help children to read with purpose.
4Paired reading is when a teacher or parent reads with a child to help model good reading and to support the child's own efforts. There are several kinds of paired reading – try them all to see what works.
* Assisted reading
Read a part of the text and let the child take over at an agreed point. You read every second page, for example, or, if the going is very slow, every second paragraph. This can alleviate frustration.
* Chorus reading
Parent and child read together out loud. This way the child gets a sense of your tone and cadences, where you stop and pause and how you add expression. Listen closely to ensure that your child is able to read with you most of the time. If she is dropping out too frequently the material is too advanced.
* Echo reading
This is very effective for children experiencing significant difficulties with fluency. First you read the sentence. Then you and the child read the sentence together. Finally the child reads the sentence alone.
You are modelling the right way to read, scaffolding the child’s attempt, and then giving the child an independent run at it.
Shadow reading uses a similar approach, but you use longer blocks of text.
5If you look at any reading passage you will find that certain words occur again and again. These are known as high-frequency words (an internet search will find them).
Various studies have compiled lists of these; for example, the Dolch list contains 100 words that can constitute up to half the words in the material we read. If a child can recognise these words fluently it makes the job of reading much easier.
Pay particular attention to these words as they crop up in the text and reinforce them with your child.
6If a child is reading without expression or apparent comprehension, but getting the words right, try asking them to read the same paragraph a number of times, but with feeling. You can model this for them. This can even be fun if you really exaggerate, use accents and hand gestures.
7Finish the session with discussion and praise. Even if you have only succeeded in reading a few lines in your session, talk to your child about the meaning of what you have just read. This conversation extends vocabulary, aids comprehension and whets their appetite for the next session.
Are you worried about your child's progress?
“How was school today?”
Does that sound familiar – and infuriating? Maybe your timing is off. Are you always ready to talk about your day right at the end of it?
Spot opportunities (when cleaning the car at the weekend or at the shops) when you can chat about school indirectly.
Also try a different opening line: “What was the best thing you did at school last week?” for instance. If there seems to be a problem at school, get in contact. If there is good communication between child, home and school, then any problems are far more likely to be spotted and fixed.
If you’re having trouble with school communication, you might want to speak to someone a little removed from the situation, to get some support or maybe even another point of view. Go to one or two trusted sources of information, and trust your own instincts.
Are your worries well founded? If not, then focus on dealing with your anxiety and trying to reduce it. If the answer is yes, then act.
Remember, you may not be able to help your child as much as you’d like. Do your best. You do not need to get every decision spot on. Perfect parents don’t exist. “Good enough” parenting is enough.
Meet our experts: Trio of literacy consultants
Anne Englishis the principal of Scoil San Treasa, a primary school in south Co Dublin. She has worked for a number of years with primary children experiencing difficulties and has a keen interest in the challenges children face as they develop literacy skills.
Barry Morrisseyis literacy co-ordinator and learning-support teacher at Scoil Na Naomh Uilig, in Newbridge, Co Kildare. He has a special interest in literacy and has worked with readers of all abilities.
Donald Ewingis the head of psychological and educational services with the Dyslexia Association of Ireland. He has held posts as both a senior and principal educational psychologist and has worked as a professional adviser within the education division of the Scottish government.