How to help my child with reading. A guide for parents.

Last Updated: 27 Feb 24
Five children sitting on a bench enjoying reading books.

How can I help my child with reading?

The single biggest predictor of high academic achievement is reading to children. Not flashcards, not workbooks, not fancy pre-schools, not technology or computers, but mum and dad taking the time every day or night (or both!) to sit and read them wonderful books.

Parent involvement in their child's education is crucial. Children with involved parents, irrespective of income or background, are more likely to have higher academic achievement, better social skills and behaviour, greater confidence and self-esteem.

This guide will help you support your child with their reading. It will provide you with some ideas and resources to ensure your child becomes an enthusiastic, confident, and fluent reader.

The Five Pillars of Reading

(1) Phonemic Awareness: Your child's ability to hear, recognise and manipulate sounds. It is one of the earliest predictors of reading ability.

(2) Phonics: Phonics is the matching of sounds with correct letters and letter patterns. Your child will learn to visualise and verbalise these sounds, letters, and words, which is the foundation for reading.

(3) Vocabulary: A strong vocabulary helps your child identify and understand more complex words, building upon previously learned words and acquiring new ones.

(4) Fluency: Fluency is your child's ability to read accurately, expressively, and at a rhythmic pace. As your child develops fluency, they will naturally increase reading comprehension.

(5) Comprehension: Comprehension is your child's ability to understand and retain information to create meaning from the written text. This pillar is the final stage and the accumulation of the previous four pillars. As your child develops their comprehension skills, they will also become more able to read objectively and critically across various topics and genres.


Reading tips for each age group

The beginning

It is never too early to start. Talk to your bump, as your baby can hear sounds as early as 18 weeks. Talking regularly with your unborn child will help them recognise your voice, and they will be comforted listening to you even before they are born. Once your baby arrives, then share books with them. They will not yet understand any words, but they will love cuddling up, hearing your voice, and, in time, looking at the pictures. Use black and white picture books in the early days, as these are much more effective as your baby's eyes and vision develop.

The early years

Sharing picture books is fun. Do not worry if you do not have much time, as just a few minutes each day will make a big difference. Also, do not worry if your child gets distracted, chews the book, or wanders off, as this is perfectly normal. Turn off the screens and put down your phone to make it easier for both of you to enjoy the story without any distractions. Sit close together and encourage your child to hold the book themselves and turn the pages. Look at the pictures; do not just read the words. Maybe there's something funny in the images that you can enjoy together.

Talk about the book and ask questions. Get them to guess what will happen next. Picture books are an excellent way to talk through your child's fears and worries or help them deal with their emotions. Give your child space to talk and ask how they feel about the situations in the story.

There is no right way or wrong way to share a story as long as you and your child enjoy the experience. Use funny voices, act out situations, and your child will love this. Involve other family members, such as grandparents, as story time is something that everyone can enjoy, and it is an excellent way for relationships to strengthen.

The primary school years

The more you read to your child, the better, but the evening bedtime story is often the easiest, the most appropriate and most enjoyable moment. Ten minutes may be enough with a young child, but if you can manage fifteen, that would be even better. Settle on the bed with your child, cuddle up and enjoy whatever book has been chosen. The downside to this (if it has a downside) is that your child will soon pick up their favourite books and demand them to be read again and again until you are bored – but your child will not be – they will love it. Every time you reread the same book, your child will hear new words in the story that will make the meaning even clearer. They will also see, recognise, and learn the print on the page.

Do not confuse learning to read with bedtime reading, which is reading for pleasure. Learning to read has an academic focus and should be separated from the bedtime book. Bedtime reading is the time for relaxation and preparation for sleep. If you are reading a lovely bedtime story to your child, do not suddenly hand the book over to them and demand, "Now you read the next page." Doing this will put your child under pressure and may make them associate anxiety and failure with reading. Often children are put off reading in this way.

Do not worry if your child keeps choosing books that you consider very simple, as the reinforcement lets them build up their confidence. Your child will feel safe with their much-read and much-loved books. If you are reading for pleasure, then you do not need to be concerned with driving your child on to the next reading level at school. It is about 'pleasure'. Show how much you enjoy books. Ensure that your child also sees you and other family members reading. Dads have a critical role to play here with boys. If you want your child to enjoy reading, then you need to enjoy it yourself.

"Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them" - Lemony Snicket

If your child loves the first Harry Potter book, there are six more in the series to follow. Some popular book series have converted reluctant readers into bookworms – look at Tom Gates books by Liz Pichon or the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Reading with your child should be a delightful experience. Your child will feel safe reading, and then gradually, they will grow into a strong, competent, and confident reader. You will have given your child a wonderful gift and a foundation to build on; a love of books that will broaden horizons and open doors; a love of books that can last for the rest of their lives.

"To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life." – W. Somerset Maugham


The teenage years

As your child moves into secondary school, reading can be seen by them more as work than fun, and teenagers may stop reading for pleasure or stop reading at all. Here is some advice to support your teenager through these years:

  • Young Adult (YA) novels tackle the edgy issues teenagers struggle with, from romantic longing to peer pressure to grief and trouble at home or school. Teenagers will gravitate toward relatable subject matter whether they are personally grappling with these issues or are seeking vicarious thrills.
  • Merge movies with books. Hollywood is turning to teen literature for ideas more than ever. Offer your teenager the print version to read before or after a big film comes out and discuss with them the similarities and the differences between the two. Which was better? The book or movie? Why?
  • Graphic novels, once dismissed as comic books, are now recognised as literature. These books may be the key to getting some teenagers hooked on books and are available in a wide range of genres, from adventure and fantasy to historical fiction, memoir, and biography, so certainly, there is a graphic novel out there to suit your teenager's taste.
  • Encourage your teenager with appropriate adult-level books. Find non-fiction titles on subjects your teen's curious about, such as climate change, race, political corruption, or true crime. Check adult non-fiction bestseller lists to see what is going viral.
  • Try some poetry. Novels in verse and performance poetry are an increasingly popular trend. Poems are easy to read as they have all that white space on the page. The spare and lyrical approach to poetry can pack a punch.
  • Let your teenager get an audiobook to listen to on the way to school or on long drives. They can download audiobooks to their smartphones to not risk looking uncool because they will be under headphones or have their earbuds in.
  • Model reading at home, where your teenager can see you. Express your interest and enjoyment and talk about what you are reading. Always take a book with you when you go to the beach or waiting in a long queue. Demonstrate to your teenager that reading is a pleasure and not a chore.
  • Keep reading material around. Children who grow up with heaps of books around them tend to read more. Fill the bathroom, car, dining table (wherever there is a captive audience) with comic books, graphic novels, and magazines geared to their interests. There is nothing wrong with "micro-reading."
  • Hand your teenager a gift card to your local or online bookshop. They may discover the treasure-hunt fun of looking for a brilliant book.

So please, oh please, we beg, we pray, go throw your TV set away, and in its place, you can install a lovely bookshelf on the wall." – Roald Dahl



What if your child is reading below expectations?

If you are worried about your child's reading, the best thing to do is talk with your child's class teacher. Your teacher will set your mind at rest if they think your child is making good progress, or they will talk you through plans to help if they agree that your child needs more support. Tell your teacher if there is any history of reading or spelling problems in the family, as this will help them decide whether your child needs any extra help.

Teachers and parents need to have high but realistic expectations. You and your school should monitor your child's progress carefully. Remember that most children do not improve their reading steadily but sometimes worsen first before improving even more. Ensure that you ask your child what they think of the books they read at school and look at them yourself. Make sure that your child is not getting bored by finding their books too easy, but do make sure that they choose the books they want to read as often as possible. It is very off-putting to be told what to read. You can ask a teacher, bookseller, or librarians for help with book choices. Remember that a longer book is not always more difficult and that even confident new readers may not be ready to read long books.

All schools will have various strategies to help struggling readers catch up. There might be catch-up lessons for extra phonics teaching or extra reading practice, either one-to-one or perhaps in a small group, with a teacher or teaching assistant. If your child gets the right help, they will be able to catch up and keep up.

Parents often worry about their child feeling "singled out" if they go out of class for extra help. Please do not be unduly worried here, as it is very common for children to have extra help at some time or another, not just for reading. Most children will see it as a normal part of the school day and may enjoy the extra attention.

You can support them at home:

  • Praise your child every time they read, even if they do not get everything right the first time. A 'well done' from mum or dad is very motivating. Remember to 'pause, prompt, praise'– wait before you correct a mistake so that your child has a chance to get it right themselves, then give your child clues to help them get the word right, and finally praise them if they get the word correct or even try to.
  • Wait until the end of a line before correcting mistakes when you are reading together, which will give time for self-correction. If your child does not know a particular word, get them to guess what it means from the other words around, or say 'something' instead and go back later to work out the word. Spending time reading together each week can help your child progress with reading.
  • Long words can be made more accessible by clapping out the chunks of the word (syllables). For example, there are two in "luck-y" and three in "an-i-mal".
  • Some children need lots of practice, and others want to read the same book repeatedly, which is a normal part of learning to read.


What if your child has dyslexia?

You should make an appointment to speak to the school Special Needs Coordinator (SENCo). Arrange a meeting with the SENCo and your child's teacher to discuss your child's needs and, if appropriate, arrange to get them tested for dyslexia. The British Dyslexia Association can provide you with advice and support. Barrington Stoke is a publisher that specialises in dyslexia and may be a valuable resource to consider.

"Whenever people talk about dyslexia, it's important to know that some of the smartest people in the world are dyslexic. We just see things differently, so that's an advantage. I just learn a different way, there nothing bad about it" – Charlotte McKinney


Bonus Tip: Join a library

You and your child should join your local library and visit regularly. Enjoying books is the first step towards learning to read, and a young child will get off to the very best start if they have hundreds of books to choose from. Libraries often have storytimes and family events, which are particularly useful over the school holiday periods.

"I was reading the dictionary. I thought it was a poem about everything" – Steven Wright


Finally, remember: good readers become good writers

Good writing follows on from good reading. When children realise that writing is a way of telling people something, like talking, they usually want to have a go themselves. Older children's writing improves the more they read. This is often known as a 'virtuous circle' (the opposite of a vicious circle) where the more you read, the better you get at reading, and the better you get at reading, the better you get at writing! Parents can help this happen by encouraging children to follow their reading interests at home and by encouraging writing for pleasure.

"Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead" – Gene Fowler

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