How to Improve Reading Skills in the Early Grades
Expert strategies parents can use to give children a strong literacy foundation.
When shapes take on meaning as letters and those letters start to form words, it can be magical for children. It’s the first step into the wonderful world of reading. Yet, for many young students across the United States, the magic just isn’t happening.
“For decades, low reading-proficiency rates have been a crisis for the United States and largely affect vulnerable and historically marginalized student populations,” says Erin Bailey, director of programs and content for Reading Is Fundamental, a nonprofit dedicated to children’s literacy.
The latest data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as “the nation’s report card,” show that only about one-third of U.S. fourth-grade public school students are proficient in reading. That means most young students cannot understand grade-level written text, develop and interpret meaning, or use meaning that’s appropriate to the type of text.
“This is alarming when considering that children who are not reading proficiently by fourth grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school,” Bailey says.
As troubling as this learning gap may be, there are many things that parents and caregivers can do to help early learners improve reading skills and shrink this gap.
Decoding and Phonics
One important skill a child needs is the ability to “decode,” identifying each letter and understanding how letters work together to form words.
“A homework assignment can be intimidating if the student can’t understand the instructions,” says Karen H. Bradford, founder and CEO of the Calla Lily Group, an educational consulting firm in Maryland. “Does your child know all 26 letters of the alphabet? Do they know, within that, the consonants and vowels? A lot of our students do not have that knowledge.”
Parents can help, not just by reading to children early and often, but also by pointing out words, letters and sounds, as well as the ways words and sounds are similar or different, Bradford says.
“If a parent can focus just on that, our kids will be so much further along when they go to class,” Bradford says, adding, “The teacher can strengthen those skills in the classroom.”
Encouraging Reluctant Readers
Reading is a foundational skill, essential for further learning in all subjects. As Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, wrote recently, “Reading well is an essential pathway to opportunity.”
But for children who find reading difficult, the pathway is challenging. Parents and caregivers can support reluctant readers, Bradford says, by creating a safe space at home where kids can make reading mistakes without embarrassment.
“Give them the freedom to say, ‘I don’t understand. Can we do it a different way? Can we try it again?’ Let them know, it’s okay if you don’t get it today; we’ll try again tomorrow,” she says.
Even in a safe space, children may grow discouraged by mistakes. “Children need to feel celebrated and applauded when they make progress,” says Phyllis Blackstone, a literacy consultant and retired education professor.
Blackstone encourages parents and caregivers to offer specific praise, saying something like, “I remember when you couldn’t read any words on this page! Do you remember? You did not even know that word last week!”
This kind of feedback, Blackstone says, allows the parent or caregiver to play the important role of being the child’s best advocate.
Reading Without Books
Reading aloud to a child is a well-known way to support reading skills at home. But educator, author and consultant Nawal Qarooni Casiano notes that stories don’t have to come only from words on a page.
“A picture, a piece of art, something in the world around them – that is text,” Qarooni Casiano says, particularly when we ask children what they see, notice or wonder about an item.
Qarooni Casiano, founder of the education consulting firm NQC Literacy, urges parents and caregivers to infuse narrative, inquiry and storytelling into everyday life.
Building language at home, she says, “evens the playing field” for young students across barriers of ability, language and access to resources, increasing “the chance that kids will be lifelong readers, writers and story builders.”
“What you can think, you can say,” Qarooni Casiano adds, “and what you can say, you can write.”
Resources for Parents
For more tools and strategies that can support reading skills in the early grades, parents can look to these resources:
- Reading Opens The World is a new literacy initiative from the American Federation of Teachers. The website features lessons, read-alouds and tips for parents, as well as discussion forums.
- The Reading Partners’ Resource Library offers downloadable resources and reading tips to support early literacy at home.
- Literacy Central, from the nonprofit Reading is Fundamental, offers resources for families including stories, lessons, and literacy tips.
By Emily Popek