How to raise a bookworm

By: Janet Trull

Author: Canadian Living


How to raise a bookworm

By: Janet Trull

Whether your budding book lover is a natural or one of the 20 per cent of children who find reading a challenge, here's how you can nurture her growth into a successful and enthusiastic reader.

A haircut. New shoes. A cool backpack. We send our kids out the door in September with hugs and promises: "You will make friends. You will learn to read. School will be fun."

But school is not all fun and games, as any four-year-old who has been sent to the time-out chair can tell you. Friends come and go. And reading? Well, let's just say it's not easy for everyone. In fact, one child in five will find that reading is a challenge.

Kids walk into a competitive arena when they start school. Even in kindergarten, children know which of their peers can print their own names without name cards. They can tell you which kids recognize all the letters. They can point out the hotshots who bring chapter books from home and read them for show and tell.

"Do you like to read?" I ask children before doing their reading assessments. If the answer is anything less than an enthusiastic "Yes! I love to read," the warning light starts flashing. Answers spiral downward from "It's OK, I guess" to "Sometimes." I am especially concerned about the child who cannot meet my eyes when he admits, "I'm not good at reading." And that just about sums it up. If a child is not good at something, he probably doesn't enjoy it.

But don't underestimate your role as a parent: you can help your child learn to read - and love it. Before you hear the heart-wrenching lament "I'm not good at reading" (or if you've heard it already), here are a few specific strategies that promote independence, build confidence and empower your child with the written word.

Let go of control
Give it up! Hand it over - the book, that is. Parents and teachers want to solve the word quickly and get on with the story. We want to rescue the child from the struggle. But children are capable of developing independent reading strategies at a very early age if they are given control over the text. Starting in kindergarten and through the primary years, children benefit when an adult acts as a "guide on the side" during the reading process.

When I facilitate parent workshops, I often invite children to join us for a reading demonstration. Parents and children, sitting side by side, sometimes get into a power struggle to determine who is in charge. The person who is holding the book and pointing to the words has control. If the adult doesn't relinquish control, it sends a message to the child: the deadly "You're not ready for prime time." So hand over the book and sit on your hands.

But wait - don't disappear. Travelling in unknown territory can be scary if you're alone. Like all adventurers, your child is embarking on a journey that will require a lot of risk-taking and confidence. He will need your guidance as he deciphers the unintelligible symbols along the way. Just look at an alphabet in an unfamiliar language to remind yourself how difficult it is to match sounds to symbols, put the sounds together into words and then string those words together to come up with a sentence - one that makes sense. Whew! It's a tough job.

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Don't rush in
Don't do the job for your child. Resist the temptation to jump in every time your child hesitates. The guide on the side needs to be encouraging and supportive but not too helpful. When the child comes to a word he is unsure of, don't tell him the word.

Child: "Once upon a time, there was a..."
Parent: "Giant."

You know the feeling when you're trying a difficult task, such as updating the plumbing at the cottage, and someone is right over your shoulder telling you how it should be done. What do you do? In exasperation, you toss the tool belt to the self-proclaimed expert and shout, "If you know so much about it, then you do it!"

I've watched a child give up in much the same way, tossing the book back to the adult. "You read," she says in an angry tone. "I'm not good at reading."
Instead of telling the child the word, wait, prompt and suggest a strategy. Count to 10 so you give your child an opportunity to think of a strategy on his own. The simplest and best prompt is "Try it," which lets your child know it's OK to take a risk at making a mistake. Other good prompts are: "Look at the picture," "Sound it out" or "Skip the word and go on."

Child: "Once upon a time there was a..."
Parent: "Try it."
Child: "Great?"
Parent: "Good try. You noticed that the word started with g and ended with t." (After acknowledging the child's attempt, suggest another strategy.)
"Look at the picture."
Child: "Giant."

As a guide on the side, you verbalize the problem-solving strategy that will help make meaning out of text so that, when you leave to throw in a load of laundry or answer the phone, your child has strategies to help him carry on independently. And that is the goal. All roads, all thorny pathways and all dark trails lead to independence.

By learning to wait and telling your child to try it, you encourage the kind of risk-taking that a new skill requires. Let your child know that you expect some errors. Mistakes are opportunities for learning. But don't let these opportunities turn your reading time into a stressful exercise. Teach your child the "nudge" strategy: if he wants you to give him the word, he just gives you a gentle nudge with his elbow.

Articulating strategies out loud is crucial for children, particularly for auditory learners. Try some of the following questions, prompts and clues.

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Encouraging words for preschoolers
• Show me the front cover of the book. Use your finger to point to the words in the title while I read. Can you find the title inside the book? That's the title page. Read it all by yourself.
• Flip through the book and check out the pictures. What do you think this book will be about?
• Turn to page 1. Follow the words with your finger while I read the story. If I stop, fill in a word that would make sense. Now let's read the story together; then you can try it all by yourself.
• What do you predict will happen next? I like the way you use the pictures to give you clues. That's what good readers do.
• What was your favourite part? What was the funniest part? The scariest?

Positive hints for early readers (Kindergarten, Grade 1)
• Use your index fingers to frame
the words you know on this page.
Read them.
• "______" is an important word in this book. Take a good look at it. Get it in your head. It is on almost every page. Frame it in the title. Can you find the important word on page 1? Page 2?
• Show me a period. A question mark. One letter. Two letters. A capital letter.
A letter that's in your name. A space between words. One word. Two words. The first word in a sentence. The last word in a sentence.
• Get your mouth ready with the first sound in that word and then see if that sound "pops" out.
• I like the way you sounded it out. That's what good readers do.
• What does this story remind you of? What does it make you think about?

From learning to read to reading to learn (Grades 2 and 3)
• Read fast, right to the period. Try it again with expression.
• What would make sense there?
• You said, "______." Does that
sound right?
• I like the way you fix your mistakes. That's what good readers do.
• Who are the characters in this story? What is the setting?
• Retell this story in your own words. What happened at the beginning? In the middle? At the end?

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Learn to make and break words
Extend your child's literacy skills with a fun activity called Making and Breaking Words. Use letters (magnetic letters, letter tiles or a make-it-yourself alphabet from pen and paper). Start with a secret word. Arrange letters so the secret word is not apparent ( d a r g e n i ). Walk the child through this task and have him follow your instructions.

Use two letters to make in. Now change a letter to make the word an. Add a letter to the beginning to make ran. Add a letter to the end to make rang. Make another four-letter word: rain. Add a letter to make a five-letter word: grain. Farmers grow grain. Using all the letters, try to find out what the secret word is. After one minute, give the first letter as a clue, then the second letter and so on. (If you haven't figured it out, the secret word is reading.)

What other words can you make from the letters? Try to fill in a chart of two-letter words, three-letter words, four-letter words and five-letter words:

in rid grin grand
an red gang

This activity solves the mystery of building words. By manipulating the letters, children get practice at spelling and phonics and learn to look for small words in big words. For hundreds of making-and-breaking-words activities, look for Making Words (Good Apple, 1994) by Patricia Cunningham.

Create a reader-friendly home
A book should give your kids that cuddle-up-under-the-quilt-with-Dad feeling or that snuggle-in-the-corner-of-the-couch-with-Mom feeling. A book should be about quiet time in the fort under the dining room table. A book should make you melt. Books connect us to other people who laugh, cry, feel stupid and help one another. They let us know we are not alone. They are lifelines in a crazy world.
Become familiar with your child's interests and strengths. Then help her to choose books that not only motivate her but also aim for her reading level. A just-right book has a few challenges for the reader but not enough to make reading frustrating. Visit for fun books that you can download from kindergarten level to grades 5 and up. And don't forget that the library is still the best deal in town.

Janet Trull is a literacy teacher with the Grand Erie District School Board in southcentral Ontario. With a background in special education and Reading Recovery, she has researched the success of home reading programs. She considers it a priority to make literacy strategies accessible and practical for parents.

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How to raise a bookworm