Book Matters: Back to school advice from a reading expert

Book Matters: Back to school advice from a reading expert

By Teri Harman, Contributor | Posted - Aug. 31, 2011 at 7:30 p.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY - Shelly Harris spends every day helping children succeed in reading. As a reading specialist and teacher at Bates Elementary School in Weber School District, she sees 84 students a day, each struggling with reading in some way. With patience and carefully honed skills she sits with small groups of students, who are pulled from regular class, to work on phonics, vocabulary and more.

When it comes to helping children excel in and enjoy reading, Harris is an expert. So I recently sat down with her to get advice for what parents can do to help children during this new school year.

Read every day

Harris explained that one of the most important ways to help your child, at any age, is to set up a schedule that includes daily reading time. Start this habit young, even before your child attends school, by reading aloud to her. Blogger Seth Mullins wrote in an article for The Washington Post, "The growing complexity of our modern world has made the ability to read more essential than ever before. As with most other skills, reading is more easily mastered by those who enjoy it. We can cultivate this passion in our young ones early by reading aloud to them."

Never leave reading out because your child may have too much homework. Homework can't replace the time spent practicing reading.

–Shelly Harris, reading specialist

Harris advises organizing your schedule to include reading for at least 20 minutes a day. More if your child struggles with reading. She said, "If your child can't sit still for 20 minutes, break it up: 10 minutes in the morning, 10 minutes before dinner, 10 minutes before bedtime. Help them build their stamina for reading by adding to those minutes as the year progresses."

"Never leave reading out because your child may have too much homework," Harris added. "Homework can't replace the time spent practicing reading."

If you or your student feels there is too much homework to allow for reading time, talk with his teacher and find a solution together.

Harris said it is important to "insist on reading time even after elementary school." Junior high and high school children greatly benefit from time set aside for reading, both independent reading and reading aloud to a parent. Harris suggests, "Oral reading is critical even after kids become good readers. This is a skill that must be practiced; all fluency testing is done orally. Sit with your child for a portion of their reading time and make sure they are reading accurately, with expression and that they understand what they have read."

Read aloud with older children too

Older children can also still benefit from being read to. Read-aloud expert Jim Trelease compares reading aloud to the influence of advertising. He said, "Don't cut your reading advertising budget as children grow older."

(One) way to get in read-aloud time with older children is to read newspaper or magazine articles to them. When I was young, my parents would often read aloud articles at the dinner table or while we were all sitting around together.

Choose a book, with the input of your junior high or high school age child, and sit down together. Switch off reading aloud to one another. This strategy employs all of the skills vital to reading, writing, vocabulary, fluency and more.

Another way to get in read-aloud time with older children is to read newspaper or magazine articles to them. When I was young, my parents would often read aloud articles at the dinner table or while we were all sitting around together. When we lived in Miami, Fla., my dad would read aloud Dave Barry's humor column from The Miami Herald. We would all laugh and occasionally choke on our food or snort out milk, never suspecting that these sessions were actually helping to improve our reading and learning skills.

Make the most of independent reading time by helping your child make smart reading choices. Books are a window to the world. Guide your child to books that will expand his view. Encourage him to branch out to different genres and media types.

"But don't always pick for them," Harris said. "Let them come to love reading time by having the power to decide for themselves." Remember your local library has a wealth of options for any age.

Understand teacher's expectations

Know what is expected of your child this year - in reading and all subjects - by talking with her teacher now. "Parents have an ever-increasing responsibility to be a big part of their child's education," Harris said.

Book Calendar
  • Timpanogos Storytelling Festival: September 1-3, various events, times and locations.
  • Utah Festival of Books: Sept. 10, 10 a.m. - 3 p.m., University of Utah, Union Plaza.
  • The King's English Bookshop: 1511 S 1500 East, SLC. Author Jennifer Adams, Sept. 1, 7 p.m.; Author E.J. Patten, Sept. 6, 7 p.m.; Author Christine Siefert, Sept. 7, 7 p.m.; 34th Birthday Sale, Sept. 10; Author Garth Stein, Sept. 14, 7 p.m.
  • Dolly's Bookstore: 510 Main St., Park City. New storytime - every Tuesday at 11 a.m.; Author Garth Stein, Sept. 15, 7 p.m. at the Eccles Center Auditorium; Classics Book Club: "Dracula" by Bram Stoker, Sept. 20, 7 p.m.; Modern Book Club: "Hellhound on His Trail" by Hampton Sides, Oct. 6, 7 p.m.
  • Ken Sander's Rare Books: 268 S. 200 E. SLC. Author Max Werner, Sept. 3, 7 p.m.; The Long Memory Concert Series, Sept. 10, 7 p.m.
Don't forget to check your local library for events.

This is even more critical for parents of children attending high school. Changes to the core curriculum require students to be more college ready at graduation. "These changes focus on closing the gap which currently exists between high school graduates and college freshmen. Parents will play a vital role in helping their child rise to these expectations," Harris explained.

Communication is key

If your child is struggling with reading or any subject Harris counsels, "Communicate! Talk to everyone in the school, not just your child's classroom teacher. Find out what services your school has to offer to benefit your child, such as speech therapists, principals, reading specialists, math specialists and counselors."

Also, it's important to have your child's eyesight and hearing thoroughly examined, especially if there is an already existing learning or behavioral problem. Harris explained that the vision or hearing screenings done in public schools may not be enough to detect certain problems.

Finally, you can best help your child during the school year by talking with her on a daily basis. "Talk, talk, talk to your children!" Harris emphasized. "Sit down for dinner, turn off the TV or DVDs in the car, and hang up the phone. Talk with, not at, your child; she needs to have rich, back and forth conversations to enrich oral vocabulary. Oral language is essential to reading, vocabulary development, writing, and comprehension. And for a bonus you will find your relationship strengthened as well."

Research and experienced teachers agree that the best way to help a child succeed in school is for parents to play an active role. You are your child's key to success in reading and school as a whole. Make the effort and you will reap the benefits of your child's triumph.

Next week: Books and treating cancer

About the Author: Teri Harman -----------------------------

Teri Harman writes and reads from home amid the chaos of three young children. For book reviews, book suggestions and more book fun, visit Find Teri on Facebook (Book Matters-Teri Harmon) or Twitter (@BookMattersTeri).

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