How to Help with Reading: A Reading Specialist’s Tips

Posted by on February 14, 2018.

When is it time to start working on reading skills? Right now. Reading begins with vocabulary, oral language, and talk. So talk with your child often. Talk and listen, share family stories, use new words, ask open-ended questions, be patient, and encourage word use.

Reading aloud to a pre-reader creates a special time. You may be surprised how your child will respond and how the attention span will grow. Present books with rhyme, repetition, and rhythm. Dr. Seuss books and Mother Goose rhymes are excellent choices. These books sound like songs. Introduce some alphabet books. There are many books in print that go beyond just “A is for Apple.” When reading to your pre-reader, remember to point to the pictures, stop and talk a bit, and laugh at the funny parts.

Read often. Continue to read to your older child or teen as much as possible. Try to read to your child every day. 20 minutes a day will go a long, long way. This will improve interest, skills, and attention span. Interact with the text, ask simple questions about the reading, and accept all thoughts as legitimate. Ask some open-ended “why” or “how” questions so that your child will have to think a little more. Predict what might happen next, or what might happen in a different situation with similar characters. Simply talking about the stories in these ways will be the first steps toward creating readers who respond to reading and who read for meaning.

Continue to read to your child. Choose books that are a little bit higher in vocabulary than the books your child is reading independently and expose him/her to new words. When talking with your child, use new and interesting words, and encourage your child to use the new words, too. This will help him/her recognize the new words when they see them.

As your child learns to read, you and your child can take turns reading. Start reading, look ahead for shorter sentences, easier passages your child can read, or words your child may know. Ask your child to read those parts.

To prevent frustration, provide assistance whenever your child has trouble. If your child gets stuck on a word, then simply tell the word. If your child gets tired, it is advisable to take over the reading, or to stop and pick it up another night. Teachers can push your child more at school, but keeping this light and fun at home will ensure continued interest in reading time together.

Children must master 5 specific reading skills in order to become successful readers. Those skills include: phonemic awareness skills, phonics skills, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency.

Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate the individual sounds, or phonemes, in spoken words. Phonics is the concept that there is a predictable relationship between phonemes (the sounds of the spoken language), and graphemes (the written letters and spellings that represent those sounds). Vocabulary includes the words readers read and know. The larger the reader’s vocabulary, the easier it is to make sense of the text. Comprehension is the reason for reading. It is basically an understanding of what is being read. Fluency is the ability to recognize words easily, read with greater speed, accuracy, and expression, and better understand what is being read.

Phonemic awareness skills are numerous. Start with rhymes. Say: “I am thinking of a small animal that rhymes with hat. What is the animal?” Answer: cat. Help with isolating sounds by asking, while playing with a ball, something like: “Oh, a ball. What sound does ball begin with?” Answer: the /b/ sound. Segmenting sounds is similar but a little more difficult. This takes a word, sip for instance, and segments it into three separate sounds, /s/, /i/, and /p/. Pass your child some milk and ask: “What are the three sounds you hear in the word sip?” Answer: the sounds /s/, /i/, and /p/. At the same time, if necessary, extend the sounds while pronouncing the word. Finally, to help with blending, simple words like pet, can be broken into their smaller component sounds. Say something like: “Here are the sounds of a word. Guess what the word is.” Then supply the sounds /p/, /e/, and /t/. Your child should answer: pet.

Is it time to get up and move? Choose a simple three letter word with three sounds, like the word cat. Say the word, and then say the sounds. Your child touches his head for the first sound, his waist for the second sound, and his knees for the third sound. For the word nap, say the word, then touch the head when saying the /n/ sound, the waist when saying the short /a/ sound as in cat, and the knees when saying the /p/ sound.

Want to improve phonics? Introduce your pre-reader to some of the letters of the alphabet, the letters in his/her name, and some of the most common words used. When reading, run your finger along the sentences to show that the words go left to right and down the pages, and that you are actually reading letters and words, and not creating a story from the pictures or something else. Make letters in fun ways such as with paint, play dough, or sand. Look for letters wherever you go – on signs, on buildings, and in books. Present a letter, B for instance, and then work with your child to brainstorm all the known words that begin with the /b/ sound, like ball, balloon, and boy. Add more to the list by going on a Letter B Hunt around the house to find additional items beginning with the letter.

Start by singing the alphabet. The next step is pointing to the alphabet letters and saying the letter names, followed by mixing or scrambling the letter order and saying the letter names. The final step in building these skills is looking at the letter, saying the letter name, saying the letter sound, and then saying a word that begins with that letter sound. Note that you might need to limit to five or six letters at a time. This will help to make the work more manageable for your child. S/he will more likely learn and retain the letters presented five or six at a time as opposed to all 26 at one time.

Further reinforcement can include writing a letter and then drawing pictures of animals that begin with that letter sound, drawing pictures of all the items around the house that begin with that letter sound, or creating some made up characters or animals and giving them names that begin with that letter sound. Make letter flash cards. Children say the letter name, the letter sound, and a word that begins with that sound. Play some games like Memory by matching two letters with each other, or Go Fish by asking for a letter card instead of a number card, or Tic-Tac-Toe using letters other than just X and O.

Looking for a way to reinforce that letters have sounds, and that the sounds go together to make words? Help your child learn to write and spell his/her own name. Write the name neatly on a piece of paper, point to the letters, and say the letter names. Then point to the letters and say the letter sounds. Ask your child to copy the name. This may be a bit tricky with names that do not follow conventional sound/symbol relationships. You may have to point out the irregularities. However, this is still a start toward matching letter sounds to the written letters. If your child has trouble with copying his/her name, then simply write the name lightly on a piece of paper. Ask your child to trace the name a few times, and then to copy.

Once readers learn their letters, they are ready to put the letters together to make meaningful words. Start with simple words. For example, write the word bat on a piece of paper, simply point to the first letter, ask for the sound, then point to the second letter, and so on. Include extension words, or word families, that follow the same simple pattern. For example, for bat, try cat, hat, and sat.

After children have mastered prereading skills, the instructional focus shifts to vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency. Most vocabulary is learned indirectly through everyday experiences with both written and oral language. What should readers do when coming across a new word for the first time?

Word attack strategies include:

1. Look for smaller words within the larger newer words.

2. Look for beginnings and endings.

3. Apply common sounds.

4. Apply less common sounds.

5. Use context clues or look at other words in the sentence for definitions, explanations, or hints.

6. Go to an outside source, for instance, a dictionary, the internet, or another person.

For example, for the word reader, first recognize the word read, then recognize the ending -er, then apply the common sound that the letter combination ea makes the letter /e/ sound, and then read the word.

Try playing a game called Stump the Reader. Ask your child to preview some reading material and look for a word that even a good reader might not know. Then ask your child to write the word on a piece of paper. You, playing the role of the experienced reader, model some word attack strategies to decode that word. Start by looking at smaller words within the larger word. Then look for beginnings and endings. Putting a finger over those pieces of the word may turn a larger word into a much smaller and more manageable word. Try common sounds for the leftover letters, like the letter c making the letter /k/ sound, and try uncommon sounds for the remaining leftover letters, like the letter c making the letter /s/ sound. Go to the dictionary or computer or seek an outside expert if necessary.

To increase overall vocabulary skills or to increase the number of known words, there are many, many word games to play. Some of those games are traditional word games such as Scrabble, Scrabble Jr., Boggle, Boggle Jr., and Upwords. Some of those games are homemade games such as Make a Face, Memory, Go Fish, Old Maid, and Tic-Tac-Toe using words instead of pictures, letters, or numbers.

When presenting a book for the first time, preview the story. Look at the cover and look at the pictures inside. Talk about what the story might be about and what the characters might do. Make some predictions. These predictions don’t have to come true. Just creating predictions enhances overall comprehension and reading for meaning. It sets a purpose for the reading or determines something to find out.

Good readers are curious. Ask questions and encourage your child to ask questions whenever reading. Simply ask: “What do you think the characters will do?” or “Why did the characters do what they did?” Open-ended questions are acceptable and preferred. Asking “why” activates more thinking skills, and sparks more discussion, than asking questions that can be answered by “yes” or “no.”

All readers, including beginning readers, need to pay attention to understanding what they are reading. First, connect a book to familiar parts of your child’s life, such as how the characters are like or unlike people (or animals) your child knows. Ask: “How is this character like you?” or “Does this character remind you of someone you know?” Making connections to your child’s life is helpful in relating to the reading and then reading for meaning.

Ready to move onto chapter books? Comprehension is more than just asking questions after the reading. Understanding is enhanced when questions are asked before or during the reading. Ask a simple question, maybe even a retell question, asking for as many details as possible after a reading session or a chapter is completed, and then ask the same question when picking up the story at the next session. This will bring the reader back into the story refocused on the plot, and will boost reading for meaning for the new session. At the same time, your child will see reading as an activity that includes reading for meaning and not just reading words in print like a list.

A simple game to enhance comprehension is another  I Am Thinking game (much like I Spy). Here you think of something simple. Usually something in the room works well. Your child asks questions about the object such as: “Is it red?” or “Can it move?” or “Is it bigger than a bread box?” You answer with “yes” or “no”. Your child continues to refine her questions to arrive at the correct answer. Take this further by thinking of a character in a story being read. Your child asks questions about the character, and you answer with “yes” or “no” until the child discovers or determines the correct character or answer.

There are many ways to improve reading fluency. The first rule of thumb is to remember that easy books and old favorites are most appropriate. Reading these books often foster additional practice and improve reading speed. Readers are not stumbling over new words, and are not focusing on the other reading elements, but are focusing on reading smoothly, and in most cases, automatically.

Become actively involved. One of the best ways to do this is through paired reading. This strategy involves two readers reading the same material at the same time. The first key to success here is that the adult reads loud enough for the child to hear both the adult’s voice and his own voice. The second key is that the adult reads slowly and at the child’s reading pace. When adults read with a child like this, and read even the most difficult words correctly, model fluent reading, show some excitement when appropriate, and stop at the punctuation marks, the child hears this and mimics this. Some parents complete all of the reading together. Other parents start reading together, but stop when the child signals s/he is ready to read alone.

A similar strategy is echo reading. The adult reads a paragraph, sentence, or phrase, and the child reads, or echoes, the same paragraph, sentence, or phrase. The first key to success is to determine how much to read. Some readers can manage echo reading a full paragraph. Others can manage only a phrase. So, start small with phrases, then move to sentences. The second key to success is to make sure the child reader actually reads the passage and doesn’t just recite from memory. Pointing to the words may help.

Reading aloud with easier books is one of the best ways for children to improve fluency, so try to increase that amount of time. Invite all family members to take a book to the dinner table so they can read a favorite section out loud. An alternative is to invite family members to read from comic books, graphic novels or newspaper comics, using different voices for the characters. Ask an older child to read to a younger child. This is beneficial because the older child will often find easier books that will interest the younger child. Be warned that just because a book is a picture book doesn’t necessarily mean that it is an easy book. Some picture books have high-level vocabulary words. The older child might want to practice reading out loud a few times before reading to an audience for the first time.

Once your child becomes a successful reader, there needs to be effort towards maintaining skills. Children who read 25 on-level books per year often maintain skills. More means improvement. Less means loss. Do whatever you can to increase “eyes on text” which is more reading, whether books, magazines, or on-line, and your child will continue to grow as a reader.




Help with Phonemic Awareness and Phonics

  1. Present books with rhyme, repetition, and rhythm. These include Mother Goose rhymes, Dr. Seuss books, and other poetry books.
  2. Take field trips. Talk about what you see. Ask questions too. Encourage your child to respond.
  3. Rhyming Games – “I am thinking of an animal that rhymes with hat. What is the animal?” Answer: cat.
  4. Segmentation – Pass your child some milk and ask: “What are the 3 sounds you hear in the word sip?” Answer: /s/–/i/–/p/.
  5. Blending – Say: “Here are the sounds of a word. Guess what the word is.” Then follow with the sounds /b/, /i/, and /g/. Answer: big.
  6. Continue with the read-aloud. Include alphabet books.
  7. Point to alphabet letters and say their names. Mix the letters and say their names a second time.
  8. Teach your child to spell his name. Write the name on a piece of paper. Ask your child to trace over and then copy.
  9. Look at letters, say the letter name, say the letter sound, then say a word that begins with that sound.
  10. Make flash cards. Play letter games such as Letter Memory or Go Fish. Play Tic-Tac-Toe. Use letters other than X and O.


Help with Vocabulary, Comprehension, Fluency 

  1. Talk with your child often. Use new words.
  2. Read to your child often. Choose books that are written at a higher level than your child’s present reading vocabulary level.
  3. Help with word attack strategies. Look for smaller words within words, beginnings and endings, common sounds, less common sounds, and context clues. Consult a dictionary, computer, or an expert.
  4. Encourage your child to ask questions about what she is reading.
  5. Ask questions before, during, and after the reading. The best questions connect the reading to events in your child’s life.
  6. Ask open-ended questions. Questions that begin with “why” or “how” often yield detailed answers.
  7. Make some text-to-self connections. How is the main character like you or someone you know?
  8. Easy books, those books your child has read before, and old favorites are most appropriate for fluency improvement.
  9. Paired Reading. An adult and a child read together at the same time. The adult reads loud enough for the child to hear both the adult voice and his own voice, and reads slowly at the child’s reading pace.
  10. Echo Reading. The adult reads a phrase, a sentence, or a full paragraph, and the child reads the same section afterwards, like an echo.

Bruce Johnson is an educator, reading specialist in Merrimack Valley School District in New Hampshire, member of CliF’s Advisory Board, and author of Helping Your Child Become Successful in School: A Guide for Parents. Learn more at

Leave a Comment