This question—how can I help my child at home?—plagues many parents. When the McCormick’s tried to teach Ryan to sound-out words and answer questions about what he read, he snapped at them, pushed the book across the table, and threw a temper tantrum. When the Asher’s tried the same with Wilson, he sobbed.
If you typically find yourself in a one of these situations, where your child resists your help with reading, or he just can’t do it, what should you do? What guiding principles should you follow? The three guiding principles are straightforward:
Focus on activities he enjoys.
Capitalize on music, exercise, and friends.
Teach him to take credit for his efforts to succeed.
Focus on activities he enjoys.
If your child likes baseball, take him to games. Discuss them. In informal and enjoyable conversations, teach him new vocabulary he’s likely to hear at baseball games or on the way to them. Attach new words to ones he already knows. Define the new words for him.
Game 1—You: “That turf is great. It’s the greenest grass I’ve ever seen. It must be fun playing on green grass or turf like that.”
Game 2—You: “The workers sure keep that grass or turf in good shape. They must fix the turf after every game. I wish we had green turf like that near our place.”
Game 3—You: “Look at that turf. They must fix it up with new sod after every ball game. I don’t know if I told you this, but sod is another word for turf.”
If you think he’ll respond positively to seeing you read books on baseball, one with great photos, read them. Occasionally, show him a photo or read a sentence or paragraph aloud to him. Ask him if he’d like you to read a section or chapter aloud. If he says no, accept it quietly and gracefully and continue reading.
Capitalize on music, exercise, and friendships.
Music. People like music. It can change their mood. The right music can energize people and make pessimism disappear. As Karen Schrock explained, music is medicine:
Underlying our conscious impressions of a tune are physiological effects that can improve our mental and physical well-being. Studies show that upbeat, tense or exciting music can physically excite the listener... This ‘pumping up’ effect explains why so many people enjoy listening to rock or hip-hop while they work out—the music primes the physiological systems needed for high-energy movement... Energizing melodies tend to boost mood in general, waking us up if we are feeling tired and creating a sense of excitement in any situation…. On the other hand, music can be calming, reducing the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the blood, lowering heart and respiration rates, and alleviating pain. (2009)
So, if your child likes music, let him listen to music that he likes, music that will calm or energize him and perhaps boost his optimism and encourage cooperation. If you select the music, make sure it fits the situation: play calming music he if he’s stressed, energizing music if he’s sluggish, and, cheerful music if he’s despondent.
Exercise. Like music, exercise may offer children many benefits. After reviewing the research on aerobic exercise, Charles Hillman and his colleges concluded:
An increase in the amount of time dedicated towards physical health-based activities... is not accompanied by a decline in academic performance (p. 59)... [The] research... suggests that physical activity, and aerobic fitness training in particular, can have a positive effect on multiple aspects of brain function and cognition (p. 63)
In looking at the specific effects regular exercise on reading, Michelle Ploughman (2008) summarized the work of other researchers. She noted that one study found that:
Students demonstrated improvements in reading accuracy, phonemic skill, verbal working memory and reduction in inattention symptoms as well as accelerated gains in standard school performance tests. These findings suggest that the benefits of exercise are not simply cardiovascular. (p. 238).
I am not arguing that exercise alone will improve reading, as it did in this study. But given its potential benefits and the natural enjoyment that most children get from games and physical activities in which they can readily succeed, in which competition is absent or minimal, why not involve your child in such activities? It may improve his attitude toward learning, his ability to process and use information, and consequently, his learning. If done correctly, without intense pressure and competition, it may make his life healthier and more enjoyable.
Friendships. Good friends are important. Children seek them out. They influence children, make their day fun, add quality to life. Without friends, children are miserable. As children get older, friends begin to influence them more than parents. Helping your child to get and keep the right friends — friends who model the right behaviors, show the right values, and accept your child as he is — will likely pay great dividends. So if you want your child to value reading, persevere in the face of difficulties, and think positively of himself, help him meet and keep the right friends. Invite them to your home, take them to the library, encourage them to go bowling. It’s especially important to begin before adolescence. Often, by adolescence:
Peers — not parents — are the chief determinants of how intensely [adolescents] are invested in school and how much effort they devote to their education. (Steinberg, 1996, p. 138)
Teach him to take credit for his efforts to succeed.
When children with reading disabilities do poorly on something, they often blame themselves by erroneously attributing their failure to permanent, unchangeable characteristics, such as low intelligence: “I’m just stupid.” When they do well, they often fail to credit themselves for making good decisions, for making a good effort, for persevering, for using the right strategy in the right way. Instead, they attribute their success to “dumb” luck: “The teacher felt sorry for me. She gave me an easy test.”
To reverse this, it’s important for you, and your child’s teachers, to give him the right feedback, feedback that teaches him to tell himself the right things. Such feedback should stress effort, perseverance, and the right use of the right strategies:
You: “Ryan, you worked hard, you didn’t quit, and you checked your work by asking if your paragraph would make sense to strangers, just like we discussed. And because you did all of this, you wrote a logical, easy to understand paragraph. Nice job.”
Giving him feedback like this — over and over and over, and having it come from lots of people—can teach him to take credit for his efforts and decisions and can teach him that his decisions are responsible for much of his success. Here’s another example:
You: “Ryan, thanks for helping Emma. By listening to her and helping her find her book, you showed her you cared. Thanks.”
The Bottom Line
By themselves, the ideas in this column will not make your child a competent reader. If he has a serious reading disability, he’s going to need skilled instruction that’s focused, systematic, intensive, frequently monitored, and responsive to his progress. Nevertheless, these ideas can influence his success. They can take his mind off his reading difficulties, put them in perspective, act like deposits in a bank of mental health, help him develop the optimism that he can succeed, and if he tries and is only modestly successful, understand that there’s more to life and that his world hasn’t ended—there’s no need to become angry, feel embarrassed, or berate himself.
The good thing about these ideas is that they can help you avoid fights with your child and maintain a strong, positive relationship that will continue to help the both of you. Such a relationship can help you to influence your child, which can help him to develop or maintain the motivation to become a competent reader.
Hillman, C. H., Erickson, K. I., & Krame, A. F. (2009). Be smart, exercise your heart: exercise effects on brain and cognition. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 9(January), 58-65, pp. 59, 63.
Ploughman, M. (2008) Exercise is brain food: The effects of physical activity on cognitive function. Developmental Neurorehabilitation, 11(3): 236–240, p. 238.
Schrock, K (2009) Why Music Moves Us. Retrieved 9/30,2009, from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=why-music-moves-us&print=true.
Steinberg, L. (1996). Beyond the Classroom: Why School Reform Has Failed and What Parents Need to Do. NY: Simon & Schuster, p. 138.
Howard Margolis, Ed.D., is Professor Emeritus of Reading and Special Education at Queens College of the City University of New York. He is former editor of the Journal of Psychological and Educational Consultation and for the last 19-years he has edited the Reading & Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties. Howard and Dr. Gary G. Brannigan, Professor of Psychology and Chancellor’s Scholar at the State University of New York-Plattsburgh, have recently published a book on reading and advocacy for parents, Reading Disabilities: Beating the Odds. This column was originally published at www.reading2008.com/blog.