Helping your child develop a ‘reading brain’

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By Elizabeth Nadler-Nir

Reading is not a natural ability – it needs to be developed through lots and lots of practice and a great deal of encouragement. For many this process is painless, but for others, it is fraught with difficulty and struggles.  In fact, acquiring this essential skill can be an incredibly frustrating experience for some.  Education experts do not all agree about what percentage of the population has a diagnosable reading disorder such as dyslexia, but it is very clear that while kids all read at different ages and stages, some otherwise average intelligence people find reading an unusually hard slog.

However, not being able to read isn’t what it used to be.  New technologies are revolutionising education for those who struggle with the written word, whether this is reading it, writing it or organising thoughts into a coherent and logical sequence— they are all connected.  These technologies are widely available and often inexpensive.  Most people have access to these tools, known as assistive technologies, on their smartphones or computers, without even being aware of it.

Because reading is at the very core of your child’s learning experience and academic progress.  Intervention must, in fact be intensive to develop what Norton and Wolf (2012) refers to as “the reading circuit” of the brain.  The ability to read fluently with good comprehension, at an appropriate level, creates more connections in the language centres of the brain and so a lot of reading at an appropriate level will yield the best results.

But how best can you help if you have a child who is struggling with reading? One of the first things you should think about is getting your child a tablet or access to a computer. This sounds counterproductive—you would probably be thinking that you should really get your child a heap of books and take away all his electronics.  But the reverse is true for children that have fallen behind in learning to read.  Children love technology and for the delayed reader technology can help them immensely, which creates a win-win situation.  Our children are “digital natives”—technology is part of their everyday lives and many are very adept at working at the keyboard, word processing, researching on the Internet, multimedia production, social sharing and navigating interactive e-books.  It is really a no-brainer to tap into these skills and allow technology to be the game changer educators, researchers and some parents say it can be in how we teach and how children learn.

To be successful, an online reading aid for the delayed older reader should incorporate the following:

A reward system that builds confidence

Delayed readers are generally already anxious about reading because of the pressure exerted at school and at home to learn to read.  Within this context, setting goals and celebrating each and every small success is so important.  It helps to take the pressure off them and make them feel that they are making steady progress.  It’s a little less lonely that way!

A system tailored to the reader’s needs

“One size does not fit all.” We know that each delayed reader has their very own set of reasons for struggling with reading.  The most successful interventions therefore are tailored to the specific errors and needs made by each individual reader.  One person may have a problem reading words accurately, another may have a very weak vocabulary and a third may be able to do it all, but have very slow reading rate. Others may have a “mixed bag” of challenges.  Technologies that can cater for these needs and reward children for working on errors, tend to be much more efficient in improving reading skills.

The intervention needs to be intensive and accessible

Look for a programme that involves repeated reading as a technique with an incentive to re-read.  By repeating passages, children become fluent, learning from their own errors and becoming less anxious as the material becomes more and more familiar.   However, the content must be interesting and language-rich as we do want our children’s language skills to improve through reading.  Drilling phonic stories like “the cat sat on the mat” could be detrimental—they do not capture the child’s interest, can be dead boring, do not encourage progress and can be very frustrating for bright, older readers. Phonic readers have their place, especially in the early stages, but for the older delayed reader, these can be humiliating.  Children should be encouraged to risk making mistakes as this is the only way we learn.  Learning behaviours should be rewarded – points, graphs, certificates—all of these work well.

The programme must work on the meaning of words

Steadily building vocabulary should be a distinct aim as vocabulary is one of the strongest predictors of later academic success.  There must be a way to check that the programme can measure understanding of the text—this is crucially important.

Technology gives flexibility but it must be monitored

Parents who leave a delayed and reluctant reader alone in front of a screen are not doing much to encourage reading.  This gives the child space to think that reading is harder than it really is.  It is important for parents to make using these tools a collaborative and fun time.

It can also the be the case that parents are not necessarily the best placed to be their child’s reading partner—we need to choose the best person for the job.  This must be a person who has time to devote to the exercise, is patient and has good reading skills.  The reading partner can be anyone older than the reader—an older sibling, an aunt, a grandparent, an aftercare teacher at school or an older peer at school.

In this case online tools allow parents the flexibility to know that the reading is being done—especially if they are involved and can check on the records.  Technology has become portable so your child can keep up his/her reading even during the long school holidays.

Our objective should be to create readers who are happy to read alone and understand what they are reading—obviously the ultimate aim of reading.  However, nobody said this should not be enjoyable at the same time—and with a bit of commitment and interest, parents can wire up their children’s brains for reading— setting the stage for future learning and academic success.

Elizabeth Nadlier-Nir is a literacy specialist who runs The Reading Language Gym in Cape Town. She is also the creator of the Virtual Reading Gym – an online tool she has developed to help struggling readers – visit www.virtualreadinggym.co.za.

Elizabeth is coming to Grahamstown and will be giving a course specifically for parents on how to support reluctant readers on Thursday 8 March at Kingswood Junior School. The cost is R300 per person with R50 for one extra reading champion. Contact info@virtualreadinggym.co.za to book.

The course will be followed by a demonstration of the Virtual Reading Gym.

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