Knowing your child’s reading stage and how to help them

University of Canberra

Learning to read is a complicated process and parents often wonder if their child is developing reading abilities at the rate they “should”. Research agrees, however, that reading (and writing) is very much a developmental process, which can look very different for different children, regardless of their age.

It can be very tempting to compare children of the same age in terms of their reading development. However, this is in no way a reliable indicator of how they should be reading at a certain age. Parents with multiple children can usually attest to the difference in their children’s reading abilities at similar ages.

Rather than judging progression by age, it’s important to think about learning to read as occurring in three stages.

1. Emerging readers

Readers in the emergent stage of reading are usually those who are just gaining an understanding of how a text works. They will display good book handling behaviours, they will know where the book begins and ends and they understand that print and pictures convey a message. In this stage readers can usually recognise a small number of high-frequency words (5-20 words) that occur regularly throughout a text.

When your child is displaying these reading behaviours, you can assist them by pointing out environmental print (words on signs, around the home, at the supermarket), talking about the meaning of favourite books at bedtime and making links between these stories and the child’s own experiences.

2. Beginning readers

In this stage of reading development, children are becoming much more familiar with different texts and usually start to read much more widely and independently. You may notice your child can identify many more high-frequency words (20 – 50 words) and they also begin to self-correct words as they are reading. While children may sometimes read slowly and word by word at this stage, they are still gaining valuable information from the text.

Parents that engage with their child at this stage of reading are assisting them best when they allow their discussions about the book to go a little deeper. Perhaps discuss what could happen next after the book is finished or explore different texts that the author has written.

3. Fluent readers

Fluent readers, as the title suggests, are those who can identify most high-frequency words automatically. They tend to read from a wide range of different texts with little or no assistance. Readers at the fluent stage tend to use a range of different strategies to figure out unknown words, including skipping the word and allowing the wider context to convey the message, reading on for more information, and substituting the word with a word that would also make sense.

When you are reading with a fluent reader, it is useful to begin discussions about different types of texts, their purposes and the characteristics of how these texts are made up. For instance, when looking at graphic novels, you could talk about how the author uses images to represent different aspects of the story and the impact that text placement has on how this is displayed.

Some common questions from parents

In my work with parents, I am frequently asked many questions about how best to assist their children at various stages of their reading progression. Some of the most common questions are answered below.

What do I do when my child doesn’t know the word?

There are a number of things that you can do when you are reading with your child and they come to a word they don’t know. My first piece of advice is to avoid eye contact with the child.

When a child looks to us for help with a word, we often want to save them, help the reading process move along and provide the word. However, this is an unsustainable strategy for the child as they need a set of skills to call upon when they are reading with you. Rather than looking at your child, focus your attention on the book. After all, this is where all the clues are to figuring out the word.

Encourage your child to skip the word and read on for more information, use the pictures for a clue, or even leave the word behind and continue reading. By refocusing the child’s attention back to the meaning of the text, the content of the text will help fill in the blanks. If your child has skipped the word and still can’t figure it out, drop the word into the conversation as you turn the page.

Should I get my child to practise individual words they’re having trouble with?

Learning words in isolation does not always translate to being able to figure out unknown words in texts. Consider learning the word duck: you could write this on a card for your child to learn, look at pictures of ducks when learning the word and talk about ducks that you’ve both seen at the park together. However, when your child reads the word duck in a passage about cricket, the meaning is considerably different.

The best way to learn words therefore is in context – in books. Point out interesting words that you encounter in the text after you’ve finished reading and think about where you’ve seen these before. Reading widely and frequently is the best way to build your child’s vocabulary and increase their bank of known words.

My child spends too long looking at the pictures when they are reading; should I cover the pictures so they can concentrate?

No! A frequent misconception about the reading process is that when children are spending too long looking at the pictures they are getting distracted. When a child is looking at the pictures, they are gaining valuable information about the meaning of the text.

The clues that are visible in the illustrations are often the best way to figure out the meaning of the text. Encouraging your child to flick though the text before reading, or doing “book orientation”, where you first discuss the book, its title and the pictures, is one of the best ways to help your child’s reading progression.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Ryan Spencer

As a Clinical Teaching Specialist in Literacy Education at the University of Canberra, Ryan brings a unique perspective and insight into the challenges facing teacher education. Ryan currently convenes and lectures in two first year literacy subjects for pre-service teachers, focusing upon effective reading instruction. Prior to his appointment at the University of Canberra, Ryan was Program Co-ordinator and Literacy Advisor for the U-CAN Read Literacy Intervention Program. The U-CAN Read program is a joint project of the University of Canberra and the ACT Education and Training Directorate and is designed to provide parents and carers with the skills, strategies and support to assist their children to read. Ryan has eleven years teaching experience across all primary grade levels in both the New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory public education systems. He completed his Master of Educational Leadership in 2012. His research interests focus upon parent education, engaging boys in literacy to improve their educational outcomes and the impact of new technology upon reading instruction. Ryan has presented at a number of education conferences in the area of reading instruction, most recently in Osaka, Japan. Ryan is a member of Australian Literacy Educator's Association (ALEA) and is a member of the Executive Committee in the ACT, currently holding the position of Treasurer. Ryan is also a member of the International Reading Association and the Primary English Teacher's Association.

3 thoughts on “Knowing your child’s reading stage and how to help them”

    Jo Whithear says:

    How do I help a child who has been at school for over four years and can’t read? Do I avoid making eye contact with them? Do I ask them to skip the words they don’t know – that would mean they skip pretty much everything. What about getting them to look at the pictures? There aren’t any pictures in chapter books. Should I get out the Kindy readers in front of their class mates?
    Please go to http://www.dyslexia-act.org.au if you need assistance for reading difficulties.

    Beth says:

    Hi Jo

    No, the information on supporting students to learn to read has been researched and found that the learner needs to learn the sounds of language, to manipulate the sounds and then match the sounds with the graphemes. An intensive program of synthetic phonics is the best way to teach reading writing and spelling. There is tons of reasearch to back this up.
    Good luck
    Beth

    Kym says:

    Perhaps different children learn differently?

    I have one son (who spontaneously began reading prior to starting school) for whom the above strategies work well. He resists sounding out and received a lot of pressure to do so when he was in prep. He was told that he would eventually get stuck if he did not use the sounding out strategies, and that he would not be able to keep up as the reading material increased in difficulty. Yet several years on, he still refuses to sound out and still reads and spells at a standard well above year level. Intuitively he uses exactly the strategies that the author describes in this article.

    My other son prefers sounding out. He has a more sequential learning style and as such, he fits better with the teaching methods that seem to be currently favoured in classrooms.

    I like this article for the fact that it acknowledges alternative strategies to those that are usually pushed at school; strategies which can be valuable for some children.

    I think it depends very much on the individual child and that it’s important to offer a choice of strategies and find the one that works, rather than employ a ‘one fits all’ approach.

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