If your child has a reading disability, she may consider summer a time to leave her books on the shelf and take a break. And, after a school year full of reading drills and other interventions, who can blame her? She’s entitled to some down time, and a chance to pursue her passions — swimming lessons at the pool, for example, or a week at a wilderness camp — but don’t forget that kids with reading disabilities can lose significant ground over the summer.

In order to build reading skills, children with learning disabilities require lots of repetition and “cycling back” (that is, reviewing information they’ve already been taught) says Robert Kahn, head of elementary and middle school at the highly respected Landmark School near Boston, which focuses on language-based learning disabilities. Significant breaks from the learning routine erode reading skills; the long summer vacation can set kids with reading issues back as much as two to three months, according to Kahn. “The kids who have regular exposure to reading over the summer are better off,” he says.

You can help combat this summer slide by engaging your child in reading activities that are both entertaining and instructive. These activities focus on the three areas that are most challenging for kids with reading disabilities — language, fluency and comprehension — and can be adapted for a range of ages and skill levels.

Language: word play

Building a strong vocabulary, including a wide variety of descriptive words, will help your child improve her reading skills as she encounters increasingly complex texts. You can play these simple games on your summer road trip or when you’re hanging at home.

  • “What’s another word for….?” Your child gets points for every synonym he can come up with. Ask your child, for example, “What’s another word for couch?” He’ll likely suggest ‘sofa’ or ‘futon’. To help him build his vocabulary, you can add ‘divan’ and ‘settee’.
  • Sentence building. Special educator Jennifer Little, PhD, recommends constructing sentences to help your child enhance and use her descriptive language. Start with a flower, for example, and ask your child the color of the flower. If she replies, “red,” create a full sentence (“The flower is red,”) and ask her to repeat it. Ask for more information about the flower. If she says that the flower has green leaves, help her incorporate that detail into the sentence: “The red flower has green leaves.” Keep building until your child has created a long sentence, for example, “The red flower with green leaves grows under the trees in my backyard.”
  • Board games. Boggle, Scrabble, Bananagrams, and other word games provide hours of entertaining word play. You can create a system of bonus points for longer words, or words your child has recently learned. Have a tournament and get the entire family involved!

Fluency: read me a story

Fluency is the ability to read a text accurately and smoothly. The absolute best way to improve fluency is to read aloud with your child, says Landmark School’s Robert Kahn. “That one to one time is the key.” When your child reads aloud to you, she gets reading practice, and when you read aloud to her, you’re modeling fluency. That’s not all: the shared experience helps your child create positive associations with reading.

  • Ham it up. Take turns reading with your child. You can alternate page by page or character by character. When it’s your turn, read with expression, and encourage your child to also. Let your inner ham shine!
  • Make your own audiobook. Practice reading a favorite story with your child until he feels comfortable and familiar with it. Then, fire up your audio recorder (on your cell phone or computer) and record the results. Play the recording back so your child can hear how she sounds, and then do it again until she’s happy with the results. When you have a polished version, present it as a gift to a friend or grandparent – and be sure to save a copy for yourself!

Comprehension: build a better reader

Some children have little trouble with the mechanics of reading, but struggle to identify key points in a story and understand its basic themes. Posing questions and helping your child engage more deeply with what she’s reading will help sharpen her comprehension skills.

  • Mental movies. Ask your child to visualize the scene in the story you’re reading to help her link words with imagery, suggests educational psychologist Melanie West. Read a few paragraphs to your child, then ask how she pictures the scene. If she has trouble visualizing it, look back at the text and help her find words and phrases that describe the scene. Ask her to imagine and describe how the scene might appear in a movie. Have paper and markers on hand, in case she wants to sketch her mental image.
  • What happens next? After reading a few paragraphs of a story, ask your child if he can predict what is going to happen next. What does he think will happen if the rabbit steals the carrots? Does he think the farmer will catch the rabbit? How will the story end? If the book has pictures, encourage him to look at them carefully for clues.
  • Reading with purpose. Help your child read with a particular goal in mind. For example, before your child begins reading a chapter of a book, pose a question or two, so she can look for answers as she reads. For example, “When you’re finished this chapter, tell me two things the main character says to his dog.” Or ask your child what time of year a particular story takes place. Does he think it’s summer or winter? How can he tell?
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