How to grow a reader

Tips for turning a fledgling reader into a voracious one.

By Peg Tyre

Once your child has figured out how to decode words and can actually read in a sustained way, then a chunk of his schooling should be focused on helping him squeeze meaning and richness out of the experience. You may remember the whole-language ideas about exposing kids to print through fiction, poetry, newspapers, and drama? It is the wrong way to teach kids to read. But getting kids excited about the written word is a great way to turn fledgling readers into voracious readers.

And here's where all parents should step up to the plate. You've been reading to your child, great. Don't stop. Books on tape in the car work, too. But now that she is a reader, surround her with print. Get a newspaper delivered. Get her a library card and make the library a regular stop, like the grocery store and the dry cleaner. And get over your view of what "proper" book reading looks like — fiction, nonfiction, comic books, how-tos, mysteries, sports biographies, magazines about current events, fast cars, sleek airplanes, or video gaming. Open the door wide. Find ways to bring what she is reading into the conversation. Ask questions like: What kind of book is it? What is the setting? What happens? What do you like/not like about the way the author writes?

Word by word

Similar but more formal versions of this should be happening at school, but parents can reinforce this learning at home. Watch for it. If your child is reading and sampling a wide enough variety of material, he will be encountering a lot of words in print that he doesn't know. He should be able to sound out unfamiliar words.  First, encourage him to figure out the meaning of unfamiliar words from their context, for example, what could propulsion mean based on the words that came before and after it? Then, see if he can tease out the meaning of the word by finding its root. For instance, the word propel is hidden in propulsion and gives a strong hint for the meaning of the word.

Teachers help students build comprehension through the systemic study of words. Yes, weekly vocabulary words. Kids who study words — by this I mean systematically learning their meanings — have larger vocabularies but are also better readers. It's not too effective for the teacher to hand out a list of ten words and have kids look them up and then take a test. They need to hear the words, see them, speak them, and write them that week and in the weeks that follow.

Word lists alone, though, aren't enough. Kids encounter an average of three thousand new words a year — more than eight a day. Unless the entire school day is going to be given over to word study (and no one thinks this is a good idea), teachers must instruct children on how to shave off chunks of an unfamiliar word and tease out its meaning by studying suffixes, prefixes, and the meaning of common root words.

Comprehension, fluency, and stamina should be growing steadily stronger as your child moves through school. Schools need to ensure that happens. So do parents. Do your part.

This article is an excerpt from The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids The Education They Deserve by Peg Tyre. Tyre is an education journalist and the author of the New York Times bestselling book, The Trouble With Boys. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, and other publications. Tyre is director of strategy at the Edwin Gould Foundation. You can follow her on Twitter @pegtyre.