Reading tips for every grade

Expert tricks to improve your Kindergartner through 5th grader’s reading.

By Carol Lloyd

Kindergarten

Sometimes kindergartners skip an important step when learning to read— a crucial step that, if missed, makes reading harder later. In teacher speak, it’s called phonemic awareness, and it means learning that every word is a combination of sounds. Before kids learn to sound out words on a page, it’s best if they first get that every spoken word — big, small, or silly — is made up of sounds.

Do this: Practice breaking some spoken words into sounds. “What sounds are in cat?” you might ask your child. “Let’s say the word slowly together. Cat: kuh-a-tuh. Cat.” Don’t even worry about connecting this to the spelling of the word. (That’s another lesson.) After you’ve practiced with a few easy words, try some harder ones like breakfast or window. Again, don’t worry about linking this to a spelling or reading lesson. The important thing is for your child to feel confident in his ability to hear the sounds in words.

Read more about your kindergartner and reading.

First grade

For many kids, it’s a difficult transition to go from recognizing a few sight words to being able to sound out words in a simple but unfamiliar book. Teachers tell parents to have their children read with them every night, but how do you read with your child when she gets frustrated after painstakingly sounding out a single sentence? How do you get through a whole book?

Try this: Pick a storybook (not necessarily an early-reader book) that your child knows extremely well and have her read it to you aloud. Some of the book will no doubt be memorized, but she’ll also need to fall back on her decoding skills. Rhyming stories (like any of the Madeline series or Dr. Seuss books) work great because they have a musicality that makes them easy to memorize. This can give your early reader a taste of success, especially when even the simplest “I can read” books are mostly lessons in frustration.

Read more about your first grader and reading.

Second grade

At this age, children’s story comprehension may far exceed their technical reading skills. For instance, at this point your child probably knows a lot of sight words and has some general decoding skills, but she may not be able to read fast enough to really enjoy the story or even understand it.

How can you smooth the transition to reading for pleasure? Help your child jump to the next level by working on her automaticity. What does that mean? Help her grow her list of sight words, so that she’s not sounding out quite so much. You can start with a list of second grade sight words from us . Better yet: make your own based on your child’s reading.

Do this: Tell your child she’s going on a word hunt. Explain that the hunt will begin by her looking for (and catching) some of the sneaky words that give her trouble. Have your child read a few passages that may be just beyond her reading ability but are in stories she enjoys. Write down between 10 and 20 high-frequency words she has trouble with (or simply has to slow down to read). They might be strangely spelled words, like again, which, or knees, or longer, multi-syllabic but everyday words like because, necessary, and sometimes. After you’ve caught these wild words, capture them on flash cards to “tame” them. Have your child spend a little time every day studying these words until she gets to know them and they don’t give her trouble anymore.

Read more about your second grader and reading.

Third grade

For reading, this is a big year. Third graders are expected to go from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” It sounds so easy, doesn’t it? As if by spending enough days sitting at their desks, third graders will magically make the switch. One day they’re soldiering through sounding out words, and the next they’re using books to conduct research, enjoy literature, and learn about the universe! For most kids, though, the transition from reading being the focus of learning to a tool for learning other things means a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. (Well, maybe not blood, but you get the point.)

What can you if your child finds this transition tough? It may be tempting to stop reading to your child and fixate on his “learning to read” weaknesses — by making him read aloud or by himself. But research suggests this would be a mistake. One study found that kids improve their reading faster by having challenging conversations that build vocabulary rather than by focusing only on decoding strategies.

Do this: Make sure your child doesn’t fall behind when it comes to reading to learn. Sure, he might not be able to crack open a reference book and find the right information for a science project, but that doesn’t mean he can’t learn the same information as the kid who’s already comfortable reading advanced texts. During this period, read challenging books aloud to him, use words he doesn’t know in conversation, and talk about big topics: world affairs, history, whatever he’s interested in. In other words, make sure your communication packs some serious learning power. That way, when his decoding skills finally catch up, he won’t be behind in learning what teachers call “context” — all the words, ideas, and information we need to become educated.

Read more about your third grader and reading.

Fourth grade

The reading demands on kids jump a level this year. Suddenly there are reports, multi-week projects, and — at the end of the year — anxiously anticipated standardized tests. It’s also the year that marks the rise of what’s sometimes called “shut-down learners.”  Kids who, for whatever mixture of reasons, have decided they hate school.

What does this have to do with reading? You might be surprised. At this age, kids begin to notice that reading groups have different levels of readers. They may be sensitive and feel that these learning tracks are unfair. This can happen even if children are basically on track with their reading. In fourth grade, reading abilities can vary widely — from kids who are just beginning the simplest chapter books to those who are reading novels aimed at teens. It’s also the point when most kids have a huge potential to learn about a topic in-depth. With the right mix of books, encouragement, and projects, fourth graders can become little scientists, gourmet cookie chefs, devoted artists, or thoughtful storytellers. The key is to help your child tap into his passions.

Try this: Spend a weekend morning finding the right books — this could mean a trip to a great library or bookstore or approaching someone with the same interests as your child for book recommendations. At this point, it’s not enough for your child to read only the stuff assigned at school. Nor should he just read the hot book all his friends are reading. He needs access to books that allow him to dive deep into his own special view of the world — and to see that, whatever happens in school, books are there for him.

Read more about your fourth grader and reading.

Fifth grade

Suddenly, this year kids are asked to read a wide range of materials, synthesize ideas, and formulate arguments in essays or reports. For a lot of children, this leap to analyzing reading material reveals weaknesses in their reading comprehension. In fact, even kids who seemed to be great readers (in terms of fluency and decoding) when they were younger might now confess that they understand little of what they read. So what can you do to boost reading comprehension at this age?

Try this: Have your child write a summary of everything he reads. For instance, if your child reads 20 to 30 minutes a night, have him spend the last five minutes summarizing what he’s read. If he balks at this, have him report to you what happened in the book and ask him a few key questions. This will make reading comprehension not something he only does when a writing assignment comes along but a daily, almost instinctual habit.

Read more about your fifth grader and reading.

is the executive editor of GreatSchools and mother to two raucous daughters, ages 9 and 13.