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By now, you may be aware of how much time goes into teaching your first grader reading skills. Homework! Reading books! Worksheets! Writing assignments! First grade in the U.S. is often much more academic than kindergarten, and a lot of children struggle during this transition.

My daughter loved everything about kindergarten: the songs, the play centers, the story time. All of it was so fun. But when she started first grade, she got the look of a soldier coming home from battle. Quiet and weary. When she came home, and I asked how her day went, her typical response was, “The same.”

In a lot of first grade classrooms, “the same” means reading, writing, and math — with a strong emphasis on reading. This is because by second grade, students are expected to build on these reading skills and begin to gather their own knowledge through books, websites, and other classroom materials.

So how can you help your child learn to read, without overwhelming her? The key is to keep your child’s love of learning alive.

Start by making story time the best time ever, meaning that it’s both fun and active. Fun, because your child gets to cuddle up with you and really gets your whole attention. Yes, you’re exhausted, but even a little of your undivided attention will go a long way with associating reading with one of the things your child loves most: you.

Make story time active by making sure that reading time is also conversation time. When you read with your child, ask fun, silly, irresistible questions along the way. This is a time to be curious, thought-provoking, and imaginative. The point isn’t to quiz your child like a serious teacher but to extend the learning that begins in the book. For example, if you’re reading a book about volcanoes, ask your child if she would like to hike up to the edge of a volcano. Why or why not? Did your child know that there are volcanoes that are asleep and people do hike inside them?

If you’re reading a book about a bull who refused to fight in a bullfight and preferred to smell the flowers, ask your child why the bull doesn’t want to fight. If your child was a bull, would he be a fighter or a flower smeller? Why?

If you’re reading a story about a boy who draws a whole world with a purple crayon, ask your child what she would draw if she had a magic purple crayon. Tell a story about how you imagined something before it happened and then made it come true.

As your child learns to read, you can ask her to read part of the story as well. When you do, make sure your focus stays on exploring the meaning of the book, not just sounding out words. Though this sort of conversational reading time may mean you read fewer books every night, the experience will be more memorable for your child. Why? Because your son or daughter will have been an active participant in the process — and research shows being an active participant is essential to learning.

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