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How to build your child’s knowledge, vocabulary and reading ability

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Without a doubt, talking to your child is essential for building their language skills. The more they hear and use words in conversation, the more practice they get at phonemic awareness, auditory processing and sentence structure. Parents should talk to their children often and about a variety of topics.

But is just talking enough to build vocabulary and knowledge? Not according to the research.Reading is absolutely essential to a child’s mental development.

Getting a struggling reader to read is a challenge

Problem readers suffer the “Matthew effect“; reading is hard for them, so they read less. Hence, they fall further behind. In addition, more of their brainpower while reading goes into basic word recognition – not comprehension – so the struggling reader gets less out of what they read.

Yet for the good reader, it seems the sheer volume of reading helps with other skills – vocabulary, background knowledge, dealing with complicated sentence structures.

So it’s a catch-22: good readers get smarter and poor readers stagnate.

Challenging reading is important for general knowledge and vocabulary

Reading is essential for building life skills such as a large vocabulary and the ‘general knowledge’ we sometimes take for granted. Why is this the case? Why is reading so important?

Take vocabulary as an example – a rich ‘mental dictionary’ opens the door to reading complicated text and therefore self-directed, life-long learning. One study on how often uncommon words appear in English discovered that, on average, university graduates use 17.3 uncommon words out of every 1000 words they speak. By contrast, the average children’s book uses 30.9 uncommon words per 1000.

This means that a child learns more new words reading a children’s book than they do talking to their university-educated parents.

Reading material must be appropriate for the struggling reader’s age and skill-level

Is the answer simply giving your struggling reader more to read? It’s a little more complicated than that. The reading material needs to matched to your child’s age and skill-level.

For example, let’s say you have a 12-year old son who is a struggling reader. If you give him a book written for 12 year olds, he’ll struggle to understand the words – even though, if he could understand it, he would find the content interesting. Give the same reader a book for 8 year olds: he may be able to read the words but be bored by the content. Either way, he won’t find reading enjoyable or challenging.

This occurs because most children’s books are written with two assumptions: 1) that children of a certain age have particular interests; 2) that they have “normal” reading ability for their age.

So how do we help children who have problems with reading?

Helping struggling readers

1. Read to your child
Reading to your child, no matter their age, exposes them to a variety of vocabulary and sentence structures. Talking books or audio books are also a great way for students who have difficulty with reading to have an opportunity to enjoy texts and learn new information that they would not have been able to read themselves.

2. Support your child with assisted reading
Every struggling reader needs more reading practice but they find independent reading difficult. They need feedback and support as they read – but time poor parents can find it difficult to provide this one-on-one daily support.

To supplement your efforts helping your child to read, you can use the Reading Assistant program. It’s a reading tutor that ‘listens’ to students as they read out loud and intervenes when the student is stuck on a word.

Reading Assistant contains a variety of texts aimed at different reading and interest levels. The program supports vocabulary development and with frequent comprehension checks, keeps students motivated and focused on reading for meaning. Students can improve their reading grade level up to 50% more than students receiving classroom instruction alone, in the same time period. It can provide real help for those with reading problems.

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