When Reading Is Just Too Hard
NY's Largest Activity Calendar
NY's Largest Activity Calendar
Get editors' picks
Why Does Goldilocks Have Curly Blonde Hair?...
and Other Questions Parents Can Ask Their Kids to Help Them Learn to Read
By Susan Hodara
When Eric Palewski-Brumbach, who lives with his family in Manhattan, started kindergarten, his parents, Stephanie Palewski and Will Brumbach, were told by the psychologist who’d tested him for learning disabilities that he had only a 50 percent chance of ever learning to read. Now 16 and a junior in high school, Eric’s current favorite book is Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, and he also enjoys Shakespeare and Chaucer. What happened in between was a combination of the expertise of The Churchill School that Eric has attended since kindergarten, and that Stephanie says “turned him around”; the support Eric received at home; and Eric’s own perseverance and capabilities. “He is a miracle,” Stephanie says.
But she wasn’t always so confident. Diagnosed at age 3 with a hearing problem, Eric was already falling behind in preschool. “He couldn’t remember the alphabet, and when he tried to read, he’d hold the book upside down unless there were illustrations,” Stephanie recalls.
At home, they bought him books and read to him daily. “We played all sorts of learning games,” says Stephanie. “We sang the ABCs constantly. We had colored magnetic letters on the fridge. But nothing worked.”
It wasn’t until Eric started at Churchill, a private school that caters to those with learning disabilities, that he began to learn. “He had a wonderful teacher named Harriet,” says Stephanie. “It took her several months to figure out how to teach him, but she did — using tactile methods, color coordination, sounds.”
At home, Stephanie and Will found that when Eric could listen to an audiotape of the book he was reading, he found it easier to absorb the content. “When Harry Potter came out, he was 10,” Stephanie says. “We bought the audiotape so he could read it.” In addition, they continued to read aloud to him. Today, Stephanie says, Eric is a happy, nearly straight-A student.
While Eric’s difficulties learning to read were more severe than those of many students, they resulted in the same obstacles faced by many young students — the mastery of what reading specialist Marta Brooks identifies as the goal of reading: comprehension. Brooks is a Bank Street College-educated reading specialist (she earned a Master’s degree in elementary education, and a Master of Science in Education degree in reading and literacy) who is currently a reading specialist for grades K through 5 in Westchester. “The majority of my remedial reading students have difficulty with comprehension,” she says.
The reasons for this are not limited to learning disabilities, explains Brooks, who has also taught reading in public and private schools in Manhattan, and who works as a private reading tutor. “Some children are not as cognitively mature as their classmates,” she says. “Some require more direct teaching in small group settings. Others haven’t had the same literary experiences at home that their peers have had. But whatever the cause, the most noteworthy trait these students share is that they are passive learners.”
By this she means that they lack adequate critical thinking skills necessary for reading comprehension. “They don’t understand that readers bring a great deal of knowledge and analysis to their own reading experience,” she explains. Parents, she believes, can help their children become active learners who are able to make connections while they read. “Parents can model critical thinking skills,” Brooks says.
One way they can do this is through dialogue while reading with their children. “Consider the classic, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, she says. “Tap their prior knowledge. Say, ‘I know that locks are curls and the character’s hair is golden. Maybe the author called the character Goldilocks because she has golden curls.’ Suggest predictions. Say, ‘Whose porridge, chair, or bed do you think Goldilocks will choose? I think she will like baby bear’s things because he is little and she is, too. Let’s read to see if we are right.’ And draw conclusions, such as: ‘I think Goldilocks is curious because she examined everything in the house.’”
Parents can assess their children’s comprehension by asking them to retell a story they have read. “Some children connect to the story on an emotional level, and will relate how they felt about its events,” says Brooks. “Others will recount only the literal events, but offer no further insight into the story. In such cases, parents can prompt them to help deepen their understanding of the text. Ask them: What did the characters learn? What was the problem in the story? What was the solution?”
Another way parents can help is by modeling reading fluency when they read aloud. Brooks explains, “If a reader does not read with expression and observe punctuation marks, comprehension will be difficult. If children need more explicit instruction, parents can discuss why they changed the intonation in their voice. They can parallel reading to talking by making such comments as: ‘When I see a question mark, I make my voice go up just like I do when I ask a question,’ or, ‘I pause a little bit at a comma, but I stop completely at a period,’ or ‘I read a little louder because the character is angry. You know how I sound when I am angry.’”
Even when not reading, parents can help their children develop thinking skills simply by interacting with them during everyday experiences. “Rather than just telling your child, ‘No,’ ask them, ‘Why do I want you to study before you talk to your friend?’ or ‘Why don’t I want to bounce the ball in the house?’” suggests Brooks.
And most importantly, she adds, parents can share their love of reading. “They must show, not tell, their children that reading is more than a task to be completed in school.”
—As its name suggests, One Minute Reader can quickly help a child improve his reading skills. The program, developed by a reading teacher, has been used in schools for 15 years. It includes three steps — teacher modeling, which is accomplished at home by listening to a CD; repeated reading; and progress monitoring, to improve reading. Materials are color coded, not grade leveled; the highest is equivalent to a 5th grade level.
The starter kit, with book, CD and timer is $24.95; additional booklets are $12.95, at
—Hooked on Phonics, which has a pricey complete reading program for kids (CDs, workbooks, books and flashcards for $249), is now offering grade level skill packages that help kids at specific stages of reading readiness — and cost a lot less. The Learn to Read program, for Kindergarten, first, or second grade, has the some of the same musical CDs and flashcards, along with a parent’s guide and progress stickers — for $64.99 for K level, $99.99 for first or second grade, at www.hookedonphonics.com.