Parent strategies for improving their child’s reading and writing

Family time is learning time. Did you know that kids learn most of their vocabulary outside of school, through conversations with family and friends? Or that drawing pictures during play time lays the foundation for reading and writing, even for the youngest of learners?

Families have always been an active part of the teaching and learning process, and they have become even more crucial during the pandemic.

The following research-based ideas are intended to be manageable, interactive activities you and your child can engage in to help develop their reading and writing skills, motivation, and confidence. Some of these strategies target specific age groups or grade levels, while others apply to kids of all ages. You’ll see them categorized accordingly. Try out two or three of them and make them a part of your family’s other important routines, like brushing teeth.

General reading and writing improvement strategies that will help kids of all ages

No matter your kid’s age, several factors influence their reading and writing growth, including attitude, motivation, access, and exposure. Think of the following strategies as tips for developing internalized mindsets, behaviors, and habits.

Model good habits by reading and writing in front of your child

Adults’ attitudes toward reading and writing influence children’s perception of the value of these skills. Having your child observe you while reading a book or magazine and while writing a thank you note or email to a friend helps to establish a recognition that reading and writing are useful and positive parts of everyday life.

Find out what your kid is interested in and get as many texts as possible related to that topic.

Be sure to explain why you are reading and writing to your child. For example, to learn about a topic you are interested in or to entertain yourself with a funny story or to thank someone for their kindness. Kids need to understand the value and purpose of the actions of reading and writing; knowing the why helps them be more motivated to read and write themselves.

Make reading materials—ones they will truly care about—readily available for your child

Kids’ threshold for boredom has appeared to lower in recent decades, particularly with today’s access to social media and video streaming. If we want kids to engage in reading and writing, we need to make it the most attractive activity for them. Kids are more likely to read when they see the value in it, such as building their knowledge about something they find interesting.

Find out what your kid is interested in and get as many texts as possible related to that topic. These can be books, graphic novels, magazines, or online digital texts. You don’t need to spend a small fortune, either. Your local library or your child’s school library probably have plenty of options to choose from.

Remember, too, that while reading on grade level is important, so is reading a large volume of text and reading for pleasure. Some texts may be below grade level for your child, and that’s okay. Some might be above grade level. If a kid is interested in a topic, they’re more likely to engage with a challenging text on that topic. Plus, a text that’s above grade level provides a nice opportunity for joint reading with another member of the family

Talk with your child…a lot

Children expand their vocabulary and understanding of sentence structures not only through reading but also through conversations with others.

Talk to your children about their day at school, about what they see in the neighborhood on a walk or drive, about their interests, about the movie you watched together, about the news, about anything, really. When possible, ask questions that will elicit more than a one-word response. A colleague loves asking about her children’s day using the popular Rose, Thorn, and Bud exercise, for example. Her kids share a rose, or a good thing about their day, then a thorn, a difficult thing. The bud prompt is for sharing something they’re looking forward to.

For more information about the power of language comprehension, see my friend Toni’s post “All about language comprehension: What it is and how it can help your child read.”

Give your child authentic writing tasks to help them find their voice and develop their sense of power

Kids are more motivated to write when they are writing for real purposes and real audiences and there is a potential for real impact.

Encourage your child to write for practical and useful purposes like helping create a grocery shopping list for the week; writing a get-well-soon card to a friend; writing an email to their teacher asking for clarification on an assignment; or writing a letter to an elected official calling for change. Heck, they can even follow the lead of adorable Dillon Helbig, an 8-year-old who wrote a book and self-published it by secretly stocking it on a shelf at his local library.

Kids need to understand the value and purpose of the actions of reading and writing; knowing the why helps them be more motivated to read and write themselves.

Writing can also have a huge psychological benefit for processing emotions. Encourage your child to keep a journal to work through and express their own thoughts and feelings. For young learners, this might be in the form of drawing pictures.

Literacy strategies for kids from birth through pre-K

Children in pre-K and younger are often called “preliterate.” This description is important because while they are not yet “literate,” they are engaging in many activities that establish a solid base for later independent reading and writing. Think of the following strategies as building blocks for future reading and writing success.

Read aloud to your child

Children’s understanding of language begins in the womb as they hear the rhythm of their mother’s speech. Infants mimic speech by making sounds, which are often effective communication tools to get them what they want. Toddlers start using words and pretty quickly they are stringing together complete sentences without ever having a single grammar lesson on sentence construction. By observing and interacting with adults and other kids, children learn to speak in full sentences before they can read individual words printed on the page.

Instill a bedtime story routine, maybe with those library books you got on your kid’s favorite topics. Read aloud environmental print, too, like store signs and street names. Through read alouds, children expand their vocabulary, their knowledge about a topic or idea, and their understanding of sentence structures.

Draw on the print-rich environment at home

Children aren’t born knowing what letters and words are. It’s a conceptual understanding (also known as print awareness) that they build over time with help from adults.

One of the most obvious ways to build print awareness is to install a bookshelf in your kid’s bedroom and keep it stocked with books from the library. However, print exists in other forms besides books. Post your shopping or to-do list on the refrigerator for them to see. Use sticky notes to place labels on items in the child’s room and around the house. Get them a set of magnetic letters to rearrange on the fridge.

Surrounding kids with examples of printed texts sets the foundation for understanding the alphabetic principle.

Engage in art projects

Through drawing and painting, young kids develop the motor skills and physical stamina they need to eventually write words, sentences, and paragraphs. Having your kid practice drawing individual letters helps to establish the brain connections they need to later map sounds to letters and letter patterns when they are learning to read.

Instill a bedtime story routine […]. Read aloud environmental print, too, like store signs and street names.

Make sure your child has access to materials like paper, crayons, and finger paints. You can also get fun (and messy) by having them use their fingers to draw letters in salt or even pudding (the reward is pudding for dessert). Let your and their imagination run wild!

Strategies for kids in kindergarten through grade 2

Kids in these grades are actively learning how to read. They are developing their understanding of  phonemic awareness (the individual sounds in words) and are learning to match those sounds with specific letters and letter patterns (also known as phonics) through the act of decoding. If you’re interested in more information about those two topics, the above links will take you to previously published blog posts about them. In the meantime, here are some easy activities to try at home.

Take turns reading aloud to each other

Students in this age group are likely bringing home decodable texts from school, which use the specific letter patterns they are learning at the time. Create a positive attitude toward reading by asking them to read these texts to you and praising them accordingly.

Continue to read above-grade-level books aloud to them, too. While kids this age may not be ready to read chapter books on their own, you can still build their understanding of vocabulary and language structures as well as strengthen their comprehension by reading more complex texts aloud to them.

Ask them questions about what you read together

Asking questions serves not only to measure kids’ understanding of a text but also to deepen their understanding by helping them think more carefully about what they are reading (or listening to).

Ask kids questions that start with “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “how,” and “why.” Ask them to predict what will happen next and what in the text makes them think that. These questions help kids become active readers who are able to make connections in a text.

To learn more about reading comprehension, check out my friend Shiji’s post “A new spin on playing catch: Helping your child understand what they read.”

Play word games

Kids this age are doing a lot of word study at school. They’re learning to isolate the individual sounds in words and to blend individual sounds to form new words. They are learning how base (root) words, prefixes, and suffixes can help them understand the meaning of unfamiliar words.

You can play rhyming games to support their learning of the connections between sounds and letters. You can have them dissect words for their different parts and associated meanings. You can introduce word construction games like Zingo Word Builder or sight word bingo.

Strategies for kids in grades 3 and above

For kids in this group, authenticity matters. They need to find real value in the reading and writing activities they’re engaging in. Also, if your kid is showing struggles with reading or writing, it’s important to reach out and stay in close contact with their teacher. They may need additional and targeted support with developing certain skills.

Listen to music, podcasts, and audiobooks together

While we might appreciate music, podcasts, and audiobooks through our sense of hearing, these formats all require a writer or team of writers to brainstorm, draft, and polish ideas in writing before hitting the record button. Share that information with your child, and enjoy these types of storytelling together.

[I]f your kid is showing struggles with reading or writing, it’s important to reach out and stay in close contact with their teacher.

Discuss and analyze the lyrics to some of their favorite songs. Songwriters make interesting word choices and use inventive sentence structures. These provide ripe opportunity to discuss how language can be used for stylistic effect and to build vocabulary.

It seems like there is a podcast for every area of interest. Listening to podcasts builds listening comprehension and oral language skills. It also might spark students to create their own podcasts, which involves a lot of reading and writing. Scroll down to my last tip for useful links on creating podcasts.

If students struggle with reading fluently, it can help for them to follow along a book while listening to the audio version. For more information about and at-home tips for building reading fluency, check out my blog post “6 ways to help your child read fluently, cover to cover.”

Practice digital citizenship by evaluating the credibility of online information

In today’s world, readers are bombarded with misinformation, but it can be difficult to determine what information is credible. The organization Common Sense has a curated list of websites and apps that help kids develop their media literacy skills as responsible consumers and producers of content. News Literacy Project and Media Literacy Now also offer resources for families.

Younger kids will often start with identifying text genre and relating it to the author’s purpose before moving on to distinguishing fact from opinion by examining key clues, like the use of “loaded” phrases. With ongoing instruction and practice, older kids become more skilled at evaluating sources.

If your child has a social media account, help them understand that they are participating in an authentic media environment and that their posts are examples of real writing that can have a real influence on others. Asking them to evaluate their own posts or reposts through the same critical lens as other online sources can help reinforce this understanding.

Encourage them to use digital tools to create new texts

“Real-world” writing today is digital writing. People use keyboards, computers, and other digital devices to translate their thoughts into sentences for an internet-connected audience to read. Your kids might already be using Google Docs on a regular basis to collaborate with their classmates. Technology also allows writers to embed multimodal elements to enhance their ideas, such as graphics, images, videos, audio clips, animation, and hyperlinks to other sources.

Ask your child to compose texts with digital tools so they can be better prepared for real-world writing and have the opportunity to geek out with technology they are drawn to. Check out this list of free multimedia tools your kid can tinker around with as they create new texts. Common Sense has another two lists of recommended websites and apps (with free and paid options), one specifically for making videos and animations and another for podcasting. Kids’ creative potential is truly limitless here. And they can “publish” these texts for real audiences. For example, NPR runs a yearly student podcast challenge with real prize money!

Putting these strategies into action

Reading and writing don’t take place only at school. They are essential activities in everyday life. And they involve skills that we develop over time with purposeful support from teachers.

Your official job title might not say “teacher,” but you are a huge influence in your child’s life—and that makes you a teacher. These family strategies for reading and writing don’t require special training, only that you and your child spend some quality time talking, reading, and writing together. You’ve got this!

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