When a child is struggling to learn to read, I often hear the recommendation, “You should read with your child every day”.  When I inquire about homework or a home reading plan, parents often respond that they have been instructed to read to their children. They may talk about an online reading program that they are using.

Now, of course, reading to your children is a good idea! It can create a stronger family bond, it can instil an appreciation for reading and a fondness for stories. Reading aloud to your child can help them learn new vocabulary and contribute to comprehension processes such as learning narrative structures or “story grammar”.

However, we want to be conscious of expectations. If your child is in Grade 2 or beyond, and is struggling to learn to read, then reading aloud to your child is not going to make THE difference.

Typical children learn to read from exposure to literacy and some basic instruction. It takes time, but not a lot of real effort or specific instruction. Through exposure to print, most brains are exceptional at statistical learning, pattern recognition, and recognizing and processing abstractions from those patterns.

There is a code for how letters or letter combinations correspond to the sounds of spoken language. That code has a multitude of probabilities embedded in it, and with most children, that code gets cracked through statistical learning and exposure as children are read to and as they practise reading themselves.

A child in Gr. 2 who HAS HAD the necessary exposure but is not yet reading is not going to suddenly pick it up from being read to. Their brain is simply not adept at statistical learning and pattern recognition. All of those patterns and abstractions need to be explicitly taught. Reading to a child with this learning profile MAY impact their relationship to reading and boost their overall comprehension a little, but it is going to do little for their ability to read.

This is something I see often: programs and strategies that are beneficial for emergent readers in K, Gr. 1, and early Gr. 2 that continue to get recommended in Gr. 3 and beyond.  Most of these interventions lose their value. If they were going to work, they would have worked by now. Most of these types of programs and recommendations are designed for typically developing children to give them the literacy experiences and exposures they require to learn how to read. Again, if your child is struggling to read in Gr. 2, reading to your child is not going to make the difference.

So that’s reading TO your child – what about reading WITH your child?

Sitting down to listen to your child read aloud is much more valuable. You can call attention to their errors to help them learn to self-monitor and self-repair mistakes. This helps develop self-reflection and meta-cognitive skills. You can also cue and prompt when they approach a difficult word to help them process it.

What is most important here is that you avoid Partial Cue Analysis. You want to avoid reinforcing a strategy of guessing. We often hear prompts such as “look again”, “does that sound right” or “does that make sense”. These types of cues do not teach anything. There is no instruction in this Partial Cue about how to approach or process the word differently. This teaches the student a strategy of guessing, of focusing on one property of the word in isolation. It often gets the child through the word and through the sentence, but it doesn’t teach anything – they are very likely to mis-read that word again the next time they encounter it. Reading with your child using Partial-Cue Analysis is ineffective to teach them how to read.

In my experience, it also creates a LOT of frustration in children – and often in parents as well. As it is ineffective, a child is often left feeling like they are trying their hardest but their best just isn’t good enough. They DID look again, and they took a guess as to what it could say!!  Sadly, guessing isn’t going to help.

When reading with your child, instead provide Full Cue Analysis to have the child process the word at the visual, sound, and meaning processing levels. This multi-linguistic cueing approach activates a representation of the word in three important brain areas SIMULTANEOUSLY and promotes neural connections between those brain areas. It has been shown to lead to more accurate and efficient processing of words when reading, more accurate spelling, and long-term permanent storage. In other words, when this type of cueing is used, words get learned and stored.

When using Full Cue Analysis, you may comment on anything noteworthy in the word: a base word or an affix, a letter pattern that is common or uncommon, a portion that is difficult to pronounce, small words hidden inside the words, other words with a similar spelling pattern or words that rhyme, or words with a similar or opposite meaning. You can work with the child to create a definition or use the word in a different sentence or context to explore the meaning. Draw attention to the linguistic nature of the word – is it a noun, or a verb? Does it have an open or closed syllable, with a long or a short vowel?  Which syllable is stressed? What are the sound properties of the word? Always remember to cue children to focus on SOUNDS, not letter names.

All of this information is readily available as a word sits on a page, and most typically developing brains process and acquire this information automatically through exposure. When the brain does not, it must be taught. When adults read with children, they must fill in the missing linguistic information – the Orthographic Pattern knowledge, the phonological components, the semantic information contained in the word, and the morphological composition of the word. Teaching reading this way allows words to be learned and consolidated in robust long-term permanent storage – that is when you really “know” a word.

We need to change the goal of reading aloud from “getting through the passage”, “reading for time”, and “recording a fluency score” to seeing reading as an opportunity to teach the code, the patterns, and the abstractions from the pattern. Take your time to explore errors, help children discover their errors, and guide them to think about how that error was made. Then TEACH around the error – DON’T asks them to guess again!

Brain imaging research informs us that several weeks of intensive and systematic instruction that is rich in language and sound fundamentals changes brain functioning. This principle of neuroplasticity is very important – through this type of instruction, brain structures activate more robustly during literacy tasks, and children actually form new neural pathways and strengthen neural connections between important brain structures. In other words, written language becomes processed differently, and more efficiently.

If your child is slow to read, consider that they may have a brain that is not wired for statistical learning… YET. Exposure and practise are not going to make the difference; explicit and systematic language-rich instruction WILL.