How to Improve Reading Skills of a Child

Updated May 1, 2024 | Posted February 1, 2023
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
A young girl smiles as her father, also smiling, holds open a picture book for her to explore.

Read­ing well is a vital skill. Third graders who do not read pro­fi­cient­ly are four times more like­ly to leave high school with­out a diplo­ma, accord­ing to a study over time of near­ly 4,000 stu­dents nation­al­ly. Achiev­ing third-grade read­ing pro­fi­cien­cy also enhances an individual’s life­long earn­ing poten­tial and their abil­i­ty to con­tribute to the nation’s econ­o­my and secu­ri­ty, researchers have found.

Illit­er­a­cy places indi­vid­u­als at greater risk of jus­tice sys­tem involve­ment, pover­ty, pub­lic assis­tance, poor health deci­sions and more. Among devel­oped nations, the Unit­ed States has the high­est eco­nom­ic cost of illit­er­a­cy at $300.8 bil­lion, accord­ing to a 2023 report from the World Lit­er­a­cy Foun­da­tion (Japan ranked sec­ond, with illit­er­a­cy cost­ing the nation just $87.8 billion).

Schools pri­or­i­tize lit­er­a­cy skill build­ing from an ear­ly age, but fam­i­lies also have an impor­tant role to play in sup­port­ing read­ing at home and con­tribut­ing to a child’s read­ing pro­fi­cien­cy as they grow.

Why Par­ents Should Sup­port Read­ing at Home

One of the most impor­tant roles that par­ents can play in their child’s edu­ca­tion is sup­port­ing and nur­tur­ing their child’s read­ing abil­i­ties and love of read­ing. As the poet and children’s author Emi­lie Buch­wald has said, Chil­dren are made read­ers on the laps of their parents.”

Down­load Casey’s Engag­ing Par­ents, Devel­op­ing Leaders

Despite decades of intense focus, many schools strug­gle to teach all stu­dents to read. In the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2022 KIDS COUNT® Data Book, researchers found that 81% of fourth-graders in low-income fam­i­lies scored below pro­fi­cient in read­ing. These stu­dents, the data show, were about one-and-a-half times more like­ly to fall short of read­ing pro­fi­cien­cy when com­pared to their more afflu­ent peers.

Both pover­ty and race exac­er­bate this prob­lem: For Black and Lati­no stu­dents, the com­bined effect of pover­ty and poor third-grade read­ing skills makes their high school dropout rate eight times greater than aver­age. Even pro­fi­cient third graders who have lived in pover­ty grad­u­ate from high school at about the same rate as sub­par read­ers who have nev­er been poor.

Par­ents can exert a pow­er­ful influ­ence on a child’s lit­er­a­cy devel­op­ment, read­ing abil­i­ties and atti­tudes around lit­er­a­cy — and this influ­ence starts at an ear­ly age, the research con­sis­tent­ly shows.

Yet, from 2015 to 2016, a large share of kids were still miss­ing out on reg­u­lar sto­ry time. Over 40% of all young chil­dren, ages 5 or under, had a fam­i­ly mem­ber read to them less than four days a week, accord­ing to researchers. Nar­row the view to Amer­i­can Indi­an, Lati­no and Asian and Pacif­ic Islander kids, and the share of chil­dren miss­ing out on reg­u­lar read­ing ses­sions jumps even high­er — to 50%.

Down­load Casey’s Parental Involve­ment in Edu­ca­tion Report

For many par­ents, help­ing their kids to learn to read can be intim­i­dat­ing. Young children’s lit­er­a­cy skills encom­pass many aspects, among them:

  • knowl­edge of the alphabet;
  • aware­ness of the sounds that let­ters make;
  • abil­i­ty to con­nect sounds with let­ters; and
  • vocab­u­lary.

Ear­ly lit­er­a­cy skills do not emerge spon­ta­neous­ly — they require time and prac­tice.

How can par­ents sup­port lit­er­a­cy devel­op­ment and help to set their child up for future achieve­ment? Luck­i­ly there are many proven ways for par­ents to sup­port read­ing at home.

How Par­ents Can Sup­port Read­ing at Home

Here are a few tips on how to help a child who is strug­gling with read­ing or writing.

  1. Read Every Day
  2. Find a time to read with your child every day. Even a brief dai­ly com­mit­ment can will improve read­ing skills and con­vey that read­ing is an impor­tant pri­or­i­ty for you. 

  3. Make a Space for Reading
  4. Cre­ate a com­fort­able, con­sis­tent place in your home where you can read togeth­er, enjoy books and chat about them. You might even make it a place where food and drink are wel­come — these sig­nal that read­ing can be a social activity.

  5. Make Read­ing Silly
  6. Don’t be afraid to get sil­ly. Read­ing should be fun. Meet your child where he or she is, and don’t insist on seri­ous” or clas­sic” books. Sil­ly books, comics, ani­mé or oth­er art-dri­ven books are a good way to get many chil­dren inter­est­ed in read­ing. If pos­si­ble, act out or sing the words of sto­ries or find oth­er ways to enjoy books.

  7. Vis­it Your Local Library
  8. Plan trips to the library. Get­ting your child a library card can get them excit­ed about books. Don’t wor­ry about read­ing every book — library trips should be fun. At first, these vis­its may sim­ply con­sist of spend­ing time wan­der­ing the rows of books and meet­ing librarians.

  9. Ask Librar­i­ans for Advice
  10. Ask librar­i­ans which books are appro­pri­ate for your child and which books kids are excit­ed about. Below is a list of book rec­om­men­da­tions, grouped by read­ing lev­el, rec­om­mend­ed by the Elm­wood Park Pub­lic Library in Elm­wood Park, Illi­nois. Par­ents and care­givers can use book options like these to sup­port read­ing at home.

    Book ideas for pre-readers:

    Books ideas for kids who are begin­ning to read with assistance:

    Books ideas for begin­ning read­ers who are ready for a challenge:

    Book ideas for ear­ly inde­pen­dent readers.

    Ear­ly chap­ter book and nov­els for inde­pen­dent readers:

  11. Seek Out Adaptations
  12. Read books that are being adapt­ed into movies, and com­pare one type of media to the oth­er. Sup­port read­ing at home by using dif­fer­ent types of media to pro­vide your child with a unique perspective.

  13. Encour­age Writing
  14. Encour­age your child to write thank-you notes, let­ters, jour­nal entries and sto­ries about their dai­ly life and expe­ri­ences. If your child is uncom­fort­able writ­ing, sug­gest that he or she cre­ate a com­ic strip.

  15. Build Lit­er­a­cy With Oth­er Activities
  16. Enjoy puz­zles, mazes, cross­words and oth­er games, which enable your child to build lit­er­a­cy skills while hav­ing fun.

  17. Part­ner With Teachers
  18. If your child is strug­gling with read­ing and writ­ing, work with teach­ers to under­stand their approach to lit­er­a­cy and ask how you can help at home. Find ways to extend school lit­er­a­cy lessons when you’re home or out with your child.

  19. Lead by Example
  20. Show your child that you love books, read­ing and writ­ing — and that you par­take in these activ­i­ties every day.

Sup­port Read­ing at Home with an Ear­ly Read­ing Program

Ear­ly read­ing pro­grams can help par­ents and schools sup­port read­ing pro­fi­cien­cy at an ear­ly age. These pro­grams can aug­ment efforts to sup­port read­ing at home and can pre­cede kinder­garten or occur dur­ing school, after school or over sum­mer break.

The U.S. Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion con­vened a Nation­al Read­ing Pan­el to ana­lyze what works and what works best in teach­ing chil­dren to read. The panel’s researchers found that effec­tive ear­ly read­ing pro­grams have the fol­low­ing components:

  • explic­it instruc­tion in phone­mic aware­ness, which teach­es that words can be bro­ken apart into small­er seg­ments of sounds;
  • sys­tem­at­ic phon­ics instruc­tion, which teach­es that let­ters of the alpha­bet rep­re­sent cer­tain sounds and that these sounds can be blend­ed togeth­er to form writ­ten words;
  • a focus on improv­ing flu­en­cy, which results in stu­dents iden­ti­fy­ing words eas­i­ly, read­ing faster and read­ing with greater accu­ra­cy, expres­sion and com­pre­hen­sion; and 
  • meth­ods to enhance read­ing com­pre­hen­sion, such as sum­ma­riz­ing content.

The Flori­da Depart­ment of Edu­ca­tion has also iden­ti­fied the hall­marks of a good ear­ly read­ing pro­gram. Attrib­ut­es to look for include:

  • time spent learn­ing let­ters and sounds and how to blend let­ters and sounds;
  • read­ing instruc­tion and prac­tice last­ing 90 min­utes or more;
  • spelling prac­tice and tests;
  • school and class­room libraries stocked with books that stu­dents want to read; and
  • oppor­tu­ni­ties for stu­dents to read aloud and silent­ly each date.

Casey’s Role in the Cam­paign for Grade-Lev­el Reading

The Casey Foun­da­tion served as a found­ing mem­ber of the Cam­paign for Grade-Lev­­el Read­ing, a col­lab­o­ra­tive effort by more than 70 foun­da­tions and advo­ca­cy groups to move the nee­dle on ear­ly lit­er­a­cy. The ini­tia­tive calls for an inte­grat­ed approach, which start­s at birth and ensures chil­dren devel­op the social, emo­tion­al and aca­d­e­m­ic skills need­ed to read by third grade. This grade lev­el is con­sid­ered a piv­ot point in edu­ca­tion, where chil­dren shift from learn­ing to read and instead begin read­ing to learn.

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