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Keep kids building this critical skill, even during the summer

Hannah Jones, a member of Good Shepherd Parish in Shawnee, listens to an audio book while reading along on her laptop. Experts say audio books are great resources for kids that allow them to engage with text without having to decode words to do so. LEAVEN PHOTO BY MAUREEN JONES

by Susan Fotovich McCabe
Special to The Leaven

OVERLAND PARK — The pandemic the country is undergoing today will be the stuff of tomorrow’s history books.

But educators around the country worry that schoolchildren will struggle to read those books if parents do not continue to work with their youngster during these months out-side the classroom.

Reading remains one of the most important skills students should practice regularly. Even reading for 20 minutes each day can prepare students for the start of the next school year, said Julie Mester, a resource coordinator at Mater Dei School and reading specialist at Christ the King School, both in Topeka.

“During the early grades (kindergarten through second grade), students are learning the mechanics of reading, or how to read. They are working on the five big ideas of reading — phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension,” Mester said.

“This sets the foundation for student success in the intermediate years and beyond,” she added, “where ideally the students are concentrating on reading to learn, or understanding new material, in the content areas.”

When students return to school in August, they will have been out of the classroom for five months. In a normal school year, students can fall prey to the “summer slide,” or academic regression. The good news is that parents can help children maintain their reading skills.

Tell me a story

One of the best and easiest ways to do that is by reading aloud. “The Read-Aloud Handbook” by Jim Trelease has long championed the benefits of reading to children. It improves a child’s information processing skills, vocabulary and comprehension, and models fluency, intonation, expression and attention to punctuation.

Reading aloud also helps children develop good listening habits — important at school and in the workplace.

“Spending time reading together as a family, both silently and aloud, sends a powerful message as to the importance of reading,” Mester said. “Time could also be spent in discussing what each family member was reading — in effect, creating their own ‘book club.’

“Something else to remember is that people of all ages love to be read to.”

Also, never underestimate the power of fathers reading to their children. According to Fatherhood.gov, children whose fathers read to them read better and have more advanced vocabularies and better communication skills than children whose fathers are less involved.

Stay the course

In the early years — birth to 5 years old — nursery rhymes, songs, storytelling and reading aloud all provide opportunities to build early literacy skills, said Julie Bartz, a reading specialist at Prince of Peace School in Olathe.

And the only way to improve any skill is to practice it. If you can’t read aloud to your children as much as you want, don’t hesitate to turn to technology for help, Bartz said.

“Audio books are an amazing resource for students to access good, quality literature,” Bartz said. “Audio books allow students to engage in text, without having to decode words to do so. This is especially helpful for struggling readers.

“Hearing text read aloud can significantly help all students improve their vocabulary, comprehension and critical thinking skills. Audio books can also encourage independence and self-confidence as a reader at any stage of reading.”

Parents may wonder if they’ve done enough to maintain their children’s academic skills. But Bartz said don’t be overly concerned. Make learning fun, she said. Even if students do nothing, children will learn more than you expect.

Strategies for success

Still, Bartz encourages parents to keep a watchful eye for changes in a child’s reading proficiency. Bartz said there are five essential components to reading: phonemic awareness (sounds, syllables and words, rhyming and word play), phonics (pairing sounds in words to the written letter(s), vocabulary, reading fluency (speed and accuracy) and comprehension. 

Students need to develop each of these to become a fluent, confident reader. Difficulties in reading can be the result of a weakness in any of these areas, she said.

“In younger children,” she noted, “reading difficulties tend to occur due to lack of development of phonological and phonemic awareness in early childhood years.”

As children age,” Bartz continued, “if their phonics are not solid, they spend so much time sounding words out that it affects their understanding of what they have read.

“If parents observe their child often becoming frustrated while reading, it’s best to discuss these concerns with their child’s teacher in order to help the child as soon as possible.”

“A child’s parent is their first — and best — teacher,” concluded Bartz. “We, as teachers, will be awaiting your child’s return to school with open arms and will continue on with their learning journey, wherever they are at.”

About the author

Susan Fotovich McCabe

Susan Fotovich McCabe is a writer, editor and Kansas City native. As a writer, Susan has covered a wide array of topics, from health care to aviation and everything in between. Susan built a long freelance practice, where she contributed to local publications, such as The Kansas City Star, Kansas City Business, Lifestyle Magazine and Parenting Children with Special Needs. She worked for two Kansas City public relations agencies and a media publishing company. Susan and her husband, Bill, support all things Jayhawk and love spending time with their three children, son-in-law and granddaughter.

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