6 Tips for parents and teachers to help a child learn to read this International Literacy Day

International Literacy Day is celebrated annually on the 8th of September across the world. This year the theme is ‘Promoting literacy for a world in transition: Building the foundation for sustainable and peaceful societies.’

Specialist Manager at JET Education Services, Roelien Herholdt shares a few tips for parents and teachers on helping a child learn to read.

The results from the most recent Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) showed that in 2021, 81% of South African Grade 4 learners could not read for meaning in any language. (Source: PIRLS, 2022 results)

“Every 10-year-old child will be able to read for meaning within the next five years,” said President Cyril Ramaphosa delivering his 2019 State of the Nation Address. Ramaphosa further reiterated that early reading is a basic foundation that determines a child's educational progress; through school, through higher education and into the workplace. The reality is that not all children are able to grasp the technique of reading the same way. A lot of the theoretical work done on reading difficulties amongst children has been done. However, the most important thing as a parent or a teacher is to answer the question "How do I help a child struggling to learn to read?"

Roelien shares a few tips:

1.       Ensure activities are fun so that the child wants to do them over and over again

Building the child's oral vocabulary to include several thousand words in the language in which she/he will be later taught can assist the child to more easily recognise words. However, time spent in front of a television or radio does not count. Have meaningful and deep discussions about everything and anything. Teach the child songs, rhymes and if possible, to play a musical instrument, even if it is just a shaker or a pot with a wooden spoon. Encourage the child to dance and move to the music. Various research has proven that children are likely to remember things if they’re taught in rhythm. As a parent, you should read to your child daily. Your child should sit next to you while you point out the words to her/him.  Encouraging a reading culture at home can help greatly. Children love stories with a chorus that repeats itself. Let your child "read" the chorus.

2. Let the child draw and scribble freely

Let the child "read" the stories in her/his drawings. Allowing the child to read picture books in subjects she/he is interested in can also help the child develop an archive of memories and may help her/him remember things more easily. For instance, if a child likes aeroplanes, let the child look through a coffee-table book on aeroplanes. Parents and teachers can also point out words in the environment that the child can "read", e.g. Coca-Cola (logographic stage of reading) and later on the child can be encouraged to draw and scribble what she/he has seen throughout the day.

3. Teach metacognitive skills by using a reflexive pause and self-questioning

Reducing a child’s memory and attention load can help the child to pause and remember things. Teachers are encouraged to teach in small chunks. They can explicitly teach subject-specific vocabulary, using word walls, personal dictionaries and clue cards or picture dictionaries. A note for teachers: if something has been on the wall for longer than a week or a month, nobody sees it any more. Also, watch out for having too much stuff on the walls - it becomes distracting. About 50% of the walls covered is a good rule.

4. Teach segmentation using syllables, onset-rime and phonemes

The use of multi-sensory teaching such as feeling pronunciation, looking at pronunciation in the mirror and using plastic letters or tokens can go a long way in helping the child remember words and things. Explicit teaching of phonemic awareness, e.g. how many sounds do you hear in the word "man", what is the first sound you hear, the last sound, the middle sound, etc. makes it easier for the child. The alphabetical principle, e.g. the letter "m" represents the sound /m/ should be explicitly taught. A phonics programme must be structured and sequential, starting with the most frequently used phonics, regular patterns before irregular patterns, simple digraphs (e.g. /sh/) before complex patterns (e.g. /-tion/). Simultaneous teaching of graphemes (letters) and phonemes (sounds) is also helpful. For example, make sure that handwriting, reading and spelling lessons address the same letters and sounds.

5. Don't expect miracles overnight, praise each small step in the right direction, and be patient

Be prepared that most children have developed a protective emotional wall to keep the bad reading monster out. This means that gaining the trust of and convincing a child that she/he can learn to read is often the most difficult step. Unfortunately, more drilling and word cards will send most kids running for the bushes, so you need to be creative and patient. Praise the child if she/he recognises a word or a letter. Practice visual and auditory perception.

6. Sessions need to be short and attention-grabbing and pay attention to the pace of the child

Short daily interventions of 10-15 minutes are often more effective than a 45-60 minute session twice a week. Interventions interspersed by sleep are more effective. This is because sleep allows the brain an opportunity to consolidate what was learned.  Teachers and parents need to remember that reading improves reading. This means that with every word read, the process will get easier. Most importantly, start the intervention where the child is, not where she/he should be or where her/his peers are. This means you need to assess the child's level of reading and start at that level with the intervention. It’s important to remember that every child is different.