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Don't Neglect Your Child's Reading Skills This School Year

The teacher may say that their reading and spelling are fine, but if you sense that they're not, you may be right.

The first day of school for your child is more than special. It's exciting, it's hopeful — maybe even a little scary — and it starts a daily routine that will carry on for years. That holds true both for you and your child.

Of course, today's child is already accustomed to daycares, nannies, preschools, kindergartens and various camps, so the transition to a whole day of school is not necessarily a major hurdle — except for the big block of time away from home. That could bring on some anxiety and, if it does, you need to be calm and reassuring and set the stage for a positive experience. For most children, once the first day of school is over, they are able to settle in quickly with their new routine.

Your child's teacher is going to be a key ingredient in how well your child accepts the change and how well they start to learn what they are taught.

The most important skill your child faces is learning to read. Some children entering Grade 1 are already reading. If that is the case, then you typically don't have to worry about it, though you will want to expose your child to enrichment activities that keep the process of reading going in the right direction. Good readers are typically well on their way to being good spellers. So, as an enrichment activity, encourage your child to write in a journal so they can start learning how to put their thoughts down on paper. Help them edit their spelling.

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Learning to spell a word helps develop the connection between letters and sounds, especially between those letters and sounds in the middle of a word. By learning to spell words accurately, the child's reading is simultaneously improved. Many educators downplay the importance or even necessity of learning to spell well because of computer advancements such as spell-check. Spell-checkers are helpful to all students, even good spellers, but they are not a substitute for learning how to spell in the first place.

Watch, in your child's spelling, to see if they have a letter for each sound in the word. If not, help them break the word into its sounds first, and then show them how the letter or letters represent that sound. For example, if the word is "boat" and your child spells it as "bot," that is actually phonetically quite regular. They do have a letter for each sound. So, you can leave it alone and hope your child eventually learns the correct spelling, or you can do a little "in the moment" teaching as follows.

First, help your child segment that word into its respective sounds with language like: "So what are the sounds in the word 'boat'"? Your child should say /b/, /oe/, and /t/. You can then show them that they were correct with two of the letters and that the letter "o" can be /oe/ in some words (like "told), but in the word "boat," we need the letters "oa" to represent the /oe/ sound. Your child will need to pay attention to which letter or letters are used for every word they learn to spell.

This exercise also helps demonstrate that the same sound in English can be spelled in different ways. That is the frustrating thing about English as our alphabet system is not a regular one the way that, say, Spanish and Italian are regular, where each letter in those languages is almost always pronounced the same way. If you see the letter "i" in a Spanish word, for example, it is always pronounced as /ee/.

It would be rare indeed if your child's teacher went as far as the above example on the first day of school — this kind of direct teaching may not happen at all.

The example above may seem complex, but the concept that a letter is used to represent a sound is absolutely critical in learning to read. To become proficient at this marvellously complex act, your young child needs to understand that spoken words consist of sounds and that each sound can be represented by one or more letters. Many children learn this relationship quite quickly, so that by the end of Grade 2, they are reading and spelling fluently. The activity of segmenting a word into its sounds and then representing the sound with a letter is not beyond a Grade 1 student. It can and should be taught even at a kindergarten level.

It would be rare indeed if your child's teacher went as far as the above example on the first day of school — this kind of direct teaching may not happen at all. That means that you, the parent, must be very diligent about ensuring that your child is progressing as a reader. Early warning signs such as not knowing the letters of the alphabet by the end of kindergarten, a history of reading issues in your family and difficulty with sounding out and spelling simple words like "mat," which are highly regular, should be taken seriously. Teacher observations and feedback to you are also critical, but not always accurate either.

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If you sense, contrary to what your child's teacher is saying, that your child's reading and spelling are not coming along the way they should, you may very well be right. At The Reading Foundation, every day we encounter five- and six-year-old students who are very much "at risk" for learning to read, yet the warning signs are ignored or not noticed. Early intervention can set the stage for lifelong reading. There is a tremendous amount of scientific research on how reading should be taught and the importance of providing struggling readers with the kind of structured teaching they need to become successful.

But on the first day of school for your child, just make sure they brush their teeth, comb their hair, dress nicely and put on a smile. If you sense they might be a little anxious, then reading a book to them like Llama, Llama Misses Mama should reassure them that all will be well.

Of course, you will be taking your child to school and introducing yourself to the teacher, also with your warmest smile, because you know that a good education is both needed and wonderful.

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