Checking in on Your Child’s Literacy: A Conversation with Dr. Robert Needlman

By now, the school year is in full swing and most families are comfortably settled into fall routines. But busy schedules often leave both parents and children running between after-school activities, sporting events, religious classes, and more. Although life can be hectic in the fall, now is a good time for parents to take a moment to check in with their child – and their child’s teacher if need be – about how things are going in regard to reading. Research shows that strong reading and literacy skills in the early years create a strong foundation for future success in school and in life. In fact, students who don’t read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to leave high school without a diploma than proficient readers.  

So, what should parents do to ensure their children are on track for success in reading – and life? We recently had the chance to catch up with Robert Needlman, M. D., co-founder of Reach Out and Read, and president of the Greater Cleveland Reach Out and Read coalition, for his thoughts. Needlman is the author of “Dr. Spock’s Baby Basics,” and co-author of the ninth edition of “Baby and Child Care,” Dr. Benjamin Spock’s classic parenting manual. Dr. Needlman practices and teaches Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland and is Professor of Pediatrics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.

Anne-MarieFor many children, it’s less than two months into the school year. At this point, what should a child be feeling about going to school and being at school? Should there be a certain comfort level and sense of routine?

Dr. Needlman: By now, you’d hope that your child feels comfortable – even happy and excited — about going to school. For children who are going to school for the first time, it can take several weeks before they feel really secure about saying goodbye in the morning, but you should be seeing some movement in that direction.

Anne-Marie: In regard to reading, what should younger children (kindergarten through third grade) be taking from their classroom lessons at this point? And what about older children (grade four and up)?

Dr. Needlman: Kindergarten through third grade is the time children are learning to read. At first, they need to learn letter names and sounds, and begin to recognize and play with rhymes, and perhaps remember some of the words in books they hear over and over. In first grade, they’ll learn to sound out simple words, and then in second and third grade more and more complex ones. At every stage, they need to enjoy books – listening to them being read aloud, pointing out interesting pictures, talking about them, telling the stories, and making up their own stories. Some children unlock the key of reading – the realization that specific combinations of letters map onto specific combinations of sounds – earlier than others.

Early or late, the key is to keep your child engaged with books, loving them. Then, trust that the word decoding skills will emerge in time.

Anne-MarieWhat should parents be looking for in their children (both younger and older) at this point to ensure that their reading and literacy skills are on track for grade level?

Dr. Needlman: I think you need to talk with your child’s teacher about this. A good teacher can give you a very specific sense of where your child is in relation to classmates and to the expectations of the school. Doctors also have simple tests they can give that will let them know if a child is way behind or about right, in terms of the timing of reading abilities.

Anne-Marie: Are there questions you recommend that parents ask at parent-teacher conferences to best help determine their child’s reading level and feelings toward reading?

Dr. Needlman: You can ask simple questions: “Is my child developing reading abilities at the expected rate? How is my child doing, compared to the other children in the class?” A parent can easily get a sense of how a child feels about reading by reading aloud to the child, and (for children in first grade and up) inviting the child to read some words, sentences, or paragraphs (depending on age).

Anne-Marie: Although fall schedules are busy with work commitments and after-school activities, how much reading (either with their parents or alone) should children be doing at home during the school year? Can reading at home make a difference for a child who is struggling with reading at school?

Dr. Needlman: Reading for pleasure is a strong predictor of reading skill. So, it’s wise to set aside some time every day when the TV is off, and everyone settles down with a book. Go with your child to the library, and help find the most wonderful books that your child will take delight in. But even when your child can read independently, still make some time to read aloud. You can bring meaning to a story which is well beyond your child’s reading level, but not beyond the level of being enjoyable and fascinating.

Anne-MarieWhat tips and tactics can parents use to help get their children away from distractions at home (e. g. computers, TV, video games) and focused on reading?

Dr. Needlman: My main tip is, make it clear right from the start (and, it’s not too late if you haven’t done this already!) that the TV, video, and other electronics are YOURS. You decide when they can be used, and when they can’t. YOU are the boss; you need to be in control of these wonderful, but addictive, bits of technology. Children need the freedom from electronic entertainment to allow them to entertain themselves. If you carry your child everywhere, how will he learn to walk and run? If you allow your child to plug in every spare moment of the day, how will she learn to think her own marvelous thoughts?

 

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