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How to Help a Child Read Better

U of A researcher offers tips based on successful reading intervention program

By Chelsea Novak

February 23, 2023 •

Children are struggling to bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on their learning, particularly those in younger grades who were already struggling with reading.

Fortunately, a U of A research team has created and tested an evidence-based program to help get students back on track — with A+ results.

“To the best of my knowledge, this is the best success that any reading intervention has had in North America,” says George Georgiou, a professor in the Faculty of Education and director of the U of A Reading Research Laboratory.

Teachers in the program were trained to work with small groups of students four times a week over several months, focusing on phonological awareness, phonics, irregular word reading and shared book reading. In the latest study of 362 students in grades 2 and 3, 80 per cent improved by one and a half grade levels over four and a half months and 70 per cent no longer needed extra help.

While the reading program is designed for teachers, Georgiou says parents and caregivers can provide support at home with similar techniques. He feels strongly that early literacy intervention is everyone’s responsibility — from teachers, to parents, to the Ministry of Education.

“To increase our chances in reducing reading difficulties, we need everybody on board,” he says. “As we say, it takes a village.”

He offers three tips to help children discover the pleasure of reading.

1. Read together for about 30 minutes a day

Active reading is most effective, says Georgiou. That means asking children about what they’re reading, including questions about characters and plot as well as individual words and their meaning.

Georgiou recommends choosing books with decodable text — that is books with words that can be sounded out using phonics. Irregular words that don’t follow phonetic rules, like “mother,” “people” and “should,” can be frustrating for early readers.

“At the beginning of reading, it is advisable to use decodable text to increase the chances that the kids will be reading them correctly, and then that boosts their confidence to read further.”

As soon as kids start being able to read on their own, ideally by the middle of Grade 1, they should be encouraged to read to themselves every day.

2. Have fun with phonics

Phonological awareness is the ability to identify and manipulate the sounds of spoken language. Phonics — learning to convert letters to sounds — is central to understanding how to decode words.

The example Georgiou gives is to ask a child what sound the word “cat” starts with. Then have them remove the “c” sound and replace it with a “f” sound and ask them to sound out the new word.

“It’s important because when the kids are reading, they are blending the sounds of the letters together to read the words, so they need to be able to blend sounds.”

3. Check in with teachers and check out free resources

Georgiou recommends that parents keep in touch with teachers to check in on their children’s progress. Make sure their reading ability is being assessed regularly so any problems can be identified early on.

Free programs or resources such as Abracadabra, Sight Words or ReadWorks are great resources for home learning, says Georgiou. They focus on the foundational literacy skills and can complement what kids are learning at school. He specifically recommends Abracadabra, which has been tested and validated.

He advises parents to be wary of some of the free online programs out there. Many companies created online learning programs during the pandemic, but most have not been empirically tested. “Many of the programs I have seen in the last year and a half have absolutely zero research behind them.”

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