My first tip would be to find somewhere quiet where you the listener, and they, the reader, can sit together comfortably, and preferably without interruption. This sounds silly, but children are easily distracted, and mostly they find everything that they are not supposed to be doing way more interesting than the things they are supposed to be doing. The less distractions, the better.
Make time. If you are distracted because you are thinking about something else and watching the clock, the child who you are listening to may feel pressured, and that you are not fully engaged with them. If they sense that you are giving them your undivided attention you will get better results from them.
Be interested. It is an unfortunate fact that early reading books, the books which build all the most fundamental skills a child needs for reading with, are generally rather dull and repetitive. It may be necessary to fake enthusiasm for the story, because you want the child who is reading the book to be engaged and motivated and want to get to the end of the book, rather than seeing the reading experience as a punishment. Try to find points of interest in the book you can share with the child to make them feel like what they are doing is worthwhile.
When you settle down to read, make sure both of you can see the book clearly, but if anyone has to compromise, it should be you, the listener, who takes the hit. Novice readers need all the help they can get, and if they need to hog the book to see it clearly, and feel more confident with tackling the words on the page then let them. Sometimes I find it easier to stand behind them than next to them. Simple things like making sure the light in the room is good enough to see by, and that nobody is forced to squint, can also make a difference.
Be patient. As I watch able readers helping less able readers I sometimes sense the able readers get frustrated by watching a younger reader struggle over a word that to the able reader seems so very simple. Sometimes they simply tell the word to the child in order to hurry the story along. It might seem kind, but it is not very helpful. The child who is learning needs to engage with words they don’t know how to read or say, and learn techniques that will help them in future. If the person reading with them supplies the word immediately they child seems stuck, the child will stop trying and rely on their reading partner to help them with every difficult word. Give them a moment to think when they come across a difficult word. If they are not making any effort to tackle it, then give them a prompt or a tool and help them piece the word together themself.
Meet the child at their level. It is not easy admitting that you cannot do something. Children who can’t read are often frightened to try because they are intimidated by the skills of the person who is helping them. If they are having problems with a word and they seem agitated by their failure to know it, it can sometimes help to show some sympathy. Use lines like: ‘That is quite a difficult word isn’t it? But I feel sure that you can tackle it with my help.’ or: ‘I used to struggle with that word too, let’s see what we can do to help you.’ When you are first learning to read, and you watch people who read fluently, it can be almost impossible for you to believe that you can get to that level of fluency, and that everyone else was once where you were. Reminding them, or sharing your own experiences with them can really help.
Schools these days prefer to teach children to read phonetically. It is what school age children will be used to using for deciphering words. Meeting their expectations by gently reminding them to use their phonic skills may be the only reminder they need as a prompt to get the word right. That is, of course, if the word they are trying to sound out is phonetic.
Many children sound out the word they are struggling with phonetically, and do it perfectly. I have noticed that they still struggle to then piece the word together from its component sounds. I have found that getting them to say the word sounds louder, or quicker sometimes helps them to ‘hear’ the correct word in their head.
If a word they are stuck on is not phonetically decipherable, you can try a number of methods. One method the school uses is to create a word list of high frequency, non phonetically compatible words, and simply get the children to practice a number of them every day, parrot fashion, until they remember them.
Obviously, if you are in the middle of reading a book with them, you may not be able to do this, but if they are already at school, they may have a list, and just reminding them that it might be on their high frequency word list, and asking them if they have seen that word, or practiced it before, can jog a child’s memory.
Sometimes you simply have to tell a child what a difficult or high frequency word is. The story is the most important thing when you are reading a book together. If the child feels they have failed on the first page because they cannot remember how to pronounce the word ‘their’ (for example), you do not want to let this hamper their entire reading experience. You really want to build their confidence and allow them to believe that they ‘can’ read. If they believe they can, they often find skills and resources that wouldn’t otherwise be available to them, simply because they feel confident. it is sometimes worth telling them what it is (after they have had a reasonable try at it first), and allowing them to move on. If you do this, giving them praise for the next thing they get right is crucial. You do not want them to dwell on what they can’t do. You want to build on what they can do.
With high frequency, non phonetic words I sometimes suggest that when the child has either worked out what the word is, or has been told, that they take a mental snapshot of the word. If they take a photo of the word and store it in their mind, they might be able to recall that picture later if they need to read the word again.
Other things you can do to encourage a child to remember a tricky word is to get them to make a visual image of what the word means to them in their head. They can then associate the word with the picture they have made, and use it as a visual prompt in future. It can either be a picture of the thing itself, like imagining a bicycle for the word bicycle, or something that represents the word to them if it is more abstract, like a smiling mouth for the word ‘happy’ for example.
Another way of tackling unknown words is to look for words within the word they are struggling with. An example would be the word ‘abundance’. The word is long and unusual. Children struggle more with longer words when they first start. They find it harder to hold all the information they need to process together. In these cases you can split the word down into manageable chunks, like ‘A – bun – dance’ and then get them to run the words together to make the single word.
Another tactic is getting them to use the rest of the sentence the word they are wrestling with sits in to give them clues as to what the word might be. Sometimes a simple process of deduction, using what has gone on beforehand, will help the child to guess the word. You can then give them time to make the link between the ideas and the word, and the letters and the word so they can remember it in future.
Picture clues are also a good way of helping a child find meaning in words. Early readers will all get reading books which have pictures that illustrate the text. As most of the books are part of a reading scheme specifically designed to help readers, it is likely that the picture will not be too abstract, and will be a great help in figuring out what the word is.
Sometimes new readers find it hard to keep their eye on the line of text and word they are supposed to be looking at. If they get distracted or confused, it can be very hard for them to find their place again, and the longer they struggle, the more confidence they lose. Help them find their place if they look lost. Sometimes they just need a pointer as to where they were.
Other times it can help to block the word they need to see by separating it using bits of paper or your fingers, so that they can focus on just the word in front of them.
With children who find it hard to keep their eye on the word I encourage them to use their finger, and move it along the words as they read. It helps them to keep their place and gives them a tactile sense of actually moving forward with a story.
Talk about the story with the child/reader. I have noticed that many of the children read in a monotone, barely look at the pictures and just want to get to the end. It is no good being able to read technically if the person reading doesn’t comprehend what it is they are reading. Talk about the pictures, talk about the words, ask the reader what some words mean. Try to incorporate it into a chat. Comment on something quirky or funny, or unusual. Get them to try to respond to the text positively rather than seeing it as a punishment.
Try to get the child who is reading to enunciate clearly. Often the nervous reader will be slightly intimidated by having to read aloud to someone else. This results in them using a quiet voice, which diminishes the more they struggle. It can be hard to hear whether they are reading the words properly. Getting them to speak up will help you, and them.
Listen carefully to what they are saying. A common problem I have found is that the child will read the first ‘sound’ of the word perfectly, and then guess the rest, often wrongly. They need to go back and break the word into all its component sounds if this is the case.
Quite often the child will simply guess the word you are asking them to read if they are unsure. I have noticed that this is indicated by only quick glances at the word in question and then the child will often look up or around them, searching in their head or their environment for inspiration. Sometimes a gentle reminder to actually look at the word on the page is very helpful.
Within school, reading books are only changed once or twice a week. If a child has reading difficulties it may be that they are asked to read every day. When this happens they tend to read the same book repeatedly. Although this can help to cement some of the words in their minds it often leads to total indifference on the part of the child, who is bored to death with the book (which usually wasn’t that interesting in the first place). It is very hard to motivate a bored child to repeatedly read something. It may be politic to give them something else to read.
The other problem with the child repeatedly reading the same book is that brighter children tend to be able to memorise the stories they are required to read. On the second or third reading it may appear that they are reading beautifully when in fact they are just using the pages as prompts, and merely repeating the story parrot fashion. In this case, if it is not possible to change their book I would advise getting them to read the pages out of sequence, or asking them questions about specific points on the page they are supposed to be reading in order to get them to actually re-engage with the text and the words they need to learn.
If a child struggles with reading a word, it may be that they are completely unfamiliar with the word. It is worth checking to see if they actually know what the word means. If they don’t, try to explain to them in a simple and interesting way what it means so that they can remember it for next time.
Sometimes a basic prompt is for you to read a page and then get them to read a page. If they feel like the reading is a task shared, it can seem less daunting. As time goes by and their confidence grows you can gradually move the lion’s share of the reading onto their shoulders.
Another way to help a child feel safer with a text is for you to read it first as if you were reading them a story. Once they are comfortable with the text you can ask them to read it next.
If the child is doing reasonably well sounding out the words then try engaging them with things like punctuation and other textual clues as to how the words should sound. Commas allow people to take a breath and separate pieces of information. Exclamation marks are for loud noises or excitement or fear. Try to get the child to inject some feeling and expression into their reading. If they read something in a flat, boring monotone, it will seem flat, boring and monotone, and it is little wonder if they find reading hard and something to be endured rather than enjoyed.
At the end of the reading session, if you have time, try to get the child to tell you a summary of what they have just read. If they cannot, it would help to go back to the text and see where they are struggling.
Use the last few minutes to not only get them to feed back to you what they have read, but to tell you whether they enjoyed what they were reading, and if they did, what they enjoyed, and if they didn’t what they didn’t like. It is important to get them to engage emotionally with the texts they are reading, as interested, engaged readers are naturally better at reading than indifferent readers who hate what they are reading. It helps them to think about the texts and embed some of the words and ideas in their minds. It also helps next time you come to pick a book with them, or they pick a book themselves, as they will have more idea of what they like or don’t like.
Try and find something positive to say at the end of every reading session. They may have remembered a high frequency word, or pronounced a difficult word beautifully. They may have put expression into their reading. They might have shown a great understanding of the text. Or they might just have tried really hard.