Strong literacy skills are among the most important barometers of a child’s future health and success. Nonetheless, “The literacy landscape is alarmingly poor in some parts of Canada, with 42 percent of Canadians [in those areas] being classified as low literacy,” says Dr. Alyson Shaw, a consulting pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario. To boot, Statistics Canada reports that between 18 to 38 percent of Canadian youth struggle when it comes to literacy.
What can you do if your child is having difficulty reading? With numbers this dire, parents need to play an early and active role to guarantee that their children become good readers.
“Early literacy skills are based on early language exposure and early language skills,” says Dr. Shaw. “We generally consider that the first three years of school, children are learning to read, but the rest of their lives they are reading to learn. So if they don’t learn to read in those early years of school then they’re set up for a difficult time later on.”
Exposing your children to books and reading at very early ages, as well as continuing to encourage a variety of reading practices as they get older, is essential to establish your child’s love of reading. Dr. Shaw recommends “reading with your baby or child every day so that it becomes part of your routine.”
If your school-aged child is finding reading difficult or baffling, Dr. Shaw suggests “choosing books that the child will enjoy but that also won’t feel too babyish, even if it is at a lower reader level for them.” Comic books or non-fiction books are good options here.
Parents can also use dialogic reading, a practice that involves having conversations about the books you are reading with your child. “Reading with your child doesn’t mean that you have to start at the beginning of the book and read a story all the way through,” says Dr. Shaw. “It’s more about engaging your child and using the book as a tool for discussion.”
The child isn’t just a passive listener in this kind of interaction. With older kids, it helps to ask more sophisticated questions. “For example: Why do you think the author wrote this book? What type of message do you think they were trying to send?” says Dr. Shaw. This kind of attentive and tender parent-child moment paves the way for a rich, healthy, and highly literate future.
How to Incorporate Reading Into Everyday Life: Tips from pediatrican Alyson Shaw
- Make your home literacy friendly. Have more books than toys so that when children get bored they’ll be in the habit of picking up a book. (Studies show that a home that merely includes books is one of the key predictors of reading success.)
- Have a basket of books in every room so that children can always find a book to look at or read depending on their age.
- Buy your child a magazine subscription or scope out your local library for reads on a topic in which he/she is interested. You can get a soccer magazine for a child who really likes soccer or a science magazine for the science enthusiast.
- Limit screen time. Ideally children under two should not be participating in any screen-based activities. Children older than two should be limited to one to two hours per day. That means more time for looking at books and participating in other healthy activities.
Tips from Anthony Alfred: Interim President of ABC Life Literacy Canada
- Talk about literacy beyond the textbook. A simple activity such as reading a recipe together in the kitchen becomes a teaching and learning moment.
- Make reading fun. Board games are a fun and simple way to integrate literacy and learning. Karaoke is another fun activity to incorporate reading, decoding, listening, and learning.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, November 2013.