Literacy is much more than an educational priority – it is the ultimate investment in the future and the first step towards all the new forms of literacy required in the twenty-first century. We wish to see a century where every child is able to read and to use this skill to gain autonomy.
Irina Bokova, UNESCO Director General
This month we celebrate National Literacy Day, a day promoted by UNESCO and its partners to underline the importance of literacy to a healthy society.
Normally, literacy begins in childhood, and we’d expect that, by the age of ten or so, children should be able to read simple books and write simple essays.
But can they? The way to teach reading is a hotly-debated topic among education experts, but the fact remains that many children at this age can “read” (sound out words and string them together to make a sentence) but don’t understand what they read. They are concentrating so much on sounding out the words that the meaning is lost.
How can parents help? While we may have all read our pre-schoolers a bedtime story every night, we often expect that once our children have been at school for a few years and can read, that we no longer have a part to play.
This isn’t true. If your child doesn’t always understand what they read, there are strategies that parents and teachers can use.
Five ways to help your child understand what they read
Good readers see vivid pictures in their head when they read something that grips them. They know exactly what the characters look like and have clear pictures of the scenery and buildings. But not everyone does this. Encourage your child to visualise by stopping and asking: “How do you picture the dog?” “What do you think the girl looks like?” “Describe how you imagine her bedroom.”
When we read, we are constantly predicting what’s going to happen next, and then seeing if our predictions come true. At each important moment in the story ask your child “So, what do you think he’s going to do now?” “Will x or y happen?”.
Connect to your own life:
Lord of the Rings, voted the most popular work of fiction in the world, is about a make-believe world of hobbits, orcs, dwarves and elves. It should have no connection to our lives, surely? Yet many readers feel a deep connection to this work, in part because of its universal themes of friendship, loyalty and putting the needs of others first. Children should read books that they connect with and which interest them. Encourage this connection, by asking: “How would you act in that situation?” “Have you ever felt like this?” “Does this remind you of anything?”.
Summarise and ask questions:
After each paragraph or section, ask questions on what has happened in the story. “OK, so tell me what happened there.” “Why did the girl shout at her brother?”.
Use fix-it strategies when your child doesn’t understand:
Good readers recognise when they haven’t understood something and try to fix it. Encourage your child not to just leave it if they haven’t understood what they’re reading. Get them to make educated guesses about what new words mean, encourage them to re-read passages and try to figure them out, and ask leading questions that will help them to understand.
Helping your children read with understanding and become more literate is an investment not only in their schooling but in their understanding of the world and their whole lives.