At your child’s school Open House, the teacher explained that every student needs to read for 20 minutes every night. Several questions came to mind. What is my child supposed to read? How do I know what to pick for my child? Can my child pick their own book?

You have so many questions about this simple one task. If reading independently has not developed yet for your child, you should be reading to your child for at least 20 minutes a day. In fact, you should read to your elementary school-age child even when reading is done independently, for comprehension and vocabulary development.

Selecting books together can be a fun and rewarding experience if you are armed with some basic knowledge about the process. 

Here are some Simple Book Selection Steps:

INTERVIEW: Have a conversation with your child about interests. Make it fun! You can pretend you are a news reporter asking interview questions of your child. From the answers to these questions, you can come up with a baseline of genres for you child. Elementary age readers are usually high interest readers. Meaning, they read about what they love. As a result of this interview, you have learned that Pat will probably like non-fiction books or magazines about insects and animals. Pat also is interested in how-to books about crafts. Now that you have a base for picking books of interest, you can figure out what is an appropriate independent reading level at home. Interests change a lot in elementary school, so revisit the interview in a few months.

THINK ALOUD: Think about how you pick out a book for yourself. You look at the front cover, the back cover, read reviews, read the inside cover excerpt, read about the author, etc. You might even open up the book and read the first page. You may breeze through the pages to see if there are any pictures that might help you understand what the book is about before you read it. The same goes for children picking out books. Together, you should model and think out loud how you choose your own books to read. This helps a child connect to the book before they pick it up to read. It also develops in your child planning, thinking, listening, and learning how to find points of interest skills. When searching for a book ask your child to think out loud, and look at the front, back, inside, pictures, reviews, etc. of a book. 

FIVE FINGERS: A widely utilized strategy for deciding if the book is at an independent level for your child is using your five fingers to count each word that is unknown either misread, misunderstood, or skipped altogether (names are sometimes tricky so discount them). If your child counts five or more of unknown words in the beginning of the book, then the book is too hard. If there are less than four unknown words on a page, then the book is “Just Right.”

COMPREHENSION CHECK: After the child has read using the five fingers test, whether there were several unknown words our just a few, always ask your child what the passage was about. Sometimes children can comprehend well even with mistakes. This is an indication that he or she may need some extra help with decoding. If your child reads fluently, but then does not have a clue what was read, then your child needs more support in comprehension. 

ASK THE TEACHER: When in doubt or if you do not have access to books at home or can not get to the library, ask the teacher to send home books on loan to your child that are appropriate independent reading material. I am sure your child’s teacher would be happy to oblige. 

TEACH BY EXAMPLE: Importantly, build a sense of a love of learning and a positive space to do so at home. Perhaps you can make a little reading nook with a cozy chair, or a quiet spot by a window to read. Model for your child good reading behaviors. Get caught reading! Read a newspaper, a novel, a magazine to show your child that you value this skill and enjoy using it to learn every day. Always read to your child whenever you have a few extra minutes to spare. 

Good luck! You’ve got this.

Erin Fealy Cunningham, PhD is an Educational Consultant and Literacy Specialist 

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