How to Improve Reading Skills in Students of All Ages

More than half of Michigan kids in grades 3-8 are flunking English language arts on the M-STEP exam. As parents, learn how to improve reading skills in students.

What can parents do to help their kids grasp literacy? The question of how to improve reading skills in students in elementary and middle school is especially pressing around metro Detroit and Ann Arbor right now.

That’s because the Michigan Department of Education released the 2018 Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, or M-STEP, results in August – and things aren’t looking good. Less than half of the third through eighth graders who took the test passed in the area of English language arts.

Just 44 percent of students got the green light in this section, which is down from the 48 percent that passed it in 2017. And, while the state has invested a significant amount of money into enhancing the language arts curriculum statewide, parents who have a concern can address this at home, as well.

JoAnne Elkin, an early literacy consultant with the Macomb Intermediate School District, has tips to help parents strengthen their students’ language arts skills.

“Our state is moving in the right direction by focusing on solid early childhood programs, early childhood supports and early literacy programming,” Elkin says. She notes that a statewide collaboration, led by the Early Literacy Task Force, is identifying ways to help kids in and out of the classroom.

Keep in mind, though, that this advice applies to kids of all ages – not just young children. Once kids can read, parents tend to focus less on this skill. But reading and discussing books together is vital. And, regardless of age, sticking to the basics is perhaps the biggest key in how to help a child struggling with reading skills.

Here are some specific tips that shed light on how to improve reading skills in students of all ages, including those in elementary and even middle school.

1. Engage in conversation.

Elkin says conversations, storytelling and singing are great ways to encourage language development in kids.

“Talking to adults will help your child become more comfortable with spoken language and speech sounds,” Elkin explains. “Ask questions that call for answers with details – not just ‘yes’ or ‘no'” replies.

2. Read with children daily.

Parents should spend at least 20 minutes a day reading to their children from a young age, Elkin says – and, again, that should continue even after they can read on their own.

“Reading with your child exposes them to a rich vocabulary, builds language and comprehension skills and helps them gain knowledge about the world around them,” says Elkin. “Continue reading to your child during school breaks and in the summer months. It’s critical children engage with books and reading materials over the summer so they can strengthen the reading skills they learned the previous year.”

Elkin also references a 1985 report called “Becoming a Nation of Readers,” which says “the single most important activity for building knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children.”

It notes the practice should continue throughout all grades. The same holds true today.

3. Let your child choose the books.

Elkin says children may be more interested in the book if they select it. Perhaps start by offering a variety of classic children’s books for them to choose from.

As they grow and develop their own tastes, encourage them to find titles that let them learn and explore more – whether it’s sci-fi, historical fiction or even graphic novels. Reading any storyline, even illustration-heavy, is valuable.

4. Talk about books.

“To help your child with comprehension, talk about the text before, during and after reading,” Elkin says.

She says before reading the books, make predictions about what might happen and then explore the book together. While reading, she adds, talk about difficult words in the text. Elkin says it also helps to have children retell portions of the story and predict what will happen next.

“After reading, help your child make connections and discuss any new vocabulary words. You can also have a conversation about the pictures or main ideas in the book to deepen your child’s understanding of the text,” Elkin says.

5. Reread books.

Elkin says children love to hear books read to them over and over again. Rereading books increases a child’s fluency and will strengthen comprehension. Encourage this same skill as kids get older – revisiting a favorite book has big benefits.

6. Set an example.

“Let your child see you reading books, magazines or newspapers. This sets an excellent example for your child that you value and enjoy reading,” Elkin says.

 7. Find things to read together.

Visit your local library or make a trek to one of the independent bookstores here in metro Detroit and Ann Arbor. This type of open-ended exploration helps make reading an everyday activity. Elkin also suggests picking a time when everyone in the family sits down to read.

8. Limit screen time.

Elkin says if parents limit the amount of time their child is in front of a screen, they’ll have more time to spend reading. Make it a family goal.

9. Stay involved.

Parents can take steps at home, Elkin says, but if they are concerned, they should also work with the child’s teacher.

“Stay involved in your child’s education. Develop a partnership with your child’s teacher. Talk with your child’s teachers and, if you think your child is struggling in reading, ask the teacher to meet with you or communicate through email.

“Ask about what you can do at home to support your learner,” Elkin adds. “Parents play a critical role in helping their children develop the ability to read, but also a true enjoyment and love of reading.”


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