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How to help your child be a reader: toddler talk, silly songs, movies and more

Experts weigh in on how parents can create routines that build a love for reading.
Areeya Reneau 16, left, helps second-grader Annika Newsome with reading passages read from "A Apple Grows Up" at Bailey Elementary School in Dover in March. IB students from Strawberry High School spend the first hour of every Tuesday morning tutoring struggling readers from Bailey Elementary School. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Apr. 17
Updated Apr. 17

As part of the Tampa Bay Times special report on reading in Hillsborough County schools, top-ranking educators offered tips on how to better your child’s odds of becoming a strong reader, during school and beyond:

In the earliest years

  • Talk to your baby or toddler — a lot. “When parents actively engage in conversation with their children and immerse their children in language, children develop an understanding of syntax, vocabulary, higher-order thinking, and the power of language,” says Kimberly Keenan, the district’s supervisor of elementary reading. Keenan says you can find tips for children in a blog post by Tim Shanahan titled, “Eleven Ways Parents Can Help Their Children Read.”
  • Silly songs aren’t silly. School Board member and former education professor Stacy Hahn, who shared this link, recommends “finger play” songs such as Pat-A-Cake and Where Is Thumbkin to help your baby develop hand muscles and coordination for writing and drawing.
  • Use books as part of your child’s daily routines. Read before naptime or bedtime. Offer plastic books at bath time. Bring books to the doctor’s office or the bus stop. Use different voices for different characters when you read to your baby.

Preschool years

  • Play rhyming games, says Jaime Gerding, principal of Booker T. Washington Elementary. “You say a word and the child has to say a word that rhymes with it. Then switch turns.”
  • Label common items around your house with index cards, sticky notes or pieces of paper. Base the number of words on the child’s age. Or select a “word of the week” to tape around the house. Whenever the child walks by the word he or she must read it out loud.
  • Use storytime to expand your child’s vocabulary. Discuss words your child may or may not know. Use picture books to start the conversation.
  • Switch things up during storytime with a letter hunt. How many “A’s” can you find? Or start with the first letter in your child’s name. Repeat for all the letters in the alphabet.
  • Start working on common sight words such as a, of, the, and, is, in, it, you, to, that. Have your child count how many times he can find the sight word on each page. Reread sentences that include those sight words. How were they used?

School age

  • Make reading a regular activity at home. Take trips to the library or bookstore. Discuss what they are reading.
  • From Hillsborough County Chief of Schools Harrison Peters: Model reading. It is important for children to see their parents read or for parents to talk about what they are reading.
  • From Peters and Durant High School Reading Coach Jeannette Teeden: Read books that were made into movies. After both you and your child have finished a book, go see the movie together. Talk about the differences between the two.
  • Make sure your home has a variety of interesting reading materials: magazines, books, comic books. It’s fine for children to re-read their favorites. That helps fluency.
  • Check out the Hillsborough County library system, which lets students borrow materials with their lunch numbers. No more library cards! The library also offers platforms for your child’s digital device, such as Axis 360, OverDrive and Hoopla. Library cards are still used in Pinellas County, but there is a link to that system, including an online application for the card, in the Pinellas district’s Library Media Technology page.
  • In Pinellas, parents can familiarize themselves with a number of computer systems beginning with clever.com, a portal that students can access with a password. It will lead them to sora, an app that helps them find materials in both the school library and the Pinellas County public libraries. There also is a “Personal Learning Pathway” system that parents and students can consult to see their test results, and determined where they need to do more work.
  • Pasco County’s assistant curriculum director Jennifer Waselewski offered guidelines for reading at home in a way that will help children with their fluency, comprehension and awareness of how words are constructed.
  • Let struggling readers listen to the audio versions while they are reading along with the book. Audio versions are available free through the library and YouTube.
  • Feeling ambitious? Start a book club for your children, their friends and children in the neighborhood.
  • To find good and age-appropriate books, visit the website for the yearly Battle of the Books contest. For more lists of great books, familiarize yourself with the school district’s Library Media Services website. There you will find summer reading lists and other resources.
  • Make your home reader-friendly by providing a quiet, well-lit place — or, if your place is small, by designating a time every afternoon or evening to turn off all TVs and electronics.
  • Have older children read to younger children. This is a win-win.
  • On road trips, encourage struggling or young readers to read road signs. Make it a game.
  • Know your child’s data, to see if he or she is struggling. Be supportive. ASK QUESTIONS at teacher conferences, which can be held later in the day or by phone or videoconference to accommodate work schedules.
  • Ask your child specific questions about school: What did you learn today? How did you learn it? Were you successful? How did you know you were successful? Consider scheduling a time every week to “conference” with your child.

More resources

Lynn Doughterty-Underwood, director of K-12 literacy for the Hillsborough County school district, shared these tip sheets for parents about engaging activities to build reading skills and how to help your child in middle and high school.

More help is available at Parent University events in your school district.

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