As a test tutor, I sometimes encounter parents who want to start preparing their students early for tests like the ISEE and SAT. While students should learn some test-taking skills and strategies, my best advice to those who want to “prepare early” is to spend more time reading. Reading comprehension shows up on almost every standardized test, is strongly linked to vocabulary and verbal reasoning, and is a valuable life skill regardless of test-taking plans. It’s not surprising that students who read a lot do much better on reading comprehension and vocabulary tests than students who don’t.
So what counts as reading? This might seem like a silly question, but as a teacher I’ve witnessed many behaviors that seem like reading but are not actually reading, including:
- Skimming: With the advent of the Internet, many questions can be answered by skimming until one reaches a particular piece of information. This can be useful, but it doesn’t build the same comprehension skills as thorough reading.
- “Reading” on the Internet and social media: While there are high quality reading materials on the Internet, much of the “reading” students (and adults) do on their own time is stuff posted by their friends or people their own age, which isn’t always well-written or accurate.
- Reading the CliffsNotes summary of a book assigned for school or browsing the www.shmoop.com website: I think it’s fine to use these resources along with the full text to assist in comprehension, but they shouldn’t be used as a replacement for a full work of literature.
- Flipping through a magazine or picture book while only looking at the pictures.
And what does count as reading?
- Reading text assigned for school: The goal should be to have your child read in addition to the reading assigned in class, but first make sure he’s completing the assigned reading for school. I’ve encountered numerous students who try to get away with less.
- Reading graphic novels and picture books: Having pictures along with text can aid comprehension and make reading more enjoyable, even for older students.
- Reading aloud with your child.
- Reading text while accompanied by the audio book: While some parents fear that an audio book means their child doesn’t have to “try” to read, it’s actually proven to help build fluency when children hear correct pronunciation, pacing, and expression while they read. This is also a good option for children who are too old to enjoy reading with parents.
- Reading nonfiction books and articles: I’ve found that reluctant readers often enjoy nonfiction books, magazines, and newspapers more than novels.
- Reading “non-literary” books: While you may not think Captain Underpants or Twilight are great literature, they still count as reading. Just encourage your child to branch out to more challenging and varied books after a reading habit is established.
For children who naturally love to read, encouraging reading might simply be a matter of giving them access to books. But what about children who don’t love reading? Here are a few ideas:
- Make sure independent reading books are at the right level: An easy way to do this for younger children is the “Rule of 5.” Have your child open the book to the middle and start reading, putting one finger up for every word she doesn’t know or can’t decode. A “5-finger book” is too hard, a “4-finger book” is challenging, a “2-3 finger book” is just right, and a “0-1 finger book” is an easy book. Don’t worry about whether your child is reading at the same level as her peers, as these kinds of comparisons can make reading stressful. And if a child is highly motivated to read a certain book, let her try it, even if it’s challenging. Older students might be reluctant to read aloud to you, but they might apply the rule silently to themselves when choosing a book.
- Read together or discuss reading material with your child: A good way to prevent “faking it” is to read the book yourself and ask your child questions about it. If he can’t answer most of them, you might need to supervise reading time more closely.
- Model reading: Set aside time where everyone in the family reads to send the message that reading is important.
- Enforce book reading for research projects: With the advent of the Internet, students no longer have to read an entire book, or even an entire article, to find enough information to fill a poster or PowerPoint. I’ve found, however, that students who use Google and the “scavenger hunt” method to complete their projects usually lack a big picture understanding of their topics. I encourage parents to require their children to fully read at least one book and several articles when completing a research project, as this builds valuable comprehension skills.
- Don’t just sign your child’s reading log without evidence of reading! As a classroom teacher, I’ve witnessed this practice a surprising number of times. It’s hard for one teacher to individually quiz every student on her book, so you can help out the teacher by doing this yourself.
While other forms of test preparation and academic tutoring are also very valuable, they are even more effective when students also spend more time reading. Improving one’s reading skills will help students prepare for tests, school, their future jobs, and life in general.