Whether they have a learning disability or other special needs, your child can build a relationship with books.
by Christina Elston
Paul Curtis’s favorite childhood book was The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien. He read it in fifth grade, and there is a particular reason that it stayed with him. “It was the first book that I think I really pictured in my mind, and I can still see those images fairly vividly that I created in fifth grade,” Curtis says.
Curtis, the Lower School Reading Chair at The Westmark School in Encino, says imagery can be key to helping struggling readers enjoy a story.
If you notice that your child is getting frustrated with reading, Curtis suggests reading to them. And while you do, talk with them about what they think the characters in the story look like, help them act out parts of the story, or let them color a picture about the story. This engages your child’s sense of dynamic imagery, which could be quite strong even though they struggle with the text on the page. When your child understands that they can still comprehend and enjoy a story, even though they have trouble decoding the words, they’re more likely to want to spend time with books.
It can help if children with special needs or a learning disability understand that, according to Curtis, “their brain is functioning in a different way.” You can have this conversation with your child in an age-appropriate way, and focus on the positive (i.e. and that’s exciting, because you think differently).
At home, let your child take ownership of their reading and choose their own books, and keep the pressure off. “At home, it really is creating that environment where there is no pressure,” says Curtis, who advises parents to resist the urge to correct mistakes when a child is reading for pleasure. Instead, step back and let your child enjoy.
Finding books for struggling readers is a delicate balance between reading level and interest, especially as children get older. The books they are interested in might be a real struggle for them to read. “That’s where reading to the student can come in handy,” Curtis says. Have your child make a list of things they are interested in, and seek out books about those topics at a variety of reading levels. Your child’s teacher can help you choose some books at your child’s reading fluency level, for your child to read independently for practice. And you can reward them by reading aloud to them those at the higher level.
Recently, many of Curtis’s students at Westmark were interested in reading The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. The school contacted families and suggested that parents reward their children for doing school-assigned reading by reading the book aloud.
If your student is getting reading intervention at school or through another program, Curtis advises against pushing them to read too much at home. “You don’t want to burn that student out,” he says. “It really pushes the student away from reading, and that’s the last thing you want.”
But do support a child who chooses to read for pleasure – no matter what the format. A graphic novel or comic might give your child less practice with text, but still builds their relationship with reading. “At least they’re picking up something,” Curtis says.
Tablet computers and other technology can even make reading easier. Westmark uses iPads in a variety of ways, adjusting the background color to make text easier to read, reducing the number of words on each screen for students who are intimidated by seeing too many at once, and using a text-to-speech option so that students can get help with words they are stuck on. Older students can record themselves reading passages out loud, then follow along with the audio and then catch their own mistakes. This takes the parent and the teacher out of the equation and lets the student be independent.
All of these strategies can work together to help build a positive relationship between your child and reading. “I think that the relationship with reading is the most important aspect of a student improving,” says Curtis. “It’s really about the joy of reading.”
The ultimate goal? Building fond memories of a favorite book that will last a lifetime.