Amy Basinski-Long was a student teacher in the Chicago Public Schools system when she witnessed a literacy miracle: Harry Potter helped her learning-disabled students improve their reading more than three grade levels in under two years.
The eighth-graders had read the first of the Harry Potter series the previous year with the help of the book's audio version. When Amy started working with the students, she quickly noticed their vested interest in the series and began reading the second Harry Potter book with them, though it was both outside the school's standard curriculum and well beyond the students' comprehensive capabilities.
"Even though the books were really hard for them, Harry Potter was what everyone was reading. We were taking material and relating it back to them personally. ... That's how information becomes relevant to a child, so it's not abstract information on a page," Amy says.
The students' devotion to the series paid off. When they were tested in sixth grade, before they began reading Harry Potter, nearly all tested at least a grade below their expected reading level. After two years of popular material and listening to the books read aloud on tape, more than half the class was up to grade level in reading ability.
Success stories such as this beg the question: Is there a more effective way to teach reading?
Experts say there is. Here are a few suggestions to make sure you're not missing the boat on raising a successful and wide-eyed reader.
In her 24 years of experience, Nancy Singer—a kindergarten teacher at Harlan Elementary School in Birmingham, Michigan—has found that it's never too early to help kids grasp the concept of reading.
"Even for kids who are 2 or 3 years old, reading aloud can help them understand that the funny little marks on paper have meaning," Nancy says. "[This] is why we encourage people to read to their kids when they are very, very young."
Nancy, who has a master's degree in reading, also suggests teaching children by making letters out of Play-Doh, writing in the sand, drawing on the carpet and using pipe cleaners to create words.
With kids who are 3 or 4 years old, Nancy says, half the battle is getting them over that initial fear of reading on their own, even if that means they're just pretending to read by reciting a story from memory. In their moments of frustration, you should remind them that everyone can read the pictures and take the time to sit with them as you decipher stories page by page.
"If you just make a commitment to read to them and have them read to you every single day, that's the best thing you can do," Nancy says.
Thanks to parents who have made this commitment, it's become more common for pre-reading, the act of pretending to read but gaining interest in stories, to occur in preschool. With this initial step already under way, kindergarten teachers like Nancy can aim to have their students doing early reading by the end of the school year.
To meet this goal, Nancy regularly connects reading and writing in the classroom. By giving her students the freedom to use inventive spelling in their stories when they're stumped, she helps them develop their phonics skills, which in turn improve their reading abilities.
Lenny Sanchez, a professor of reading methods at Indiana University's School of Education in Bloomington, Indiana, warns that reading is not only about decoding, or deciphering the letters into fluid sounds to make words. "There's a misconception that children learn to read and then read to learn," Lenny says. "Reading, for me, is always about making meaning."
A good reader also reads fluently, and to help children develop that skill, it often means refraining from jumping in when they skip a word or miss a sound. Lenny says actions like this will break children's flow and take the focus off understanding the reading and place it onto decoding, a skill they will grasp over time.
Lenny also believes it's important to ask children detailed questions while they read to help develop their comprehension abilities. Reading, he says, always involves a purpose, and pinpointing that is often as simple as asking a child what he hopes to find out. By setting up the purpose ahead of time, the child is looking for the deeper meaning of the text throughout the entire story.
Choose the Best Possible Text
As children become more comfortable with the reading process, Lenny says to be very cautious with your text selections. Ultimately, you must balance the desire to push your children toward success without setting up unrealistic expectations. "We always want to make sure we're challenging our kids and ourselves as readers, but when you're pushed beyond what you can handle, it's going to negatively affect what you can do," Lenny says. "We want to give [children] situations that are challenging to them, that have a lot of struggles, but that also have a lot of opportunities for success."
Such opportunities are likely to be found in materials of high interest to the reader. Amy and her Harry Potter–loving eighth graders are a prime example of the difference it makes when children are reading books they enjoy. If the school curriculum doesn't offer books that top your child's priority list, you have all the more reason to make reading a part of home life—for both you and your child.
Inevitably, children are watching (and following) your every move, which makes it even more important to set an example that reading can be an enjoyable part of your daily routine. Meg Carroll, a professor at Saint Xavier University in Chicago with a doctorate in curriculum and instruction, strongly believes that if you don't make reading a part of your own life, you will have much more difficulty emphasizing the importance of reading in a child's life.
"Kids learn that they are forced to read by adults, but once the kid becomes an adult, they choose not to read," Meg says. "They think you never do it again, so they assume it must be bad, and that is not the message we want to send our kids."
In her own home, Meg read aloud to her kids until they entered high school. In her classroom, she continues to ask her students what has happened in a story and then helps them look back to find the answers in an effort to constantly model the behavior of a good reader.
Enjoy the Outcome
Ultimately, every second you spend reading with your child will make a difference. Not only will you be reinforcing good habits and comprehension skills to help them succeed, but also making amazing memories along the way.
"Reading is my favorite thing to teach," Nancy says. "It's so cool to watch the light bulb go off and realize they get it. And the best part is that they, too, are so excited."