A+ Advice for Parents

Q: At the last grading period, my son Jamal's third-grade teacher was concerned about his reading. She suggested home activities and summer school. I think he'll catch up on his own. Kids don't all learn to read at the same time, so why is this a problem?

A: It may not be a problem, but the data doesn't favor Jamal. Many studies show that being able to read well by the end of third grade means that children do much better in all subjects from fourth grade onward.

There's a saying in education circles, says Kristin Calder, CEO of the Literacy Coalition of Palm Beach County (Florida): "'In the first three grades, children learn to read. In fourth grade, they read to learn.' Students need strong vocabulary and comprehension skills to read science, math and social studies texts. How can you attack a word problem if you can't read the words? Or understand a science lesson on weather if you struggle (to read the word) lightning? Not being able to keep up with subject matter accelerates a cycle of failure that can lead to dropping out."

Cracking the code by the time a student enters fourth grade is so important that many U.S. cities have joined with school districts in a formal Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, says Calder. "Third grade is a pivot point. In Palm Beach County, we make achieving this literacy milestone a major part of our work."

Take your son's teacher's concerns to heart. Carve out time each day to focus on reading at home. Divide it into independent reading and reading to him.

-- Read a few pages of a compelling book, such as a "Harry Potter" novel, to Jamal each night. Stop at a spellbinding spot guaranteed to make him eager to hear more.

-- Get him a library card and work with the librarian to find titles that match his interests. What topics get Jamal excited? Football? Animals? Humor? Check out a stack each week.

-- Try humor. Don't worry if he's still stuck on "Captain Underpants" books. At least he's reading. Find lots of books he might like on guysread.com, a site founded by best-selling children's book author Jon Scieszka that is dedicated to encouraging boys to read.

-- Access digital resources. Most libraries offer Internet access to their collections to download on a tablet or phone. Check out podcasts, too. Favorites include TED Talks for kids and family, and PBS Kids. Find educational games and apps reviewed at Common Sense Media's graphite.org.

-- Add a dose of nonfiction. Atlases, children's almanacs, field guides and other "fun facts" books are easy for readers to get into. Consider subscriptions to magazines such as Popular Science, National Geographic Kids or Sports Illustrated for Kids.

-- Enroll Jamal in summer classes. "There's so much evidence of learning loss during vacation, that many schools welcome kids -- whether they are struggling or not -- into summer classes," says Calder. "The program should give him even more opportunities to practice his reading skills."

-- Keep up the family reading time at home. As summer approaches, it's tempting to let it go. Don't. Jamal needs this "power assist" to do well in fourth grade. Be sure to also monitor his use of video games and other non-reading-related digital media, so he doesn't get distracted.

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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