Finding that reading/writing spark!

Finding that reading/writing SPARK within your child…
by Luke Austin Fronefield

In light of the news that America’s students are showing little or no improvement in reading skills, and in response to grumblings I consistently hear from parents about their child’s seeming unwillingness to read, I’ve come up with what I’m calling the WORD IS BORN learning strategy for families who are eager to help their child not only build a foundation in reading and writing skills, but also embark on a journey of lifelong learning. Please note: these strategies are helpful for the most reluctant as well as avid readers of all ages.

Based on our 10(+) years tutoring students and consulting with families, we can tell you it helps to create an environment in which curiosity and learning are part of the everyday atmosphere. And fortunately, there are some simple things you can do right now that will make a profound difference for your child.

Because of the fears and pressures kids associate with reading and writing—not to mention the array of electronic distractions—let’s begin with motivation. Students are typically far more curious and competitive than even they or their parents realize. In many cases it’s a matter of removing some of the distractions (videogames, TV, iPhone, etc.) and perhaps setting up a system whereby these distractions become rewards for reading/writing and other work. This requires some vigilance, but you’ll find it works extremely well. You can have your phone back… You can play videogames… You can do what you want to do… AS LONG AS YOU COMPLETE XYZ. Our tutors work with students to develop this valuable “rewards” habit and strategy. But even with distractions out of the way, how do you get your child comfortable—dare we say excited—about reading and writing? 

As tutors, we’ve found it helps to acknowledge and then deflate the boogeyman in the room. Reading isn’t always easy, and let’s face it, some kids struggle more than others. But any child will appreciate you breaking down the academic “task” into a seamless adventure and, most importantly, part of everyday life. For starters, you can explain to your child that BIG WORDS are really just fancy ways of saying very simple things. Next, assign one reading exercise per day (or every other day, or every week; whatever your routine and schedule permit; the key is consistency). It can be a short newspaper or magazine article or chapters from a book assigned in school or for leisure. WARNING: The sight of a gigantic book or piles of reading material will often intimidate students, especially in the beginning stages. Our tutors get students started with simple and conquerable reading material, which helps bolster confidence; over time, the rigor and length of the reading material can increase proportionally with a student’s abilities and enthusiasm. 

After your child gets into a groove reading articles on a regular basis, tell him to keep a pencil and notebook handy. Our tutors tell students to 1) write down words they don’t know and 2) guess the definitions of these words based on their context in the sentences. Using these context clues, students learn to scan sentences above and below the word for any clues that might hint at the definition or at least the tone (Is it a positive or negative word?). There will be a lot of trial and error as students attempt to define words themselves. But over time these “homemade” definitions increasingly resemble the dictionary’s definitions. Watch in awe as your child becomes an “active reader” who’s less likely to shy away from challenging writing. With these exercises we’re simply trying to locate that reading/writing spark that resides in the minds of all students, regardless of any learning or academic challenges.

As a tutor, it is top priority to win the battle between this mighty spark and the soporific status-quo style of teaching that has inspired staring contests between kids and trees outside classroom windows for centuries. With this in mind, we explain to students that language and reading is about more than simply homework and grades. Over time students begin to see how an eloquent and powerful passage (or even a single sentence) can define and distinguish them on a much deeper level than the mass-produced catchphrases and slogans on Instagram and TV, Twitter and Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts.

Some of the best novels, movies and pop songs illuminate this point. Take Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a stalwart in the pantheon of required reading material for middle-school students. For more than half a century, teachers have taught this novel as a glimpse in time of segregation in the Deep South and the seemingly insurmountable odds a white man and his family face in exposing and changing the ignorance and injustice that ultimately kills an innocent black man. And yet, Lee’s masterpiece can also be used today as a source of encouragement, not only for lonely students who feel ostracized by their peers, but for compassionate students seeking the courage to stand up for peers outside of their immediate circle of friends. The big takeaway: Whether your child is reading To Kill a Mockingbird or watching Zootopia or listening to Imagine Dragons, there are powerful and compelling dots out there that become all the more profound and meaningful as students learn how to make connections through language.

The world seems to be moving at a faster rate than ever. In this vortex of videogames and ravenous text messaging, books are increasingly a chore for our attention-deficit kids. But if as parents and teachers we can position reading and writing as more than simply “required reading” or stockpiles of intellectual achievement restricted only to the classroom, and we can view the music, movies and even video games not as deterrents but as rewards and even, perhaps, learning opportunities, we can get the little breakthroughs good people like Great Books founder Mortimer J. Adler were seeking.

Start simple. Great or good, kids need to read—anything! Encourage your kids to read the instructions to video games as well as the reviews of games. For athletes and sports fans there’s not much better material out there than Sports Illustrated and The New York Times’ sports section. Some kids prefer the Arts section of the newspaper. Others enjoy the Styles section. Tuesday’s NY Times Science section is one of our favorites. 

Most importantly, after figuring out the best atmosphere and routine for you and your child, make sure to sit back with a smile and watch as those reading/writing sparks fly!

Luke Fronefield is co-founding tutor and Chief Education Officer (CEO) at First Class Prep, a personalized SAT/ACT/SSAT tutoring and college prep service with offices in Coconut Grove.