How To Improve Your Child's Reading and Math Skills: 5 Tips

Claudia Stack

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Here are some tips and resources for parents who are either teaching their children at home, or just trying to help their children improve in reading and/or math.

1. Realize the teaching your own child is more difficult than teaching other children, because your ego investment in your own child is so great. If s/he doesn’t listen, or is slow to grasp something, you may be more frustrated than if another child did the same thing. Take a deep breath, and try to pretend for a moment that you are explaining things to the neighbor's kid.

2. Get in tune with your child to get his/her attention. Brain science has greatly enhanced our understanding of how learning happens. One fact that has emerged is that engaging a child’s Reticular Activating System (RAS) is critical to learning. This part of the brain determines what stimuli can safely be placed in the background of our attention (such as, for example, the sensation of your sleeve on your arm) and what commands our conscious attention. (Click to read “16 Ways to Activate the Reticular Activating System in the Classroom” by Lisa Van Gemert). Putting that in plain English, a person’s attention needs to engaged in order to learn.

A great way to your child’s attention is through music and movement. Begin your learning session with a song or clapping rhythm. For younger children, traditional nursery songs on Starfall are a great place to start. For older children, you can combine reading practice with positive messages by singing along to Will I Am singing “What I Am” with subtitles, or a Lion King movie sing along. Not only will this help engage your child’s attention (RAS), it will help you to enjoy the moment and get in touch with your child before attempting to teach him/her anything. Our brains develops through patterns and repetition. Don’t underestimate the power of music, singing and movement for building memory.

3. Realize that there are two levels of reading: Decoding (being able to pronounce words) and comprehension (understanding what you read). If your child is still learning to decode, focus on breaking words into syllables, rhymes, and “sight” words (words that are very common). Read simple books with repetitive rhyme schemes, such as Dr. Seuss books. Watch Alphablocks cartoons together. Play online games, like this one at roomrecess.com, to help children recognize syllables and combine sounds. Watch and read/sing along to videos of Dolch sight words (here is a link to one Pre-K Dolch sight word video, start here and work your way up the grades). If your child can master the 220 Dolch sight words, it will improve his/her fluency (correct words per minute) enormously.

It’s never too early to work on comprehension, so ask your child questions about the stories you read to him/her. Start with the “Five Ws” (who, what, when, where and why) and progress to having your child retell the story back to you in correct sequence. Work on the concept of sequence by asking, what was happening in the beginning of the story? The middle? The end? Work on empathy and inference by asking your child what do you think the characters are feeling, and why do you think they are doing ____?

For older elementary children, Newsela.com is a fantastic, free resource for nonfiction readings at different levels. New material from current events and science is being added all of the time. Sign up for a free parent account with Newsela. You can access the same topic/article at different Lexiles (reading levels). It may take a little trial and error, but you and your child can figure out the best Lexile for him/her. All of the articles have quiz questions with answers at the end.

4. Understand that even math is easier to learn through stories. Many parents may find it intimidating to teach math due to negative memories they may have from their own schooling. However, you can overcome some of that baggage by reframing math for your child. Tell your child stories about the numbers and processes. For example, if you are helping him/her with a subtraction problem that requires borrowing, make up a silly story about the number in the ones place going “next door” to borrow from his neighbor. Knock on the door (table). Use silly voices to act out the part of each number. Psychological research shows that stories are “psychologically privileged”- in other words, stories are easier to understand and recall then other kinds of communication.

One great resource for all subjects, but especially for math, is IXL.com. It is broken down by grade level and topic, and your child can do up to ten interactive problems for free each day. That is probably about enough for a young child (through second grade). Make sure you use “props” while helping them do the problems, for example, pennies for counting. Another great resource is the Teachley Adding and Subtracting game at Brainpop.com. For elementary students who are third grade and up, Freerice.com has multiplication and basic math categories. Timestables.com is also excellent for learning those very important multiplication tables.

5. Finally, and most importantly, know that you are ALWAYS teaching your child. Quite apart from sitting down with your child to read or do math, remember that you are a constant source of information to him/her. The way you speak to people, how you handle stress, your habits…all of it influences your child deeply. So include him/her, and talk through why you do things. Read and follow a recipe together. Plant seeds in some paper cups and put them in the windowsill. Care for a pet together. Just sit and cuddle. There is no better time than now.

Does your child have special needs, or just have a hard time paying attention? Click here for 6 Ways You Can Help Your Learning Disabled Child

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I am an educator and filmmaker. My documentary films on historic African American schools have screened at film festivals, colleges, libraries, and other venues. In Fall, 2017 I completed SHARECROP and SHARECROP: DELTA COTTON, documentaries that showcase oral history of the South’s “forgotten farmers.” These films have screened at festivals in major cities including London, Atlanta, Detroit.

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