Learning to read is only the first step

Your child can read ... Now what?
Your child can read ... Now what? Photo: Getty Images

I am guessing that if someone knocked on the doors of households with young children in the early evening, a similar scene would be found. Having negotiated the dinner and bath ritual, we would be sitting down, children on laps or snuggled beneath arms, and reading. We may be listening to the plod through a school reader, or rhythmically reciting Dr. Seuss. We may be pointing at pictures and encouraging the predicting of a plot or listening to the painful process of having every letter sounded out in a word. Regardless of the way books are being used, many young families spend time sharing and enjoying books together.

Amazingly, somewhere along the line, it happens. Our children learn to read independently. For some families this happens easily and painlessly while for others it is the result of commitment and focus, but when the independent reading arrives it is easy to flounder as parents. What do we do next? Do we just close the door, back away and revel in the silence?

The statistics seem to indicate that this is the approach many families take. The Australian Institute of Family Studies found that 58% of 2-3 year olds were read to on 6-7 days per week, with another 22% read to on 3-5 days. However, by the age of 8-9 years, parents were much less likely to be frequently reading to or with their children, with 11% doing so on 6-7 days per week and another 17% on 3-5 days. As children become independent readers, it seems that parental involvement in the world of literature with their children declines dramatically.

In many ways this decline in involvement makes sense, and it is appropriate to give an independent reader space to explore and enjoy reading on their own, but there is plenty to be gained from not disengaging completely as children become independent readers. Continuing to be involved as independent readers navigate the world of books, is a rewarding and challenging thing to do, and will provide many opportunities for parents to teach and guide children as they grow into adulthood and are developing their own values, ethics and world views.

So, how do parents do this? There is potential clash between parents desiring to be involved in assisting children as they encounter more complex and challenging themes, and independent readers needing the space to discover their own imaginations, explore their own interests and gain confidence in their own processing skills. It is not always the easiest thing to find the middle ground where parents guide children as they process literature, but do not control, smother or disempower them in their reading.

The middle-ground approach would acknowledge that children will read things that parents won’t ever see or talk about, but that by being involved on occasion, parents can help them develop skills in processing themes, and children can always come to them for help if they need to.

While the specific shape it will take will look different in each family, it means staying engaged and having children know there is always an open conversation available about what they are reading.

The middle-ground approach might mean sitting with them on occasion, reading a chapter and discussing anything that pops up. It may mean keeping an eye on the media and pop culture, chatting to other parents, and having a quick flick through their book to see what themes and ideas they are encountering that you may want to chat about.

It may be as simple as regularly asking, ”How’s the book? What’s happening to that character?” It may be opening the conversation up for the future by saying, “I can’t wait to hear what happens next. Make sure you pay attention to what that character does so you can tell me about it.”


Here are some other general questions that may help open a conversation about their reading:

  • What do you like about your book?
  • Is anything happening which worries you?
  • Is there anything happening you don’t understand?
  • Are there any characters who are like you?
  • Are there any characters you wish you were more like?
  • Has the character changed at all from the start of the book?
  • Is it is a funny/sad/scary/happy book?
  • Is there anything that has happened that you would change if you could?

Whilst a child progressing to independent reading is something to be celebrated and encouraged, it is also a time for parents to think about the role they wish to play as their child continues to navigate the world of literature. By maintaining moderate involvement many opportunities will arise for conversations that have the potential to shape a child’s attitude, perceptions and processing skills.

Obviously the backing away from a child silently absorbed in their reading is a moment to be rejoiced in, but so is the conversation where a child is seeking opinions and guidance on how to understand something they’ve encountered in their reading. It is a fortunate child who is given the opportunity to experience both moments regularly.

National Literacy and Numeracy week begins today and runs until August 4. Visit their website to take part in a range of great activities that will encourage and develop your child's skills.