father and son reading
Building Better Readers

Maria Selke

So, you're looking for ways to improve your child's reading? As a parent, you know your influence and guidance makes a huge difference in your child's life. The good news is that there are many things you can do to help build better reading skills – even when they are not actively reading!

One of the most important things children need to help them understand what they are reading is background knowledge. Background knowledge is a basic understanding of the topic at hand. For example, it is much easier to understand a story that takes place in a museum if you know something about how a museum is set up. This knowledge is built through experiences — both real and virtual — and conversations with older children and adults.

The purpose of this blog article is to share ideas about improving reading skills you can use with your children at home, on vacation, and even while just driving around town. I'll go through a few categories today, and future columns will delve more deeply.


What? TV can build better readers? I know research says we should limit television viewing, and that is true. Selective viewing, however, can be a powerful tool to help children learn. With the wide variety of channels we have today, excellent choices abound. The History Channel, Science Channel, and Discovery Channel are just a few of the options you can tap into to build your child's knowledge base. Worried that the shows won't hold their interest? Today's informational programming is designed to be fun! Younger children will love Little Einsteins — a cartoon about a group of children who solve problems while experiencing classical music and art. Older kids will be enthralled by the Mythbusters as they use science and technology to make learning cool. Watch along with your children so you can engage in discussion with them after the shows. Using their new knowledge and vocabulary in conversation will help cement it in their minds.

Web Sites

My current favorite is brainpop.com. This site has a free video of the day. You can access it directly at their website, or through a free app. Their short animated videos cover a wide range of topics including science, literature, history, the arts, and technology. My sons beg to watch the video every day!

Outdoor Activities

Spring and summer are approaching, and with it a wonderful chance to build background knowledge with your child. Get out there with your kids. Take nature hikes, and talk about what you see. Bring along a bird or tree guide. Use your best vocabulary to talk about the world around you. Every activity you do with your children, especially if you use it as an opportunity for discussion, will help them when they read. Don't feel like you need to be heavy handed with the learning - just let it flow naturally from what you are doing and their own innate curiosity.

The easiest way to build background knowledge for your children is to give them a variety of experiences. No matter what you have them engaged in, have conversations with them about it. Use sophisticated language, and then explain what you mean. Even small children can learn amazing vocabulary, as long as they are exposed to it. The more they know - the easier it will be to read about those things.

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