Reading Actively to your Dyslexic Child

Part 1: What “Active Reading” is and why it’s important

fatehr reading to son

The single most important piece of advice I can give parents based on my twelve years of experience as a social studies teacher (and nine years of parenting) is: Read ACTIVELY and aloud to your children for at least 30 minutes each night until their homework load and extracurricular activities no longer allow time for it, which generally occurs sometime in middle school. In other words, you should read to your child for many, many years after they can read independently. This is because your child’s independent reading sessions, and your reading aloud sessions to your child, serve two different sets of objectives and develop two different sets of skills.

We usually read at bedtime when he is in bed, but we also take advantage of commutes, road trips, and waiting rooms. My son also has ADHD, and I have found that he actually concentrates better if he is engaging in a “fidget activity” while he is listening to me: something that occupies his hands but does not take up book-analysis brain space: for example, playing with LEGO or cleaning his bedroom or playing with the puppy or re-organizing his cards.

When you read to your child, you can and should read from books that are about three grade levels above their independent reading level. A child’s oral comprehension level is always higher than their independent reading level. In addition, you will be checking for comprehension, defining unknown vocabulary, and helping them analyze the text as you read, which will allow them to access texts that are far above their independent reading level.

More importantly, books that are several years above your child’s independent reading level tend to be more exciting and interesting to your child, have more unfamiliar vocabulary you can teach them, and tackle important and relevant content knowledge you can discuss with them: social issues, diversity, cultural issues, history, and moral and religious issues.

mother reading to child

Reading books that are several years above your child’s independent reading level also allows you to maximize the benefits of reading actively to your child. You should not read these books mechanically from cover to cover like an audiobook. Rather, as you read to them, you should check your child’s comprehension of the text, define vocabulary, help your child question and analyze the text, and discuss the content or issues addressed in the book—this is known as reading actively (rather than passively). In other words, the text should be used as a springboard for parent-child discussions about vocabulary, comprehension checks, textual analysis, and the content or issues addressed in the book.

Reading aloud to your child—actively, and with books several years above their independent reading level—helps your child:

  • Develop a love and passion of reading and of books;
  • Build their vocabulary;
  • Acquire significant content knowledge;
  • Practice text analysis skills;
  • Engage in parent-child discussions about issues important to the family and in the news; 
  • Become accustomed to the “active reading” techniques that are essential to a strong academic performance in middle and high school;
  • Help your dyslexic child partially compensate for their weak decoding skills;
  • Enrich and develops your child’s dyslexic cognitive strengths: big picture and conceptual thinking.

Reading aloud to your child each evening like this is even more important when your child struggles with independent reading. My child has dyslexia and for three years, his independent reading skills lagged one to three years behind grade level. But by faithfully reading “‘actively” to him every single night, from complex, advanced texts, I made sure he acquired the grade-level knowledge and skills he missed out on by not being able to read independently at grade level: vocabulary, idioms, content knowledge, text analysis, and critical thinking skills.

In addition, these reading sessions help students with dyslexia and reading difficulties cultivate positive associations with books and reading as fun, exciting, valuable and as an essential part of life. This positive association helps counter the negative associations he tends to develop as a result of the struggles and difficulty he faces with reading independently.

Finally, reading like this helps students with dyslexia develop and see for themselves the cognitive strengths that dyslexia confers. Dyslexics may be relatively weaker at the detailed thinking involved in decoding, handwriting, spelling, and keeping track of details, but they tend to stronger than average at big picture thinking, innovative and creative thought, and analytical and conceptual thinking. Teaching my dyslexic son how to analyze novels at a very young age—something that many students do not do until much older–makes him feel really, really smart, and academically advanced—something he does not get enough of—and allows him to engage in academic/intellectual activity that he excels in, and that he finds easy, fun and engaging.

For some concrete suggestions for active reading, see Part 2 (5 Steps for Active Reading).