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How to Raise a Child Who Loves to Read (…And How to Help Your Struggling Reader)

How to Raise a Child Who Loves to Read (…And How to Help Your Struggling Reader)

posted by Karen Quinn, The Testing Mom - March 12th, 2011

Listen to the 30 Minute Mom radio show where Karen Quinn interviews Dr. Marion Blank, an expert in child literacy and one of’s experts!

Here’s the transcribed version of the radio show if you prefer to read it instead.

  • Karen Quinn: Welcome to The 30 Minute Mom on I’m Karen Quinn, mother of two and your host. Like you I’m too busy with real life to read all those advice filled parenting books. On this show we talk to experts and parents who’ve gone before us for insight and advice on how to make the hardest job in the world just a little bit easier. If you’d like to know a little bit more about me you can check out my website at where you can read my personal blog and you can read about some of the books I’ve written. Or visit where you can learn about the work I do with young children. Today we’re going to talk about how to raise children that love to read. If a child can read, she can learn anything. If a child struggles with reading the world can be a hostile place. I happen to be a completely sensational reader, but I didn’t start out that way. In first grade, which is when we learned to read in my day, they put me in the slow reading group. The jaybirds. I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to be a red bird or at least a blue bird. I felt so bad that I was in that group. I knew that it meant that I was dumb because I couldn’t do what my friends were doing.That’s the first time I remember really working hard on something at school because I just didn’t want to be at the bottom. But once reading clicked in for me I loved it. One of my fondest memories of growing up was of my mom taking me to the Landon Library in San Antonio, Texas where I grew up. Every Saturday morning I would get to pick out a stack of books. I mean like ten books. I could barely carry them to the desk. Then I’d take them home and they’d usually be all read by the end of the weekend. To me nothing’s better than curling up all day reading books like The Secret Garden or Nancy Drew or Beezus and Ramona. I think this is what we all want for our kids. We want them to love to read because that skill along opens up the world to them.On today’s show we are so lucky to have with us one of the world’s experts on how children learn to read. Doctor Marion Blank. She is the direct of the lifetime literacy program at Columbia University and this year’s recipient of the Upton Sinclair Award. This is given to individuals who make significant contributions to the field of education. I love talking to Dr. Blank because every time I do I learn something new. She has developed an amazingly innovative reading program called, which is helping children everywhere break the code and become successful readers.In the thirty minutes we have with Marion I hope we can learn two things. What can we do for our very young children to turn them into successful readers? And for parents of children who are struggling with reading, how can we help them master the skill? Marion, thank you for being here today. I want to welcome you to the show.M
  • Marion Blank:It’s a pleasure to be with you again.
  • Karen Quinn:Always, always. Let’s start by talking about how we can turn our young children into readers. Marion, I still remember when my daughter Skyler was in kindergarten. Everyone was learning to read and she wasn’t. I was so worried about her. My first question is when should a child learn to read?
  • Marion Blank:That sounds like an easy question but it’s really quite a hard one because it has to do with the skills in the individual child, but also group dynamics. If we leave children alone and they weren’t in a classroom situation, there are places in the world like in Denmark where reading starts very late. Late for us. It’s around seven or eight years of age. The kids do fine.What happens is we tend to start very early. There are advantages to that. One of the huge disadvantages the children start comparing themselves to the other children. If they see they’re behind it sets up an awful kind of self image that can haunt the child for life. We try to rationalize with the children. The teachers will say, “It’s fine, everybody’s different. You’re doing a great job.” Parents will say, “It doesn’t matter. We love you anyway.” But the child says, “Joey can read, Alice can read, I can’t. I’m stupid.”The group situation, which just has not been looked at enough, is really a huge factor. What that means, and this is in my way of thinking, if a child’s going to be in a group setting – and almost every child is – it really makes it vital for the parent, if at all possible, to try and teach the children the basic skills of reading so the child will never be phased by anything they face in school.
  • Karen Quinn:Right. Like I felt when I was in the lowest reading group. I felt bad about myself. I remember that still to this day.
  • Marion Blank:Exactly. It’s a powerful emotion. Early reading and starting a child at four and five is fine because if you do it the kids like it. There would normally be no pressure to do it, but with the current pressure on early reading there’s an enormous pressure because you – the figures are frightening. Forty percent of children across the grades, in general across the states across the grades, have difficulties reading and are failing in reading.
  • Karen Quinn:What about – I was going to ask you before we get into that. I definitely want to talk about that. We’re talking about four and five, but you see those teach your baby to read programs. You see those little three year olds or two year olds that are already reading. Are they really reading?
  • Marion Blank:Well, there are a few who are. There are a group of children called early readers who are fine kids and are doing fine. In addition to being fine kids they just have cracked the code on their own. It’s not an insignificant number. We don’t have the exact numbers but it wouldn’t be at all surprising to find about 5% of the population doing that. Kids often figure out things on their own. Those kids are fine because they are totally in control of what’s happening to them. They’re not overly pressured. They decide if they’re going to look at a book, if they’re not going to look at a book.When a child is directing his or her own learning there’s no pressure. The child knows what to pick and how to follow his or her own interests. But, if a parent is pushing for early reading, that can be dangerous. I have seen – and we get calls all the time from parents of two year olds who say they really see their child has enough skills to read and should they start the program? I almost universally discourage that, even though there are a lot of programs out there that say you can teach your child at that age.The thing is that really effective reading requires a kind of steady diligence and the attention to a teacher, or the teaching adult or program, for 15 to 20 minutes. It isn’t holding up two flashcards or three flashcards and then going off and doing something else. It’s fairly easy to teach children to recognize some words. Many parents think that’s reading. It’s got some elements of reading in it, but it’s not. If you really want your child reading, you have to have a child who’s willing to sit down and attend in steady attention on a day to day basis for 15 to 20 minutes. That really is almost impossible to manage for a normal two year old. It’s putting enormous pressure. Even if the child does it at that point the pressure is building up.Recently I read an article by one of the leaders in the computer field who says he’s taught his two year old to read and that now the child’s four and can read the Constitution. In my experience – there’s always something new in the world – but in my experience no four year old could possibly understand the underpinnings of the Constitution. They might understand a few words but there’s no way they can understand the concept of a total structure of a government and the organization under which it operates.
  • Karen Quinn:So they might be reading words but they’re not understanding anything they’re reading.
  • Marion Blank:Right. Exactly. That is not a good experience, in general. There are a fair number of children who do that. They’re called hyperlexics. I’ve seen some two year olds, three year olds, four year olds who can do it. I remember seeing one years ago, it was many years ago. The headline in the New York Times had the headline hexachlorophene in it, which was at the time a new element for keeping hospitals clean. They had a report on the front page and he read it as if it were, “hello.” He obviously had no idea. When you get what happens with hyperlexia is that it really becomes a kind of reading of a phone book. It’s almost sitting down and reading a phone book. You can do it, but what’s the point?
  • Karen Quinn:Right. What could a parent do? If you have a young child, what can we be doing to plant the seeds with young children so that they’re hopefully going to love to read but also that they’ll be prepared to read when the time comes? What should parents be doing?
  • Marion Blank:That’s an excellent question. I think it’s useful to think in terms of two groupings. One where there’s a fair amount of discussion is using and presenting attractive, appealing books that the children love. I personally love P.D. Eastman Are You My Mother and that kind of book. Or there are some – there’s a huge range of books out there. Reading to the child every night gets the children accustomed to the language of print. We haven’t given enough attention to the fact that the language in books, the language in print, is different than the language we speak.For example, in books sentences constantly connect. In spoken language you can jump from topic to topic because there’s no need. You’re just dealing with the here and now. You could sort of say something like, “Would you like a glass of orange juice. Hey, we’re going to the movies tonight.” Those don’t connect in any way but nobody thinks you’re crazy. If you saw that in a book you’d say, “What’s going on?” Books are built so that things sequentially connect. For example, “The little bird was very scared. He went looking for his mother.”Books present, in a fun and appealing way with tremendous motivational material, the language that the child has to get prepared with for school and for books. Which is great. Parents, in general, are very tuned in to that I’ve found. Many, many parents have nighttime reading. One of the things that would be nice that parents tend not to do much of is expand it beyond stories or novel types. For older children it would be novels. It would be very good to add to that category of book reading interesting topics in science and biographies, in social studies, that are interesting. Sort of like, it depends on your child’s age, but how did people first grow plants? Kids would be very interested. Or how did the first kind of animal, where did they find them and how did they live, and so on.That lays the groundwork to science and social studies, which is very important. You could expand beyond stories with young children, and have a lot of fun. The area that people tend to neglect, and that’s because general reading has neglected it, are called the perceptual motor skills underlying reading. You need a lot of very special visual scanning skills. You need a lot of very specialized hand movements, for either handwriting or keyboarding depending on how the child’s going to do it. Today there’s so little work in that. For example, poor handwriting where the child is all over the place and sometimes it’s not even readable, is very common. It’s so common that teachers don’t expect anything else. That makes writing very hard for children. If writing are hard for children it’s going to interfere with their reading.
  • Karen Quinn:At what age should a parent introduce writing, like trying to write letters or drawing shapes, that sort of thing?
  • Marion Blank:Well, it needn’t be letters, but it could also be fun-like letters. For example, it’s much more important and it’s very easy with this material to make it fun-like. For example, you could draw a letter like P and leave a little part out and ask the child to complete it. He doesn’t have to learn the letter names. He just has to start focusing on how the shapes are organized and how do you create them. You can do that with other shapes. You can do it with some complex geometric designs. One of the most important things is to provide hand support.It’s well known that the fine motor system, the system that allows us both to use our speech well and the system that allows us to use our hands well, develops very slowly. In many children it’s not really firmly developed until about seven years of age. When we’re asking children to write they often don’t have the full range of motor skills that they need. One of the things that’s so easy is to just support the child’s hand. Not move the child’s hand. Just support it at the wrist and you’ll get tremendous improvement. It sort of lightens the load and then the child can really concentrate. That kind of thing could start generally around four years of age.
  • Karen Quinn:The writing actually supports the reading?
  • Marion Blank:Tremendously. I’ll give you an example. In fact, years ago IBM had a program called Write to Read. I don’t remember if that’s it, but it was W-R-I-T-E because it was based on the fact that if you write you read much more effectively. For example, if you have a young child and they’re not particularly doing much writing, they see a long word starting with E and they’re going to guess it’s elephant. But if you actually ask them to write it you’ll see that there’s no clear image. They’ll just put down a bunch of letters and stop when they think they have enough. It might be E and a T and maybe an X and a Y because they’re not sure what belongs.When you’re looking at words longer than three letters, which is where all the training goes, the children really don’t focus. One of the things that writing allows them to do, and encourages them to do, is to really focus and see all the letter components in a word. The interesting thing is that this takes only about three months to get in place. Once it’s in place, the child never loses it for life.
  • Karen Quinn:Wow. Let me ask you this. A lot of parents spend time with the younger children teaching them to recognize letters and learn sounds of letters. Is that a good use of the parent’s time to do? Getting a child ready to read by teaching them those two skills?
  • Marion Blank:It’s a very important question. Parents are being encouraged to do that. In fact, it is not a good thing to do. It doesn’t help you read. It leads to a form of spelling problem that is just so common that they call it a normal development. For example, the child starts using letter names to spell. When he hears a word like “easy,” he writes E and Z. “Busy” is B and Z. In other words, they start using the names. That only comes because they’ve been taught the letter names. A lot of children have memory problems which have not been discussed much. They’re called naming problems and they have trouble remembering names of things and people and so on. That’s a very common, although not very much discussed, problem.If you start using up their limited brain space for names of letters they’re not going to have it available for learning names and things that are important. It actually interferes. The other things with sounds is to do sound analysis really well is very sophisticated. To do isolated sounds, like what does apple begin with and so on, really doesn’t get far because the big problem in reading is that the child has to blend sounds. Blending of letters is very, very hard in English because most of our consonants have a kind of vowel at the end, unless you blend it. For example, if I showed you the letter P and said, “What sound is it?” You’d say “puh.” If the next letter is A you’d say “aah.” If you really put together the sounds you made it would be “p-ah.” You really wanted to say “pah.”The sound analysis leads to a lot of confusion and a lot of interference because we don’t have a system that is easy for the child to blend. We could develop it, but that would be a lot of demands on the parents. For example, if a parent was really, really dedicated and wanted to use only consonants that didn’t have those little vowels hanging at the end, like the S. For example you can keep saying S for forever. When you blend an S it could become “sah.” It could become “suh.” It could become “see.” It could become anything. You don’t have that interfering vowel. The same with M. There are a number of consonants that people could use to help the child learn to blend, but the programs aren’t out there and the parents would have to develop them themselves.
  • Karen Quinn:I was going to ask you, so if not doing the teaching of the letters and the sounds and the blending are the best uses of our time, we should be focused it sounds like on reading, reading to our kids, helping them learn to write letters that they see.
  • Marion Blank:Also word games are tremendous.
  • Karen Quinn:Like what kind of word games?
  • Marion Blank:First of all, you could start at a very simple level where you could take some of our compound words like “toothbrush,” and say to the child, “There are two words in there. What are they?” Then you could discuss, “Why do you think a toothbrush is called a tooth brush?” Compound words can lead to a lot of very nice word games. You can sort of say, “Well, since you’re brushing teeth, not tooth. What else might it be called?” Well, we can call it a teethbrush. Oh, yeah.In other words you’re playing games and playing around with words in ways that get children to focus on words in a playful way. That has enormous power. Jokes are terrific. There are a lot of good joke books out and a lot of internet sites with good jokes for children.
  • Karen Quinn:Because then they play with words?
  • Marion Blank:They play with words. That has tremendous power.
  • Karen Quinn:I want to also spend some time talking about older children who have trouble with reading. First I just want to say, if you’re just joining us you are listening to The 30 Minute Mom on We’re talking with Doctor Marion Blank, one of the world’s experts on how children learn to read. By the way, if you’re listening and you want to tell your friends about the show, just go to, click on Shows, and then click on The 30 Minute Mom where you can send a link to this show via Facebook, Twitter or email to all your friends who would enjoy listening. Perhaps your friends will have children who are just learning to read.Marion, I want to ask you a little bit about how we’ve been talking about how to help younger children in their learning process. What if you have a child who’s just a little bit older – a six year old, a seven year old, an eight year old – who’s starting to have trouble with reading. At what age anyway should a parent start to worry if their child isn’t reading and, let’s say, the classmates are?
  • Marion Blank:I would say, like I said before, from day one. In other words, you do not want your child in a group where other kids are reading and he isn’t. It’s going to be bad.
  • Karen Quinn:So that’s really the factor. It’s not the age. It’s are the children around him reading?
  • Marion Blank:That’s right. That’s right. Well, the other thing is one of the most important things to do at that point is to clear the decks and see what kind of homework you’re being given with your child. See which causes impossible problems for you and the child. You really want to get rid of those because you do not want endless screaming and fights at night. Once there’s a problem the children are tense, the parents are tense and it can be an awful situation. One of the things you want to do is make the homework move as smooth and as easily as possible.For example, one of the common things is spelling. If a child’s showing no progress in spelling whatsoever – and we know, by the way, it’s very ironic. We know that the spelling training in school is totally ineffective. Study after study after study has shown that. But, schools keep doing it because it’s one of the easiest things to do. It’s sort of part of the package. What happens is it’s a kind of almost religious ritual about spelling. It’s 20 words a week. The first night the child has to write them three times. The next night they have to make up sentences with them. The next night they have to look up dictionary definitions. The next night they have to study. Friday they have the test. Or there’s some variation of that.If that situation causes enormous problem, the parent should think of ways of easing it. Anything where there’s screaming and yelling is just going to be a waste of time. Very often I suggest to parents to try and either get the teacher to cut down the spelling list to, let’s say, five words. Then time is available to do more productive things which actually will teach the child to read. The other thing is that you can start – it’s much more preferable to help the child then to keep facing him with failure. For example, if the child has to write sentences, which is one of the most common things they’re asked to do in schools, a child who’s a poor reader will usually write the simplest, usually non-productive sentences like “I like ice cream,” “I like umbrellas,” “I like rubber bands,” “I like anything.” Then what happens is the teacher says, “No, I don’t like this. You keep repeating yourself.”It’s much better if the parent makes up a sentence with a word. The child just has to add a word to it to complete it. Then the child writes that sentence. For example, let’s say the word is “puppy.” The parent could say, “The puppy was so…” and the child comes up with “tiny.” Fine, write it. You’re going to get better sentences. Your child will be practicing better language, and he’s going to feel that he’s getting a lot of help and doesn’t have to be screaming and yelling.
  • Karen Quinn:The screaming and yelling is just so unproductive.
  • Marion Blank:Terribly.
  • Karen Quinn:If a child is struggling with reading at a young age, what are the risks to him and her in terms of in school?
  • Marion Blank:Well, this is one of the reasons we’ve developed The Reading Kingdom, because it’s designed to help a child very quickly start becoming very smooth, efficient and effective in reading no matter what’ s going on in school. That’s really the key. While they’re in school the important thing is to try and protect him from the worst kinds of problems. In other words, somebody raised a very interesting problem the other day which pervades schools. Let’s say your child is beginning third grade and he’s a first grade reader.The school is good and really tries to give him first grade reading. One hour a day he goes into a special class and he does first grade reading. The rest of the day he goes back and he faces third grade books. He’s doing third grade books in science, third grade books in social studies, third grade books in math. Most of the day he’s drowning in failure.
  • Karen Quinn:That’s tough.
  • Marion Blank:It’s very tough and the problem just is not addressed. So it’s very important for the parent to go in and discuss with the schools ways to get past this. For example, the parent could say, “Could you give me the material in advance? I’ll read it to him at home so he knows what to expect when he sees this so he won’t be drowning in failure.” Or can someone be there to read the material to him? Or can he get a reading partner with another child? There are a lot of solutions but the main focus, which is really what I’m trying to emphasize here, is lessening the failure. Failure must be lessened because it is a searing experience that leaves permanent damage.
  • Karen Quinn:Right. A parent has to be very diligent in watching if the child’s struggling with reading, really going in and talking with the teacher about how it impacts the entire day.
  • Marion Blank:Exactly. Don’t be – although the teacher is very well intentioned – don’t be put off by, “He’s a lovely kid. Everybody likes him. He’s got such good friends.” You are there to protect your child from failure. Then what I usually advise to parents, if there isn’t rapid progress in whatever remedial work is being done in school, I almost always advise the parents that you’ve got to do it at home by yourself. Hire even a high school student to come in and work with your child if you don’t have time to sit with some of the material. The Reading Kingdom most kids can do on their own, independently within three to four weeks.
  • Karen Quinn:Talk about The Reading Kingdom, because I’ve seen it and I think it’s a wonderful program. I recommend it to parents all the time. I love the fact that it’s not expensive. Hiring tutors, I remember when my daughter had learning disabilities. We were paying so much money for tutors. What I love about The Reading Kingdom is that it’s like having a tutor but it’s $20 a month.
  • Marion Blank:Exactly.
  • Karen Quinn:It’s very reasonable. Talk about how a child works with it and how it works because I think it’s important for parents to learn about it.
  • Marion Blank:Well, it goes back to my comments about the perceptual motor skills of early reading. One of the things that people have never realized is that reading is the only activity that requires left to right sequencing. For example, if you have a group of kids in front of you and you say to the people, “Who’s that?” They’ll say, “kids.” Kids move around and you say, “Who is that?” They look at you and say, “Of course, kids.” But then you take a group of letters in front of you, like C-A-T. What is it? It’s “cat.” But if you make it A-C-T, it’s “act.”We take for granted that reading goes left to right but it’s the only activity and many children just are not ready for this. We do a series that takes about four weeks where we, with fun games, teach the kids how to attend to visual sequencing and retain it in mind. Once you’ve got the ability to hold visual symbols in your memory, then you’ve got an important basis for reading. In other words, a good reader does not look at every word and sound it out. Why? Because that word is in his memory bank and he can instantly recognize it. You can’t do that without good visual sequencing skills. That’s one of the things.We also teach keyboarding. The child is, at the very outset if they don’t have it – if they do have it we bypass it. One of the great things about Reading Kingdom is it teaches only what the child needs. If the child has a skill he gets beyond it. Once the perceptual motor base is established, which takes two weeks, then we go into the teaching of the language components of reading. There, we’ve used a very complex – the parent doesn’t have to see it as complex – model of language that takes into account all elements of language that have to be considered. For example, people don’t’ realize it but there are a small group of words in English that we take for granted. They’re called non-content words. They’re words like “the” and “is” and “but” and “was” and “he” and so on. Those words are almost never taught in programs.They get very little teaching and sometimes are taught as sight words because they can’t be sounded out for the most part. The children are taught that these are rascals or renegades. They give them funny names. The children are taught that these aren’t really that important but they’re just these renegade names that have decided not to follow the rules. But the interesting thing is that there are only about 100 of these that matter in language. Those 100 words, I asked people to guess how much of a page they occupy. People say, “I don’t know, maybe 20%.” No, it’s 60%.
  • Karen Quinn:Really? Oh my gosh.
  • Marion Blank:60%. It’s amazing. Take any book, any newspaper, anything.
  • Karen Quinn:Wow. A lot of attention should be spent on these words.
  • Marion Blank:Exactly, and that’s what we do in Reading Kingdom. Not only should a lot of attention be spent on it so the kids instantly recognize them because they’re very important to the structure of the sentence. For example, it’s extraordinarily important if the sentence says, “The girl is sick,” versus, “The girl was sick.” It’s very important if it’s saying, “The boy was standing,” and “The boy was not standing.” It’s just one non-content word that changes in each of those that totally changes the meaning. We actually teach the children the meaning of those words through game-like activities. When I teach teachers about this I’ll say, “How do you teach a child the meaning of ‘the’?” I’ll leave and I’ll say, “If you were teaching French, how many ‘the’s would you have?” You’d have four. In English we have only one “the.”“The” is a word which goes with any noun in English. It goes with singular, pleural, masculine, feminine, neuter and so on. I say, “Before a child’s reading any other words you could put out a series of pictures. Three trees, two dogs, one man, five cars. Just have the child put ‘the’ in front of each and then read it.” Just from that experience he gets the essence of how “the” attaches to certain words. We do that with every single non-content word. The children get an enormously rich base because they begin to truly understand words like “who,” words like “because,” words like “if,” and so on.
  • Karen Quinn:Marion, it sounds like even if you have a child who’s not struggling with reading, when they’re just learning to read this would be a good program for parents to do with their kids, right?
  • Marion Blank:Absolutely. What we do is we give very well formed books that are very unusual for early readers. In other words, we’re teaching much higher level language by the second or third levels of the system. The children are getting into the language structures that are really critical for higher level reading, even though the words themselves are still quite simple.
  • Karen Quinn:I want to say that I would love to keep talking but we’re actually out of time. I want to say to everyone who’s listening that if you have a young child to go check out which was developed by Doctor Marion Blank. It’s a wonderful online program. I’ve played with it myself. It’s got games and it’s fun for kids and they love to do it. It’s $20 a month and it really helps children who are struggling with reading learn to read. Kids who are just learning to read it’s a wonderful support, I would say. Right Marion?
  • Marion Blank:Oh, absolutely.
  • Karen Quinn:For kids in school, they have teachers. This is a wonderful online support, right?
  • Marion Blank:It’s great to do it with four and five year olds before they get into regular school, because then they’ll be the superstars of their class.
  • Karen Quinn:That’s great. And who doesn’t want their kid to be the superstar of the class, right?
  • Marion Blank:Exactly.
  • Karen Quinn:Okay. For those of you who are just joining us, this is Karen Quinn and The 30 Minute Mom on We’ve been talking today with Doctor Marion Blank who’s one of the world’s leading experts in reading. Again, I just want to say if you have a child who’s learning to read or who’s having trouble reading, visit her site It’s a wonderful program and it’s quite affordable for almost any family. And I know you give scholarships for families who can’t afford it, right?
  • Marion Blank:Yes, that’s right.
  • Karen Quinn:Okay. Please join us next week when we talk about the magic bullet for raising great kids. That’s right, there’s a magic bullet and it’s very simple. Family dinners. Join us and you’ll learn more about that next week. I promise it’s going to be interesting. Until them I’m Karen Quinn wishing you all the best for your parenting success.

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