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Tips for teaching your children to be good readers

Sophia Capuana carries her own library card. She touts a growing collection of books in her bedroom, which she swaps out for newer models on a regular basis at Story Time Book Shop in Snyder. And she never tires of hearing the story about how the power went out at the hospital on the day she was born.

She doesn’t know it yet, but these are all signs that Sophia is a great reader – and has a really good chance of being a great adult someday, too.

Not bad for a girl who just turned 6 on Thursday.

“You grow up in one place, but reading can really help you think about all the things that are out there in the world that you haven’t thought about or experienced yet. It can open you up to a lot of different goals,” said her mother, Kristen Pastore-Capuana, a Cheektowaga Central High School English teacher. “I don’t know if it sounds too lofty, but reading about characters in stories can help you develop empathy and understand people better. I notice a lot of good readers listen more and have more exposure to different ideas and people.”

When it comes to building good readers, it’s critical that the lessons start at home.

But not every mom is a high school English teacher, who just happens to be married to the Erie 1 BOCES director of career and technical education.

No matter, said Mary McVee, director of the Center for Literacy and Reading Instruction at the University at Buffalo. Any parent who wants to broaden their own experiences, and open the eyes and minds of their children, can make a big imprint. McVee and Pastore-Capuana, one of her students, offer some ways with the reading tips.

Top 10 reading tips

1. “Tried and true” is still the best: “Read with your child,” said Mary McVee, director of the Center for Literacy and Reading Instruction at the University at Buffalo. “Keep books, magazines and print around the house. Download books on digital devices. Establish a routine of bedtime reading or early morning reading. Find a favorite spot to read.” Parents need to read on their own, too, said Kristen Pastore-Capuana, a mother and a Cheektowaga Central High School English teacher. She and her husband, Michael J. Capuana, read all the time. “We have reading materials all over. It’s just part of who we are.”

2. Be curious: “Talk with your child about what you are reading or just talk about pictures,” McVee said. This helps introduce new vocabulary, and “children with strong vocabulary tend to become better readers,” she said. It’s important to ask children what they see in a picture book, but it’s equally important to ask them what they think. “Ask questions that help children think beyond just labeling: ‘Why did he do that? How would you feel if that happened to you?’ ” McVee said. Pastore-Capuana said this practice helps build an inquisitive reader for the future. “It’s that lifelong skill, being curious about life, curious about texts but also curious in general,” she said.

3. Get dad involved: When the Capuana family isn’t reading together just before bedtime in the living room, mom and dad take time switching off and reading individually to their kids, Sophia, 6, and Michael J., 3. One of dad’s favorite places is in the “tent fort” in his son’s bedroom, complete with a fake fire log and plenty of reading material.

“A lot of times, activities around reading and support with children is something that mom will do with the kids,” McVee said. “I know lots of dads read with their children, too. I think it’s really important for fathers or male caregivers to be interactive with children around books and texts. That helps kids to see, ‘Oh, this isn’t just something that women do. You can play hockey and read books.’ ”

4. Read poetry and sing: Even if you do both badly, said McVee, whose 11-year-old daughter, Lilli, has let her know that mom sings out of tune. No matter. Her children are older now – sons Zach and Jaden are 17 and 15, respectively – but when they were toddlers and preschoolers they all heard mom sing the ABCs song and the “Itsy, Bitsy Spider.” “My kids used to love it if I used to make up silly, goofy songs and put their name in it,” she said. McVee and Pastore-Capuana recommended the following poets, who all have written children’s books: Shel Silverstein, Jack Prelutsky (America’s first children’s poet laureate) and Dr. Seuss.

5. Read digitally: Sophia Capuana has been brought up doing some of her reading on an iPad. and the Starfall and Reading Raven apps have been among her favorites. She and her brother prefer print books, but the digital variety has helped give her added reading confidence, so much so that she sometimes reads to little brother Michael.

“While its fine to let your children use digital devices, remember to interact with your child,” McVee said. “Children love to spend time with you. You are your child’s first, best and most beloved teacher!”

6. Tell treasured family stories: Pastore-Capuana relishes telling her daughter about the “crazy, windy” day Sophia was born, and that her uncle was the first one to come to the hospital to “meet her.” “If you don’t recall classic stories or stories from your childhood, invent new ones,” McVee said. “Put a new and exciting twist on stories you know. … Children love to hear about how adults were children once. Even your most ordinary day can sound like an adventure to your child.”

7. Read nonfiction: “Children love learning about all kinds of things from alligators to zebras, astronauts to zoologists, ancient history to Jay Z,” McVee said. “My kids love nonfiction,” added Pastore-Capuana. “We have a couple of children’s books about the brain. They’re interesting and fun,” and help reinforce some of the things the family learns during frequent visits to the Buffalo Museum of Science.

8. Visit your public library: “Public libraries are one of America’s best – and most underused – resources,” McVee said. “Modern libraries have print and digital resources and so much to offer. Kids love to go to the library. Many libraries offer story hours, book clubs, reading contests, or other events for young children.” The Capuanas visit the Kenmore Branch Library near their home two or three times a month. “That’s another ritual,” Pastore-Capuana said. “I think when it’s built into what a family does, it becomes kind of a culture in the house.”

9. Play with language and sound: “Making up rhymes with nonsense words,” McVee said, “is a silly and fun way to play with sounds: ‘I had a pug named Doug who had a bug under his rug. He lived in a bog with a frog on a log with some fog.’ ”

10. Hit the right tone: McVee stressed that family reading time should feel different than school. “Even in preschool settings, and when they’re getting into kindergarten, those spaces have become more academic than they used to be,” she said.

“What children want is to spend time with parents where you can learn things, but it doesn’t have to be school-like. Parents shouldn’t have to remember what it was like to be in a classroom with a teacher, and kind of channel a teacher. They can be a parent who likes to learn things and wants to hang out with their kids. It should be fun.”