Time to Tell Parents the Truth about Helping their Kids with Reading

  • Parents
  • 26 November, 2017
  • 8 Comments

Teacher question:

Our schools have recently sent the home reports and parent-teacher meetings have recently taken place. I have heard from quite a few concerned parents that teachers have told them their child is 'struggling with reading' and have recommended reading to the child at least 20 minutes a day. These are parents of children k-2. The recommendation to read to the children frustrates the parents, and me as well, since all of them are already doing this. They are looking for more specifics on what to do. Do you have any insight?

Shanahan response:

Let's face it: As much as teachers complain about a lack of parent support when parents try to help, we tend to elbow them aside and ignore their concerns. No wonder my friend, Chris Lonigan, refers to this advice as the "chicken soup of reading." 

Your question reminds me of my own experience as a parent.

It was parent’s night in my child's first-grade. We were new to the district and the teacher had no idea what I did for a living. Her spiel started out:

“At ______ School, we teach reading scientifically.”

I sat up straight.

For the next 45 minutes, she explained that she was going to be teaching letter sounds and using a basal reader.

Scientific? Not especially. But it sounded reassuring and impressive. She seemed knowledgeable, the program seemed sophisticated, and our kids were going to be well served, apparently. 

I started to think about what would happen in a few weeks if some of her charges weren’t doing so well (about 20% of kids don’t). It occurred to me that, she would most likely do just what your teachers did: she'd recommend that the parents read to their struggling kids.

The conversation I imagined at the time would go something like this:

Teacher: Johnny is not doing well in reading.

Mom: How can I help? What can we do?

Teacher: Read to Johnny.

Mom: But I do read to Johnny. How can I help? On parent’s night, you told us about the sophisticated scientific way that you teach reading. How can I help with that?

Teacher: A reading program like ours is best left to skilled professionals, Mrs. Jones.

Mom: But I’m a physician (or lawyer or engineer or banker or, well, you get the idea). I can handle it.

Teacher (frustrated): I’m not sure this is taking a helpful turn. Perhaps you could meet with our school principal.

A few things you should know:

  1. Research is clear that the vast majority of kids in K-2 who suffer from reading problems will tend to have difficulties with skills like phonemic awareness, decoding, high-frequency words, and oral reading fluency. (There are definitely other important reading skills; those just don’t matter much early on.)
  2. Research is also clear that reading to kids—whatever its benefits—has little or no impact on the development of any of these skills that are so prominent in the early grades. (For the most part, reading to kids improves their knowledge of vocabulary word meanings—the lack of which doesn’t disrupt early reading much because such texts only use limited numbers of words and depend heavily on words known to be in kids’ early oral vocabularies).
  3. Research on having parents read to school age children has not found positive reading gains to result from the practice.

In other words, your colleagues are prescribing a practice that has not worked in the past, that would not be likely to work given what it can do, and that ignores the actual problems that the kids are likely to be having—so even if effective, reading to the kids would not help them to read better.

What a crazy approach, especially given that research shows parents really can help their children to learn to read and that they often will... if asked, if encouraged, if supported.

I can’t recommend exactly what should be recommended here because that is going to vary, depending on what the kids need. Parents can help with phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, high-frequency words, letters, etc., and we should ask for help with whichever ones are a pressing need at the moment.

Here are a few examples of how parents can really help:

  1. Oral reading fluency. Listen to your child read daily (teachers can provide both the books and the guidance on how to do this). Research has shown that, once kids are reading, it is helpful to read aloud to someone. I encourage parents to use the Pause, Prompt, Praise (3P) approach for this activity:                                      Pause: When the child makes a mistake, Pause… give him/her a chance to correct it. Don’t butt in until the child gets to the next punctuation point or where it is obvious that the error isn’t getting fixed.                                                                                                                                                                              Prompt: When a child makes a mistake, you can prompt him/her to sound out the word better (look at that again… sound it out… what if we break the word there?) or to use the meaning (does that make sense?… what should that say?). If the child doesn’t get the word after one prompt, tell the word and keep going.                    Praise: Praise the child for anything he/she does well (you read that great, you made a mistake but you fixed it, etc.).
  2. Phonemic awareness. Play word games: For example, I spy with my little eye something that begins with /m/. Recently, while dining with my grandchildren (a prek and a k), I'd say a word, “Big,” and they would try to change just one sound in the word to make a new word (dig, or bib, or bag, etc.). Gosh, that was fun.
  3. High frequency words or letter names. Give parents the 100 most common words (grade 1) or the 300 (second grade). Have the parents quiz the kids in 5 or 10 word/letter sets during commercial breaks of television shows (that would, for a 30-minute show, give the youngster 6 minutes of interval training). 

For more specific examples and free materials for phonics, phonemic awareness, and other skills go to the Resources section of my website, http://www.shanahanonliteracy.com/ppt-resources and look at Great Sites for Teachers and Parents. Especially helpful in this regard are Reading Rockets, Balanced Literacy Diet, and Reading Bear. 

There is no good reason not to tell parents the truth about what their children are having trouble with. And, there is no good reason not to provide them with specific activities, materials, and advice on how they can help their kids to succeed.

Comments

See what others have to say about this topic.

Kim McCready
Nov 26, 2017 08:57 PM

Hi, Dr. Shanahan,

I teach 10th and 11th grades and also have students who struggle with reading comprehension- especially on passages that are of AP or SAT-level difficulty. Can you offer any guidance besides strategies offered in test prep books?

Harriett Janetos
Nov 26, 2017 10:22 PM

I've been sending home the phonics readers from the basal series that preceded the one our district currently uses, and I have seen remarkable improvement in those first and second graders who are reading to a "print partner" at home. There are 7 - 9 stories in each book, and they bring them back for the next in the series (10 books for first grade; 6 for second) after they are able to read each story fluently. I highly recommend this means of involving parents. My one challenge is helping some students find a print partner who can read English.

Tim Shanahan
Nov 27, 2017 04:39 AM

Great idea, Harriet.

Erin Schryer
Nov 27, 2017 01:53 PM

Thank you Dr. Shanahan, I so appreciate your detailed and quick response to my inquiry. I am passing this information along to the parents who reached out to me for support. You have validated some of my initial thoughts and given me even more to share.

Harriett Janetos
Nov 28, 2017 07:29 PM

Speaking of parent involvement, here is an interesting article by a parent https://www.parent.com/sight-words-are-so-2016-new-study-finds-the-real-key-to-early-literacy/ which cites current research on the importance of invented spelling.

Invented Spelling in Kindergarten as a Predictor of Reading and Spelling in Grade 1: A New Pathway to Literacy, or Just the Same Road, Less Known?
Ouellette, Gene; Sénéchal, Monique
Developmental Psychology, v53 n1 p77-88 Jan 2017

Anna
Dec 01, 2017 07:39 PM

Thank you Dr. Shanahan for all of your insight. I work with English Language Learners in grades 3-5. Many of them started school between grades K-2. Since these children were learning to comprehend the language and gain those basic language skills in English, they did not all grasp the phonemic awareness, high frequency words and fluency. So, by the time they reach grade 3 or higher they are challenged by all of the academic language and tier 3 words. If you have any experience with English Language Learners, what might you suggest for closing that gap for ELLs?

Tim Shanahan
Dec 02, 2017 04:07 AM

And research on ELL student indicates that their parents can and will help — if asked (but usually those parents are not asked).

Laurie
Dec 04, 2017 05:53 PM

As a reading specialist who has spent many years working with students in preschool through fifth grade, keeping it fun is the name of the game, especially when reading is a real challenge. Unfortunately, some of the fun wears off for struggling readers around first grade when the pressure to meet benchmarks manifests. Parents don't need to have a teaching degree to help their children, but there are times that well-meaning parents can hinder a child's reading progress. Allow me to explain. "You KNOW that word, you JUST read it on the last page!", sound familiar? Parents are eager to help their children and can become frustrated when reading doesn't come easily and progress is slow and inconsistent (even when you provide them with good strategies like 3P's). Ask most teachers who have tried to work with their own children and I think you will find that the endless patience we posess in the classroom is harder to muster at home. Struggling readers need more support and more ENCOURAGEMENT. The last thing they need after being in school all day is another round of frustration and pressure. I recommend that parents in grades k-2 read to/with their children because that experience is usually positive, pleasant and offers a pathway to literacy. Practicing sight words and repeated readings are great, but if the student sees reading as all work and no payoff, what's the point?

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

Comment *
Name*
Email*
Website
Comments

Time to Tell Parents the Truth about Helping their Kids with Reading

8 comments

One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.