Like most of us, I don’t remember very much about learning how to read. I just remember loving it. I read in the car, I read while walking down stairs, which drove my parents crazy, and I frequently had to be chided to put the book down and go outside and play. My daughter, 12, was much the same, so honestly until we launched California’s Reading Dilemma, a series digging into why nearly 60% of California children don’t meet state standards by third grade, I had never given much thought to how reading is taught.
I assumed reading might come naturally, like walking and talking. I was wrong. It turns out that while some children will learn to read no matter how you teach them, many will struggle unless they get the kind of lessons they need. This disconnect between what the exhaustive scientific research tells us about how kids learn and what actually happens in the classroom is what we’ve tried to explore in this special project.
Now, I want to cut to the chase for time-pressed parents and caregivers about the bottom line on the literacy crisis, an ongoing problem deepened by pandemic learning loss. I reached out to a group of literacy experts and advocates to ask them what parents most need to know about early literacy given the national debate over how best to teach reading. What should parents do, especially if they notice their child is falling behind?
I asked them all to answer this one question: If you could ensure that every parent in California knows one thing about how their child is being taught to read or what to look out for, what would it be? Here is their advice.
My personal takeaway is a renewed sense of optimism. The reading crisis is unsettling, but the fact remains that we already know how to help kids who struggle to read. If your gut is telling you that your child needs help, listen to it. Many parents have walked this road before you. Take heart.
Lakisha Young, founder and CEO of Oakland Reach, a parent advocacy organization, wants parents to feel empowered to lobby for their children’s needs at school.
“You can, and must, ask questions. The sooner the better. Ask how many kids are reading at or above grade level at your school. Ask if the curriculum is evidence-based — is it working? Ask for a comprehensive assessment of your child. Your child may have a learning need that will impact their literacy journey.
“The earlier you know, the better for your child and your family. Ask for a game plan. If your child needs additional support, you want to understand how your school plans to address those needs.”
Megan Potente, veteran elementary school teacher and co-state director of Decoding Dyslexia CA, advises parents to watch for signs of reading delays.
What many people don’t know is that early signs of reading difficulty can be detected during the preschool years, even before formal reading instruction begins.
Talking later than their peers, difficulty rhyming, having a hard time coming up with the words they want to say, these are all signs that learning to read may be difficult for your child, down the road.
My son thrived in preschool. He excelled at making friends, drawing, and building with blocks, but there were early signs that learning to read would be hard. I now know that his difficulty detecting rhymes in stories and recognizing his name in print were indications he would struggle later on.
There were lots of signs, including the pre-K class performance when he stood out from his peers because he couldn’t remember the words to the song. Parents need to trust their guts because these were all signs something wasn’t right, and I knew it, but my concerns were met with ‘wait-and-see’ responses from preschool and early elementary teachers.
There were a lot of red flags that my son would need careful attention to his early reading development and explicit and systematic instruction to learn to read and write. Treating these signs with urgency would have made life a lot easier for him in the long run.
Sue Pimentel, a nationally renowned literacy expert, wants parents to know that reading doesn’t come naturally.
Our brains are naturally wired to listen and speak; they are not naturally wired to read. We all need structured, sequential foundational skills instruction to crack the code.
If your child is struggling with reading, know it has nothing to do with their intelligence. It means the school needs to do more and do better regarding early literacy instruction. So, push and push again harder until the school teaches your child to read well.
Jessica Sliwerski, a former teacher turned literacy specialist, warns parents that time is of the essence when it comes to reading. You can’t just wait for them to catch up.
Kids should leave kindergarten able to read words like “cat” and “hill” and leave first grade able to fluently read a book like “Nate the Great.”
It’s simply not acceptable that we set standards like “reading by Grade three which really means by the end of grade three when we know they should be reading on-level by the end of grade one, and we also know what it takes to make that happen, but our school systems aren’t uniformly ensuring that this happens for all children.
Kareem Weaver, member of the Oakland NAACP Education Committee and co-founder of Fulcrum, an advocacy group, warns parents to look out for three-cueing, a strategy that teaches children to guess at words using picture cues.
Parent engagement is what makes change happen. Parents are desperately searching for answers. First, they should determine if their child is attending to the letters and sounds to figure out what unfamiliar words say, or are they using clues, like pictures, to figure it out.
If they’re using clues, red lights should be flashing. Escalate as needed. Ask: Whose decision is it to teach reading this way? Is it a mandate, or are you deciding on your own?
Esti Iturralde, a mother who boned up on brain science to teach her daughter how to read at home, hopes parents take an active role in teaching their children.
It’s not always enough to “instill joy in reading.” I feel that school often does a lot in the way of “instilling joy” but not much in the way of actually teaching kids how to read.
I have learned that a lot of typical, smart kids need systematic instruction in how letters combine in different patterns to produce certain sounds (phonics).
Listen to your child read out loud. When my kid was really struggling, I ditched the independent reading assigned by the school and instead focused on listening to her read. Read challenging books to your child. Kids’ reading comprehension benefits a lot from having a good foundation of factual knowledge, such as knowing about science or history. In my experience, school sometimes doesn’t spend enough time on knowledge-building.
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