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California's Reading Dilemma

EdSource Special Report

Teaching young children how to read: What California parents need to know

Above: An elementary student reads on his own in class.
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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.

Lakisha Young

“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.

Megan Potente

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.

Sue Pimentel

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.

Jessica Sliwerski

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.

Kareem Weaver

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.

Credit: Andrew Reed / EdSource

Esti Iturralde with her two daughters, Winnie, left, and Lorea.

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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  1. Tara 1 month ago1 month ago

    Thank you for this article. Requiring universal screening for risk of dyslexia is critical for both parents and children. Parents need to know when they have a child that needs more support, and children need to be serviced with interventions as soon as possible. Furthermore, there should be mandatory systemic research-based reading approaches taught in all schools.

  2. Chuck Dowdle 1 month ago1 month ago

    “California Kids Can Read and Write!” will be published in a month by Luminare Press in Eugene, Oregon, and I think the fact that it’s a pragmatic, student-centered reading and writing program for all ages will impress you.

  3. Christine Pilger 1 month ago1 month ago

    It all comes down to what the family values. Period.

  4. Mary Johnson 1 month ago1 month ago

    This Is a wonderful article. Great resources for parents to ask questions to their child teachers and school. Parents must also learn their child learn styles, to ensure the instruction is done friendly on how the child learn, so the child can engagement.

  5. Mary Ellen Allocca 1 month ago1 month ago

    I have been in ECE for 30 years: instructional assistant, teacher's assistant, shadowing children with special needs, Preschool Certified Teacher, Site Director for Head Start, and Director of a District-Funded provider preschool in Trenton, NJ. I cannot tell you how many children I have seen struggling with reading! I have worked in low underserved areas and high-income suburban areas. Many low, middle, and high-income level families do not prioritize taking their children to … Read More

    I have been in ECE for 30 years: instructional assistant, teacher’s assistant, shadowing children with special needs, Preschool Certified Teacher, Site Director for Head Start, and Director of a District-Funded provider preschool in Trenton, NJ. I cannot tell you how many children I have seen struggling with reading! I have worked in low underserved areas and high-income suburban areas. Many low, middle, and high-income level families do not prioritize taking their children to the library, reading a story to their child, or having their children catch them reading. with an overflow of books in the house. My daughter has 2 daughters and her house looks like an ECE classroom with books scattered among my grandchildren.

    Yes, she is a vice-principal in her district, and I was her role model. She takes her children to the library every Saturday. She has sight words written on post-its, alphabet charts, constant blends charts, word families charts, etc. My granddaughters have 2 desks where they enjoy doing homework, artwork, and crafts. They are constantly being read to or they read to my daughter! Yes, she is OCD but it’s working to her children’s advantage while their grade reading and writing levels soar! My youngest granddaughter knew all her sight words, letter sounds, letter recognition, and how to write her name before she entered kindergarten! Why? My youngest granddaughter wanted to be as knowledgeable as her older sister. They love it! Reading is their joy! They love books, and magazines! I believe the key is limited screen time! My daughter never used the TV or IPAD as her babysitter, only on occasion if the girls were sick or she or her hubby was ill. My granddaughters have an incredible imagination! They created different environments at their home: grocery stores, beauty salons, doctor’s offices, fire stations, sports arenas, and camping sites, telling each other made-up stories from their creative minds! It is an amazing site! So I tell my daughter to spread the wealth, and continue to do workshops for parents, educators, and administrators!

  6. Lori DePole 1 month ago1 month ago

    As Co-State Director of Decoding Dyslexia CA, we see too many of our struggling readers, especially those with dyslexia, suffer with the continued use of balanced literacy approach in our CA schools. The 3-cueing method is not supported by reading research and is actually harmful to struggling readers. Parents/caregivers should be asking their districts what English Language Arts curriculum they are using in the classroom. This is a great video by National Center on Improving … Read More

    As Co-State Director of Decoding Dyslexia CA, we see too many of our struggling readers, especially those with dyslexia, suffer with the continued use of balanced literacy approach in our CA schools. The 3-cueing method is not supported by reading research and is actually harmful to struggling readers. Parents/caregivers should be asking their districts what English Language Arts curriculum they are using in the classroom. This is a great video by National Center on Improving Literacy entitled “Route to Reading Avoid A Lemon – Looking Under the Hood“.

  7. Monie de Wit 1 month ago1 month ago

    Thank you, EdSource, for this wonderful resource. Parents need to be aware of everything you’re sharing if we want to change how reading is taught in California. Literacy is for everyone. Sadly those who fall behind and have socioeconomic hardships far too often don’t catch up. Aware parents will support the right to read movement. Love what Kareem Weaver is doing. His movie about the Right to Read will be at the Santa Barbara Film Festival.!

  8. Dr. Bill Conrad 1 month ago1 month ago

    Parents really have a problem when the K-12 Education system is not committed to implement the science of reading and instead adheres to all manner of alchemistic approaches to teaching reading. Not to mention the proclivity of the K-12 system to blame students and families. Ms D'Souza is correct to demand that schools provide parents with valid, reliable, and regular data on student benchmark performance using valid and reliable assessment tools on phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension, … Read More

    Parents really have a problem when the K-12 Education system is not committed to implement the science of reading and instead adheres to all manner of alchemistic approaches to teaching reading.

    Not to mention the proclivity of the K-12 system to blame students and families.

    Ms D’Souza is correct to demand that schools provide parents with valid, reliable, and regular data on student benchmark performance using valid and reliable assessment tools on phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary beginning in Kindergarten and continuing through 3rd grade.

    We cannot wait till the end 3rd grade grade to get data on whether our children can read.

    Early literacy data should be available at the individual, class, grade, school, and district levels. Data should be communicated publicly as well.

    Demand that your school not only post key early literacy data but they also follow science of reading curricula, pedagogy, and assessments. They should also monitor and report on teacher performance.

    Reading must be explicitly taught and assessed. It is hard work but absolutely necessary work.

    Most children will not learn reading the same way they learn oral language. They must be taught.

    Accept no substitutes!

    Read The Fog of Education!

  9. Mary 1 month ago1 month ago

    I applaud the effort to look into reading deficits. I usually find your articles are slanted toward the school isn't doing enough. I'm sure there is evidence of that out there. We already know that birth to 5 are the big years for brain development. Usually, kids are at home for most of that time, but day care centers are growing. If your article had given some tips for parents and day care centers to … Read More

    I applaud the effort to look into reading deficits. I usually find your articles are slanted toward the school isn’t doing enough. I’m sure there is evidence of that out there. We already know that birth to 5 are the big years for brain development. Usually, kids are at home for most of that time, but day care centers are growing. If your article had given some tips for parents and day care centers to do to promote early literacy, it would have been more complete.

    In schools, many children come with low vocabulary, having never been read to, and unstimulated in play or learning. This is why my district does a monthly preschool parent training. We tell parents why they need to interact with their child and how. If parents and day care read daily, sang and chanted, and developed vocabulary by talking, explaining, and using adult words (instead of baby talk), they could put their children farther on the path to readiness.

    That’s not to say children will never have problems, of course some will still need extra support. Parents and day care should also know, schools, doctors, and public agencies have resources to help children from birth up and are required to help.

  10. Ruth Parker 1 month ago1 month ago

    I have taught reading on the secondary level,and I believe it can be done. However, I think that my son has dyslexia which was never discovered or addressed by me or by his teachers.