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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

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

December 5, 2017

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's 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:

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.).

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.

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, 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.

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"I feel the need of reading. It is a loss to a man not to have grown up among books." —

Abraham Lincoln