How well we read affects us throughout our lives, both in school and out—and the most critical years for learning to read well are the early ones. Many studies from cognitive science have provided insight into the best methods for teaching reading. Unfortunately, many children aren’t getting this type of instruction—and disruptions in schooling due to the pandemic have made matters even worse.
As a parent, how do you know if your child is receiving high-quality reading instruction? What questions should you be asking, and what can you do at home to support your child’s learning, particularly while school is still a little out-of-the-ordinary?
Here’s what parents and caregivers need to know about reading instruction:
Nationwide, many students struggle with reading. Based on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as the “nation’s report card,” just 35 percent of American fourth graders read at grade-level. In Louisiana, 26 percent of fourth graders meet that bar. In Massachusetts, the highest scoring state in the nation, that number is 45 percent overall, and around 25 percent for Black and Latinx students. Unfortunately, the pandemic has made things worse for many children, especially those who need additional support in reading.
The window for learning to read is relatively short. Children build essential pre-reading skills in the infant and toddler years, when they’re developing awareness of language that lays the groundwork for literacy. Once they get to school, kindergarten through third grade are critical years for building reading fluency. After third grade, your child’s lessons will have moved away from explicit reading instruction, and students will be expected to read in order to learn new skills and content in all subjects. For this reason, it’s essential that all students get the reading instruction they need in their first few years in school—pandemic or no pandemic.
There is a right way and a wrong way to teach reading. For many years, there was a popular belief that children learn to read naturally through exposure to books. While exposing children to books and reading is important for many reasons, it isn’t enough. In addition, students need to be taught the mechanics of reading—how to blend sounds together to make words—in order to become fluent readers. Many studies from cognitive science back this up: When we read, our brains rapidly interpret the letters, connect those letters to sounds, and blend the sounds to make words. To train our brains to do that, we need to be taught predictable sound/spelling relationships (phonics) and then how to apply those rules to texts.
All students benefit from this kind of reading instruction. All kids need phonics instruction on their journey to becoming readers. While it’s true that some children can become fluent readers regardless of what kind of instruction they receive, direct instruction in phonics will give these students a solid basis in how the English language works, make them stronger spellers, and help them understand word meanings. For students who will struggle to learn to read without explicit and systematic phonics instruction, this kind of instruction is even more critical.
“For many years, there was a popular belief that children learn to read naturally through exposure to books. While exposing children to books and reading is important for many reasons, it isn’t enough.”
Reading levels aren’t everything. Children are often assigned “reading levels” in school, and then given books to match that level. While your child absolutely should be practicing on decodable texts, which emphasize sound groupings they’ve already learned, your child’s reading level will actually vary depending on the content. A child who knows a lot about basketball, for example, will read at a higher level when they’re reading a book about basketball, compared to a book about ballet. So while reading levels can be helpful indicators of how well a child is reading, they don’t tell you everything. It’s useful for children to read about topics they know about, as well as topics that are unfamiliar, which can help them build new knowledge of the world.
Here’s what you can do to support your child’s reading:
Talk with your kids. It sounds simple, but talking matters—even before your children can talk back. (Hey, enjoy this while it lasts.) Before kids can learn phonics, they need phonological awareness, which is the ability to recognize and manipulate sounds in spoken words. You can support this at home through talking with your children from infancy, singing nursery rhymes, and playing with rhyming words.
Read at home. It’s not your job to teach your child to read. But you absolutely can support their reading at home. If your child brings home books to practice on, let them read aloud to you. Even if they can get through a book slowly, let them keep working on that one—the goal is for their reading to sound like talking. You should also, of course, read books of their (and your!) choosing, to develop their knowledge of the world and engage them in rich literature. (And don’t worry—re-reading counts, too!)
Keep an eye out for certain red flags. If you notice that your child is guessing at words, or only wants to read the same book over and over because they’ve memorized most of the words, ask them to say all the sounds in the word and blend them together. If they have a hard time doing that, this is something to raise with the teacher. They might just need more opportunities to practice with individual letters and sounds. Observe their spelling, too. It’s normal for spelling skills to develop after reading, but they shouldn’t be too far behind. Ask your child’s teacher if you notice that your child is able to read many words, but isn’t able to spell them.
Ask your child’s teacher about how they teach reading. Reading instruction should not have fallen by the wayside during remote or hybrid learning. One key question to ask your elementary age child’s teacher is, “How do you teach phonics?” You want to hear something like, “We teach phonics explicitly and systematically.” If the answer is “we don’t teach phonics,” or “we learn phonics along the way,” your child may not be getting the instruction they need.
Press for more support if your child is struggling. By the beginning of second grade, your child should be comfortably able to decode most words. If they’re not, they may need more practice, and now is the time to get it. Don’t wait until third or fourth grade to ask for support: By then, your child will be expected to “read to learn” in school, and their classroom teacher won’t spend much—if any—time on foundation reading skills. You have the right to request an evaluation of your child if you have concerns, and school must either grant that request or supply (in writing) a valid reason for denying it.
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