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Reading instruction for my remote first grader has been almost non-existent. She hasn’t read with a teacher since March, and she hasn’t been asked to hand in a single written assignment, either. They’re getting read to out loud, but that’s about it. She’s not learning anything, as far as I can tell, and I’m starting to panic. I know these early years are really important for literacy skills, but I have no idea how to teach her to read at home. Help!

Panicking in Pennsylvania

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Elysa Severinghaus

Elysa Severinghaus brings more than a decade of experience in instructional and operational roles to EdNavigator, where she serves as Executive Director in Boston. A former middle school teacher, Elysa speaks Spanish and French and lives in Roslindale with an exceptionally cute canine roommate.

Dear Panicking,

I’m sorry you’re in this position. You’re absolutely right: These early years are so important for building foundational literacy skills, and your child deserves better instruction than she’s getting right now.

First off, it’s important to know that you shouldn’t feel compelled to become a teacher overnight. (I’m assuming you’re not a teacher. If you are, you’re probably also busy teaching your own students while trying to manage your child’s remote learning, in which case...we’d like to send you a cake.)

There’s a specific, evidence-based way most children need to learn to read in order to become fluent. (Here’s what we think parents need to know about learning to read.) It’s the school’s job to give your daughter that instruction, and the pandemic (and remote learning) really isn’t an excuse for not delivering. But you know that already. So setting aside—just for a moment—the issue of what’s lacking in your daughter’s current educational experience, let’s talk about what you can do at home to make sure your child is learning:

Create a text-rich environment in your home. Kids who are learning to read and write need to see as much written language as possible. If it won’t drive you totally crazy, consider labeling household objects with index cards or sticky notes. You can label things like “oven,” “sink,” “bed,” and “dog” (maybe over the dog’s bowl, not on the dog himself). Remember that simple consonant-vowel-consonant words like “cat,” “mat,” and “bat” are among the earliest words children learn, so start from there if you’re feeling overwhelmed. And take opportunities to emphasize language with your kids even when you’re not actually sitting down to read with them. Here are some ideas for hidden opportunities to read with your kids.

Language games. Activities like scavenger hunts for items that start with certain letters or sounds (for example, ask them to find things starting with the letter “f” and they might come up with a fork and a flower), rhyming games, “I Spy…” and so on are the equivalent of sneaking vegetables into baked goods: sneaky ways to get in the good stuff.

Read, read, read. The best thing you can do, really, is read at home. Read aloud together every day. You can read to your child and your child should read to you—both are important, and they serve different purposes. Our friends at Innovations for Learning suggest trying “supported reading.” Let your child do the reading, while you correct as needed. (Wait until they’ve reached the end of the sentence to make a correction.) Ask your school if they have access to an online library of leveled readers so you can pick books that are both interesting and appropriate for your daughter. If you’re not sure what reading level is right, and the teacher isn’t telling you, look for books where your child can read about 80 percent of the words. The Bob Books are good for children who are just learning to read, too.

Talk to the teacher. Finally, don’t hesitate to raise this concern with your child’s teacher. I’d suggest asking specifically what reading instruction is going to look like via remote learning: How will phonics be taught? How will your child’s progress be monitored and gaps be addressed? When will she have the opportunity to read with the teacher, and how often? What kinds of written assignments will she be asked to complete? You can ask for the name of the reading program they’re using, too. (Some of the ones we like are Core Knowledge, EL Learning, American Reading Club, and Bookworms.) If you hear something wishy-washy, like, “We’ll get to that later” or “we don’t really teach phonics explicitly,” come back to Ask a Navigator and connect with us again. We’ll figure out next steps.

“The best thing you can do, really, is read at home. Read aloud together every day.”