A Covid opportunity: create serious family partnerships around reading

School is underway, in one form or another. While getting here has been a herculean effort for educators, still the daily work of teaching during Covid is challenging and exhausting. Fortunately, amidst all this chaos, we have an unexpected opportunity: we could tap into families’ heightened attention to children’s learning and more effectively engage parents and caregivers around children’s reading development. Now’s our chance.

Why involve families more seriously than we have ever done before?

For three reasons:

1.Many of the skills key to reading well accumulate over the years and need to be built up, over time, from birth: language- and knowledge-based skills drive understanding and are at the root of many older students’ reading struggles; the social emotional skills that contribute to reading strength and school success also build slowly, through repeated modeling and practice. This skill building has to be woven into daily life through conversation with adults who care.

Plus, by age 18, children will have spent only about 12% of their lives with teachers and in schools. In a skill-building process that requires accumulation, it has never made sense that families and caregivers aren’t enlisted seriously as part of the learning-to-read effort.

2. Too many educators don’t know what kind of instruction is necessary to create strong readers, yet families are counting on schools to teach their children all the skills necessary to read well. According to a 2016 study from the National Council on Teacher Quality, only 39% of our nation’s teacher preparation programs appear to include coursework on how to teach reading effectively. That means that potentially 60% of educators aren’t teaching our young children according to what scientific studies show works.

3.Many schools use reading programs that don’t include systematic phonics instruction, and don’t align with what research has proven to be essential for kids. While it’s not a teacher’s fault that the training received wasn’t appropriate, and teachers surely aren’t to blame for materials that they are given to use, the fact is, at scale, we can’t count on each child’s teacher to adequately prepare that particular child, or the others in his/her class.

But don’t schools already partner with families?

Sort of. Unfortunately, even schools with family partnerships in place don’t truly partner with families around reading. If there were true partnerships, families would see themselves as critical, fully understand their roles, and have a handle on their own children’s skills as readers. Instead, a recent nationwide survey of 3645 diverse K-12 public school families indicates that 93% of parents think their child is at or above grade level in reading, which is directly at odds with the most recent NAEP scores showing that roughly 37% of U.S fourth graders read at or above grade level. That means that over half of parents have an unrealistic understanding of their own children’s reading abilities, and will learn, at some point, the sad truth. If there were true family partnerships, transparency would be at the core.

Most families don’t know what contributes to reading strength, and that impacts what they do at home. We conducted interviews and surveys with parents and caregivers that showed an eagerness to help children improve as readers, but a jaw-dropping (86%) lack of awareness of those reading skills that go beyond letter-sound skills (i.e., vocabulary, academic language, and knowledge building).

Most of the time, the reading development information families get from schools doesn’t add up for parents, and that affects what children are steeped in at home every day. For example, while many families understand that they should read to children, they don’t understand how reading to a child fits into the goal of raising a strong reader. That means they don’t know that children benefit from, say, hearing the academic language and learning about topics in a variety of books, and discussing the diverse ideas through back-and-forth conversations.

Instead, families trying to improve reading skills target what they think defines reading — letter knowledge and sight words. While these mechanical skills are absolutely essential, they aren’t sufficient for long term reading success, and parents should be able to count on schools to systematically teach these skills and give children opportunities to practice them. In other words, family time is better spent on chances for children to think, to grow their language, and build up knowledge about the world. And that, of course, happens to be the fun part.

Creating a strong family partnership doesn’t mean making families feel responsible to teach children how to read; it’s not a parent’s job. But families should have what they need to make a difference for their own children. They need a road map, they need to understand where their children are on the reading trajectory, and they need more tools to help easily at home — in ways that make sense to them, fit into their lives, and add joy, not stress.

For educators, there are three obvious upsides to creating more robust family partnerships around learning to read:

  1. With families supporting reading growth informally, but appropriately and intentionally, at home, children would have exponentially more language-learning moments. This is necessary every year, but this year it is even more important because children are missing out on learning time. Well-supported families would be able to help with skill accumulation in the fun and informal ways that children learn best.
  2. Transparency would mean more productive conversations between parents and teachers, and less angst for families. With a sense that it’s truly a collective effort, parents would have a clearer picture of what they should be doing at home and what will be taken care of at school. For those caregivers who are worried they aren’t doing enough or the right things at home, there will be less angst.
  3. With more knowledgeable adults in children’s lives, families could serve as much-needed backstops. This means a greater chance to find children’s reading issues early and remediate when intervention feels most like play, and works best. Too many reading problems are diagnosed late, or never diagnosed at all.

So let’s seize this COVID opportunity to make an innovative change, and help families productively join the learning-to-read adventure early. By partnering in substantive ways with the stakeholders most invested in children’s success, educators have a chance to impact reading outcomes at scale.

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Joan Kelley is the Founder and CEO of Abound (aboundparenting.com).

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Joan Kelley

Joan Kelley

Joan Kelley is the Founder and CEO of Abound (aboundparenting.com).

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