Covid-Related Open Letter to Parents — Your Role in Helping Your Child Learn to Read

Dear Parents & Guardians:

I know you’re ready for summer and done with the role you’ve had to play during quarantine’s now-famous remote learning adventure, but before you completely devote yourself to finding your own summer beach reads, I have some news to break to you: You really need to take a leadership role in your children’s learning-to-read process. Today, and going forward. Otherwise, you can’t count on your child becoming a successful reader.

But here’s a promise: it’s not going to be a heavy lift, it’s simply adjusting the way you think about things.

Because I don’t mean teach them how to read, just own the whole darn effort. Whether you think your child is struggling to read, or you are pretty certain your young child is a strong reader at this point in the early grades, you need to be in charge enough to be on top of things in the learning-to-read department. Period.

Why do you need to be involved in helping your child learn to read?

Look at the numbers. In the latest national exam results, this country still has crazy numbers of kids who don’t read well. Roughly two out of three fourth graders are not “proficient” readers. And this data was collected BEFORE we had the huge disruption to teaching and learning brought to us by Covid-19. You should also know that on that same exam, only one out of ten fourth graders tested as “advanced” readers. Read that line again… weren’t we all sort of hoping/expecting that our children would be “advanced” readers?

I’m not blaming schools writ large

This is not a categorical put-down of schools. Sure, lots of schools have a long way to go, but in fact, schools alone can’t solve this problem. These reading-related skills are built 24/7/365, beyond the roughly 15% of time that children spend in schools (especially this year…), and starting in the early years before most formal schooling begins. But it’s true that not all formal school experiences are giving children what they need, and because your child has just one year in each precious grade during those crucial early elementary years, if he or she happens to be in a school that needs turning around, that year could go by without robust instruction by a trained professional using the right materials. And if you haven’t signed on to owning the learning-to-read adventure, you may not realize it.

It’s worth it in the long run

I know you need a break this summer. Parenting is hard and stressful enough, and quarantine has been brutal. But you want the best for your kids. And be honest, wouldn’t you rather start early, while they still listen to you at least a little bit? Do you really want to be trying to get your middle schooler/high schooler to agree to extra reading help when he or she has big piles of reading to do and all that teenage angst?

Tweak what you’re doing already to make a difference

Trust me, it won’t be a heavy lift for you if you get going soon. The earlier you start, the easier it is to tackle and the more you’re likely to set up easy routines that just become part of your family culture, not tasks on a to-do list. It’s mostly doing what you already are doing — talking to your kids, reading to your kids, teaching them how to be good friends and helpful to others — but perhaps more intentionally and consistently so you check some key boxes at different points along the way, and so you can step in and ask for help if you find reason to ask some questions. You just have to engage first.

Start by learning what it takes to become a strong reader

Really, the only way to get a grip on things is to start by learning what it takes to read well. Because it is way more than figuring out that C-A-T spells cat, and most parents don’t know what it really takes. Without that knowledge you are parenting a young reader in a vacuum. Since it’s one of those things that should be common knowledge but isn’t, make it common knowledge to you.

It’s not parenting more or parenting harder, it’s parenting smarter.

Because when you understand what skills your child needs to develop into a strong reader, you understand why it is that working small, meaningful moments into each day is actually worth doing. There are five main things to think about, and I imagine it will just mean adjusting what you are doing already:

What kinds of things should you do at home to improve your child’s reading?

  1. Really talk to your kids. Don’t limit what you say to things like, “pick up your socks,” or “go find the dog.” Back-and-forth interactions are your goal. Ask open-ended questions. Compare something from yesterday or long ago to what you are doing today. Talk so they have a chance to think and wonder and respond about something that is beyond what is right in front of them. Books and experiences and stories of all kinds can prompt those conversation ideas. Get chatty neighbors or grandparents to help, too.
  2. Read as often as you can. Why should you read to your children? When you read to them, you expose them to the language of text and you build their knowledge of the world. Those two skill sets are proven as key to reading strength, and to grow those skills, children need lots of experiences with books. So read to your kids, talk about what you read, and try lots of different types of books with lots of different subjects. Learning to sound out words is critical and essential, but it isn’t all a child needs to know to read well.
  3. Know what skills your child should be learning at the age he/she is. There are no hard-and-fast rules, but there are standards of development and you should know about where your child is on the road to reading. Even as early as 2-3 years. The problem occurs when children are diagnosed with reading issues in 2nd or 3rd grade and beyond. They feel bad, their parents feel bad, and the ensuing instruction has to be spot on and high-intensity to make a difference. If early intervention happens in kindergarten or preK, it feels like play. That’s why we recommend parents have what amounts to a reading growth chart for children, to make sure that progress is happening over time.
  4. Speak up and ask questions. Ask doctors or childcare providers or teachers when you are concerned or think your child needs support of any kind. And when your child is in school, don’t let anyone just say your child is “struggling,” or “below grade level.” That’s not helpful. Find out what skill he or she is struggling with, and how (and how often) that skill is being addressed in school. Don’t worry about feeling over-eager. Learning to read is too important. Teachers should welcome your questions and work collectively with you to address any issues you notice — they are trying to make sure your child reads well, too!
  5. Remember that reading issues aren’t character flaws. When kids struggle to read, they need different or better instruction of one kind or another — that’s it. It’s not a child issue, it’s an instructional issue. So don’t get all panicky if your child isn’t reading well at this point, just see #4 above 🙂 and help get him or her the instruction needed to move ahead!

Take on this learning-to-read adventure and own it for the sake of your kids. It really is doable. It sets you up to have those sweet and often-surprising moments that you envisioned when you started this whole parenting thing. Just add this to the top of that never-ending list you have on the counter, but write it in playful font and make hearts all around it:

♡ Own (child’s name)’s learning-to-read adventure .♡

Reading well predicts school and life success. You’ll be glad you stepped up.

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