“Parents who notice” help busy teachers grow strong readers

In a NY Times Op-ed last fall, the prize-winning education reporter, Emily Hanford, described the sad state of reading instruction in the U.S. She cited the dismal data, highlighted the amount of money spent year after year on inadequate curricula, and explained why things aren’t likely to change anytime soon.

 But in one small section of the text, Hanford gave us a way forward.

Her aim was to call out how absurd it is that some struggling children improve because they have parents who notice,” who then “step in and make a difference, when they can.” But she gave us a quietly obvious way to effect real change:

 All parents need to be “parents who notice.”

Why does “noticing” matter?

“Noticing” matters in caring for a child. It’s how we recognize and respond to what they’re feeling when they’re babies, and help them steer a different course when they’re making questionable choices as teens.

The things parents notice become the data they have on their children, to be shared with others who are caring for them. Parents know that doctors, for example, count on them to call when something seems wrong with their children’s health. When I called to tell the pediatrician that our 14-year old looked pale and seemed excessively thirsty, the doctor listened and then scheduled a test for Tommy. We were devastated when our middle schooler was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes that Saturday morning, but the doctor made clear that if I hadn’t “noticed” early and brought it to her attention, there could have been a real medical catastrophe.

So why has the parent/teacher relationship put the burden of “noticing” reading issues solely on teachers’ shoulders?

Most families don’t know what to look for

Reading difficulties, unlike a rash or a fever – or excessive thirst – are hard for parents and caregivers to notice; most aren’t aware of what children need to be learning at each stage to grow into strong readers. While data shows that 92% of families believe their children read at or above grade level, NAEP scores (2022) show only 33% of fourth graders in the U.S. are proficient readers. Parents’ lack of awareness means when things go off course, nothing is noticed and no flags are raised, and families don’t feel qualified to talk about reading development confidently with teachers.

But since Covid, when families Zoomed into classrooms, stood in as teachers at home, and witnessed first-hand how difficult it is to teach every child well, research confirms that parents are more engaged than ever, and new Learning Heroes data (June 2022) shows 85% of parents “prioritize direct and truthful information about their child’s performance in school, even if things aren’t going well.”

That’s what makes this a perfect time to set up more transparent – and productive – partnerships between families and schools.

What would more transparent partnerships look like?

We’re testing a program in innovative schools with leaders and teachers who have the courage and resolve to be transparent. In these schools, every family has access to key reading benchmarks from PreK through grade 3, and an opportunity to think about how their own child is building the skills he or she will need to read well. A simple Check-In, based on what they notice at home, helps a family understand what a child is working on. When these results are shared with the teacher before the conference, reading progress is front and center as the conversation begins and parents can confidently contribute with their own informal data.

And the bonus is that parents’ results give busy teachers in busy schools quick and easy information to inform practice. Parents are not expected to teach their kids to read or do things at home that aren’t realistic, and the collaborative framing means parent input is helpful, not “gotcha moments” for overburdened teachers.

With messaging clear and roles reasonable, this approach is set up to decrease the stress levels of both families and teachers. Foundational to such productive collaboration is a firm belief, and regular reminders, that everyone – teachers, parents, and caregivers – is doing their best.

Transparency helps parents & teachers

Reading struggles aren’t character flaws, they’re instructional issues. And while the science tells us that children need systematic phonics-based instruction, it also tells us that the other skills children need to read well have to accumulate over time and beyond the school day. It’s appropriate instructional attention and support from all invested adults that’s standing in the way of any child’s progress. A more transparent effort to raise strong readers, teachers and families working together, each with their own appropriate and doable role, with the noble and necessary goal of expecting the best from each other – that’s our best and quickest way forward in this critical effort to improve children’s reading outcomes now.

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