“Reading 20-minutes each night” has backfired. Family awareness would help.

After five years of getting feedback from parents of children preK-grade 3, two things are abundantly clear to me:

  1. families aren’t aware of the skills children need to become strong readers & 
  2. school messaging about reading together at home assumes that they are.

The Awareness Problem

When families don’t “get” what learning to read is all about, or what their roles are in children’s reading growth, they can’t know what the standard 20-minutes-of-nightly-reading should look and feel like. Of course families want their children to read well, but they aren’t aware of what it takes to get there, and don’t notice when their kids aren’t progressing appropriately. Those facts, confirmed by great research by Learning Heroes, are working against children’s reading growth.

The Messaging Problem:

Regular reading makes a huge difference, but we are focusing on very different types of learning when parents read to kids, compared to when kids read to parents. And what I hear again and again is that parents/caregivers believe that schools want them to spend that 20-30 minutes listening and helping a child while he/she reads aloud. And that plan, especially for parents of children who struggle to read and therefore “hate” reading, is often a super stressful disaster. 

Worse, once the painful 20 minutes of a child tripping over words is finally over, any cozy read-together time has come and gone. Squandering that adult read-aloud opportunity means children aren’t hearing, thinking, and talking about the complex ideas and words in more advanced books. When children practice reading simple books at their grade levels, even if they read well or happily, they aren’t reading challenging vocabulary. They might improve a little bit on fluency (reading words accurately and quickly), but they have missed out on critical skill building that has to build up little by little over time.

What could schools do differently this year? 

Fix the awareness problem:

To partner with schools effectively, families should know what their role is in the learning-to-read process, which skills their children are working on at each age level (benchmarks), and how their children are progressing. Once families are more aware, they’ll have more agency. That will mean more confidence choosing how to spend reading time at home, more motivation to do their roles with gusto, and more eyes on children’s progress – all of which will ease the burden on overworked teachers. 

Change the messaging about nightly reading:

The messaging has to make clear that 20-mins of nightly reading should start with parents and caregivers reading aloud to children. When parents and kids delve into engaging stories or learn about fascinating new things together, children build key literacy skills (e.g., background knowledge and vocabulary), grow excitement about books and learning, and connect with caregivers. If there’s time and interest in a child reading aloud a book after that delightful reading time is over, great. If not, so be it.

What might be missed?

Fluency practice, when it actually happens during those 20 minutes at home, will have to be made up elsewhere. Maybe it could be done in frequent short sessions at school with minimally-trained aides or volunteers, or perhaps digital tools can fill that void. With more schools (finally) turning to phonics, many children may be able to happily read decodable books independently, and practice at home can be quicker and less painful for all.

This fall, let’s fix the awareness and messaging problems, and create partnerships between teachers and families that actually impact reading outcomes. It’s a collective effort to raise strong readers, but these integral stakeholders have to understand their roles and be supported to do their part. 

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