There is a common belief out there that if we read aloud to children and surround them with engaging books that they will learn to love reading and will therefore reading with only a little phonics help along the way. This belief has been gas-lighting parents for decades are we are tired of it. Parents have worn so much shame believing the reason
that our child cannot read IS our fault. Maybe if we had done more. Maybe if we had read more books to her. Maybe if we had read food labels and traffic signs to her. Maybe if we had practiced those site words more. Maybe we are just bad parents. STOP!
Parents, take in this truth: Schools must TEACH kids to read. Human brains do not have a “reading” part like we do for listening and speaking. Reading was invented about 5000 years ago – a technological advance. It is something that all children must learn and some do it more easily than others. If your child cannot read, it is NOT your fault. Despite the myth out there that “it will just click one day” we know that approximately 60% of children need explicit, systematic and cumulative phonics instruction to learn the 44 sounds of our complicated language. Moreover, we know that some types of learning disabilities, like dyslexia, are inherited in about 40% of cases, so if your child struggles, odds are that you struggle too…so give yourself some grace. You are not alone. A lot of us struggle, too.
Parents, it is time to take back the power and change the conversation. We need to forgive ourselves a little, toss aside our shame, and dig deeper. We need to all begin to ask questions of our schools, look deeply at HOW they are teaching reading and ensure that ALL children are being taught how their brains can learn.
Here are some practical steps all parents can take:
1. Read Emily Hanford’s recent article “At a Loss for Words: How a flawed idea is teaching millions of kids to be poor readers.”
2. Email your child’s teacher ask the following questions:
Q: Teacher, do you use cueing to teach my child to read?
WHY: Cueing is a method by which, when a child comes to an unknown word, the teacher instructs students to guess at the word using the pictures clues, the first letter of the word and if it makes sense in the sentence. For example, imagine a 2nd grade child reading the book “Rosie Revere the Engineer.” The illustration shows lots of different flying things and the sentence reads “Life might have its failures, but this is not it.” When the child comes to the word “failure” that she does not know, cueing teaches the child to look at the picture clues and the first letter of the word and to take a guess. In this real-life example, my daughter did both of those things and, when she got to “failure,” guessed “flutter” Both have seven letters and some of the same sounds. In fact, “failure” and “flutter” have a lot of the same letters in them. Plus, the picture cues of airplanes make the word “flutter” make a whole lot more sense than “failure.” But you know what? When she guessed the wrong word, the story no longer made sense. This is a story about overcoming failure…but she had no idea because she guessed at the word wrong. (See Clara reading Rosie Revere the Engineer.) We must teach children to read words, to sound them out, not to guess. This is why it is important for you to know if your child’s teacher is teaching cueing strategies.
Q: Teacher, you say you teach decoding and phonics. Is it taught explicating, systematically and cumulatively?
WHY: All teachers teach some phonics and decoding but the vast majority of them do it sporadically and not in a way that is connected such that students can learn all the 44 letter sounds over time in a clear way.
(Phonics is the connection between letters and the sounds they represent and decoding is the process of matching letters or letter combinations to their sounds to decipher a word.) Additionally, most teachers use a combination of phonics and cueing, which, as made clear in the Emily Hanford article in #1 above, does not work. We need our teachers to spend about 45 a day in small groups teaching students phonics in an explicit and systematic way so they can learn the sounds the letters and blends make. Learning this way actually builds up brain pathways so children, even children with learning disabilities, can connect letters to sounds. Teaching this way is highly effective for ALL readers when taught by highly trained teachers.
Q: Teacher, may I please have copies of my child’s RTI screening scores?
WHY: Most districts screen children for reading and math three times a year. The test may be called MAP, STAR, DEIBLES or something else in your district, but the data collected is all similar and you have a right to ask for it. Lots of schools will push back and say they don’t give these scores out. Keep asking until you get it. The reason is that these screeners are nationally normed so that you can see how your child is reading compared to children across the country. Districts have certain “cut scores” so that students will only be flagged as being a “poor reader” if he or she is reading, say, at the bottom 15% or 25%. However, if your child has been sitting at 26% for three years and making no progress, you may have no idea and may think your child is doing okay. You need to see the data and ask lots of questions about it.
Q: Teacher, my child has a low screener score but he is getting all A’s and B’s on his report card. What is the discrepancy?
WHY: Many low readers (those below 30%) can get good grades so parents don’t worry despite a nagging fear that their child isn’t reading well enough. Report cards are deceiving. If you have a concern dig deeper. Students who struggle to read, as in the case of dyslexia, actually have higher than normal IQs so they can still get good grades despite slow reading. The simply learn to compensate, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t struggling. You need to look closer.
3. If you learn through this process that you do have a child who is a struggling reader, DO NOT WAIT. Demand that your child be tested for a learning disability like dyslexia. Demand that your child gets reading intervention everyday that is explicit, systematic and cumulative. Educate your self about dyslexia at the Yale Center for Dyslexia or your local Decoding Dyslexia chapter.
4. Once you have your child on the right path, join the movement to make sure all teachers across America learn to teach based on the science of reading. Literacy is in crisis. We must all demand that our public schools do better.