Article

What Parents Need to Know About Learning to Read

How well we read affects us throughout our lives, both in school and out—and the most critical years for learning to read well are the early ones. Many studies from cognitive science have provided insight into the best methods for teaching reading. But unfortunately, many students are still not getting access to effective reading instruction in school.

As a parent, how do you know if your child’s teacher knows how to teach reading effectively, or if the school is using a high-quality reading curriculum? What questions should you be asking, and what can you do at home to support your child’s learning? 

What You Need to Know:

Nationwide, many students struggle with reading. Based on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), known as the “nation’s report card,” just 37 percent of American fourth graders read at grade-level. In Louisiana, 26 percent of fourth graders meet that bar. In Massachusetts, the highest scoring state in the nation, that number is 51 percent.

The window for learning to read is relatively short. Children build essential foundational reading skills long before they’re actually reading. In the infant and toddler years, they’re listening to you read and talk to them—the more, the better!—and they’re developing awareness of language that lays the groundwork for literacy. Once they get to school, kindergarten through third grade are critical years for building reading fluency. After third grade, your child’s lessons will have moved away from explicit reading instruction, and students will be expected to read in order to master content in all subjects. For this reason, it’s essential that all students get the reading instruction they need in their first few years in school.

There is a right way and a wrong way to teach reading. For many years, there was a popular belief that children learn to read naturally through exposure to books. While exposing children to books and reading is important for many reasons, it isn’t enough. In addition, students need to be taught the mechanics of reading—how to blend letters and sounds together to make words—in order to become fluent readers. Many studies from cognitive science back this up: When we read, our brains rapidly interpret the letters, connect those letters to sounds, and blend the sounds to make words. To train our brains to do that, we need to be taught predictable sound/spelling relationships (phonics) and then how to apply those rules to texts. Meredith Cotter, a former children’s librarian and educator who now coaches teachers in Louisiana, explains how this works if it’s done right: “We start from the simplest rules in the English language, and get more and more complex, so that the vast majority of words become decodable. Then we combine that together with background knowledge about different topics, and a growing vocabulary, and you have a good reader.”

All students benefit from this kind of reading instruction. All kids need phonics instruction on their journey to becoming readers. While it’s true that some children will become fluent readers regardless of what kind of instruction they receive, direct instruction in phonics will give these students a solid basis in how the English language works, make them stronger spellers, and understand word meanings. For students who will not learn to read without explicit and systematic phonics instruction, this kind of instruction is critical to making sure they’re able to do grade-level work.

Reading levels aren’t everything. Children are often assigned “reading levels” in school, and then given books to match that level. While your child absolutely should be practicing on decodable texts, which emphasize sound groupings they’ve already learned, your child’s reading level will actually vary depending on the content. A child who knows a lot about basketball, for example, will read at a higher level when they’re reading a book about basketball, compared to a book about ballet. So while reading levels can be rough indicators of how well a child is reading, they don’t tell you everything. It’s useful for children to read about topics they know about, and topics that are unfamiliar, which can help them build new knowledge of the world.

What You Can Do:

Talk with your kids. It sounds simple, but talking matters—even before your children can talk back. (Hey, enjoy this while it lasts.) Before kids can learn phonics, they need phonological awareness, which is the ability to recognize and manipulate sounds in spoken words. You can support this at home through talking with your children from infancy, singing nursery rhymes, and playing with rhyming words. 

Read at home. It’s not your job to teach your child to read. But you absolutely can support their reading at home. If your child brings home books to practice on, let them read aloud to you. Don’t worry that the book is too easy if they can get through it slowly—the goal is for their reading to sound like talking. You should also, of course, read books of their (and your!) choosing, to develop their knowledge of the world and engage them in rich literature. (And reading can happen in a lot of unexpected places, too.)

And re-read, too! Every parent knows how tiring it can be to read the same stories over and over, and sometimes it might seem like it doesn’t “count” because the story is so familiar. But children learn through this repetition: It helps them recognize words, understand how words go together to make sentences, learn how dialogue works, and so much more.

Keep an eye out for certain red flags. If you notice that your child is guessing at words, ask them to say all the sounds in the word and blend them together. If they have a hard time doing that, this is something to raise with the teacher. They might just need more opportunities to practice with individual letters and sounds. Observe their spelling, too. It’s normal for spelling skills to develop after reading, but they shouldn’t be too far behind. Ask your child’s teacher if you notice that your child is able to read many words, but isn’t able to spell them.

Ask your child’s teacher about how they teach reading. One key question is, “How do you teach phonics?” You want to hear something like, “We teach phonics explicitly and systematically.” If the answer is “we don’t teach phonics,” or “we learn phonics along the way,” your child may not be getting the instruction they need. You can also ask for the name of the reading program. High quality programs include Core Knowledge Language Arts, EL Learning, American Reading Club (ARC), Bookworms, and Focus On… (when used in conjunction with Fundations). In Louisiana, you want to hear that both the phonics and reading comprehension curricula are “Tier 1.”

Press for more support if your child is struggling. By the beginning of second grade, your child should be comfortably able to decode most words. If they’re not, they may need more practice, and now is the time to get it. Don’t wait until third or fourth grade to ask for support: by then, your child will be expected to “read to learn” in school, and they won’t have the chance to catch up on foundational reading skills. Your school is required to evaluate your child’s reading abilities if you request that they do so, so it’s your right to ask and receive the information you’re looking for.