How Parents Can Beat the Structural Barriers That Keep Kids From Reading
Learning to read is complex. For teachers faced with children chewing their pencils in frustration, a variety of skill levels and backgrounds packed into one classroom, and pressure from administrators, teaching kids to read is even more complex.
But imagine trying to learn to read — piecing a sentence together, word by word — and just as you think you’ve cracked it, the picture book you were reading turns into a textbook.
This is often what it’s like when students don’t master the basic reading skills they need early. There’s a shift that occurs between learning to read and reading to learn. By the time they get to junior high and high school, many kids have fallen far behind, and teachers face an even harder task trying to bring them up to grade level.
Learning to read should be a fun process of discovery for kids, but structural barriers in schools can turn elementary reading into a tale of confusion and pressure.
However, there are ways you can lend your support as a parent to break through these barriers.
1. Start the Journey at Home
Some children arrive at school on their first day ready to start reading. They have favorite books, they know their letters, and they have a wide vocabulary. But in many communities, especially urban centers and low-income areas, teachers have a much more daunting task ahead of them simply because students haven’t had as much exposure to books.
Many schools and community centers do a great job of encouraging literacy. However, it’s important that these institutions or community centers have well-stocked classrooms, filled with age-appropriate texts that reflect the interests and cultures of the students in the classroom or space. The teacher or leader needs to spend time reading aloud, as well as organizing small group work where students are learning reading strategies and interacting with the text regularly and consistently. The literacy block is one of the most important times of the day to nurture students’ development.
2. Encourage School Districts to Prioritize Professional Development
The typical teacher will spend about two days of the school year on district-sponsored professional development. But just as children can’t be expected to master a complex task without practice and feedback, we know the same is true for adults. Just attending a couple of workshops isn’t enough to give teachers the support they need, given the importance of the challenge they face.
In a study by Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning, the most successful teaching staffs are those that have continual coaching and feedback throughout the year and throughout their careers, but this means that many school districts will need to restructure their current approach to professional development. Trainings and workshops are a good first step, but they need to be followed by in-school support and teacher dialogue.
3. Support Good Principals
If there’s any factor more important for literacy than teachers, it’s principals. Supportive and effective leaders have the power to directly improve the quality of literacy in elementary schools by hiring and supporting better teachers, promoting professional development opportunities, and creating environments where feedback thrives.
In a review of literature, Jim Hull from the Center for Public Education finds that there are very few cases of underperforming schools turning their results around without the presence of an effective leader.
4. Look Outside the School District
Collaboration between schools and external organizations can lead to raising literacy rates. Lázaro Cárdenas Elementary School, one of the Chicago schools that took part in the Children’s Literacy Initiative’s Investing in Innovation project, saw its third-grade literacy scores rise more than 25 percent following the collaboration. Sometimes, outside organizations can provide the support and structure for better teacher learning that translates into better student learning.
5. Emphasize Learning, not Coverage
The Common Core State Standards Initiative lays out an ambitious learning curve for students, which puts pressure on teachers to meet the rising demands while ensuring that some students do not fall even further behind.
When schools become more focused on covering material that will be on “The Test” than on whether or not all students actually learn the material, we have a system in which some students thrive and others take a nosedive. Teachers need additional support to meet increasingly rigorous standards in ways that do not widen the equity chasm called the achievement gap.
By starting the reading journey at home and becoming a vocal supporter of teachers’ professional development and quality school leadership, you can help break down the barriers to learning. When you create the right environment for reading, your child will thrive in the classroom and have the opportunity to unlock the wonder of books.
About the Author: Children’s Literacy Initiative is the premier national nonprofit working with teachers to transform instruction so children can become powerful readers, writers, and thinkers. CLI focuses on early literacy in urban schools and districts. Joel Zarrow was appointed CLI’s executive director in 2014.