Distance learning can be challenging, especially for our young, emerging readers. What can we do to support them?
DR. CRISTINA COMPTON
Director of Program Development
Distance learning can be challenging, especially for our young, emerging readers. In the classroom, young students are exposed to print-rich environments, and are supported and guided through a multitude of literacy activities such as phonics, guided reading, shared reading, and direct reading instruction. Now that learning is taking place in the home, there are growing concerns about the deficits young students will experience, particularly when it comes to reading. What can we do? How and when should we do it? And how can parents prioritize reading practices at home?
As a Master’s student, the focus of my thesis included understanding and improving the reading habits and attitudes of my third grade students. I launched my study by administering a survey, and provided them with a number of statements including, I like to read, I prefer reading to watching TV, and I read more than I watch TV. I had students read each statement, and then circle an emoji that best matched their feelings about the statement (ranging from positive to negative).
My students’ responses, along with my observations, were pretty discouraging. I noticed many of my students didn’t want to read, or would read for a few minutes before putting their book down and saying, “I’m done.” I was determined to do something. In the next phase of my work, I reached out to parents of those students with particularly negative responses to the survey, and asked if they would be willing to participate in my study. Their participation included signing a contract in which they agreed to engage in three specific literacy practices at home: reading aloud, shared reading, and independent reading.
It is these three literacy practices that I think parents should prioritize, as I believe they are simple, effective, and particularly helpful when it comes to supporting reading development outside of the classroom.
Reading aloud promotes fluency and exposure. Exposure plays a significant role in reading development and cultivating a positive attitude towards reading. The parents who participated in my study agreed to read to their children for 20 minutes a day, at least three times a week. I would encourage all parents to do the same. If you can do nothing else, read aloud to your child! Expose your children to as many books as possible, and regularly engage in read alouds. This can be incorporated into a lunch break, added to a bedtime routine, or even occur first thing in the morning — whatever works best for you. If this feels too difficult, there are many read aloud resources available online that can support you, such as Epic, which offers a massive digital library for children aged 12 and under, and YouTube, which offers free access to a variety of voices and titles to choose from.
If you’re ready, interested, and able to step up your read aloud game, you can engage your children further by asking simple questions: What do you notice? What does this make you think? What are you learning about ____? This kind of work promotes comprehension and inferencing skills.
The tried and true think-aloud protocol — in which you share what you’re thinking and what you’re predicting — can also be a powerful model for children. I even do this with my 8-month-old. As her mother I know she’s brilliant (of course!), but can accept she is clearly too young to do deep thinking work on her own, so I point to the pictures and the words in each book, narrating what they are, for as long as she lets me. It’s never too young to cultivate a love for books!
Fountas and Pinnell define shared reading as a reading experience in which children and their teacher engage in multiple read alouds of an “enlarged version of a text that provides opportunities for students to expand their reading competencies. The goals of the first reading are to ensure that students enjoy the text and think about the meaning. After the first reading, students take part in multiple, subsequent readings to notice more about the text.” From there, students discuss the text, and parents or educators determine next steps for support.
Ideally, parents would be able to put on their teacher hat while reading with their children, tracking and pointing to the words together, sounding words out along the way. Shared reading like this can help improve the rate at which children read, increase their fluency, and add to their enjoyment for reading.
Don’t be discouraged if this feels outside of your reach. Shared reading can also mean simply engaging in shared reading time, without any additional components. Each family member can select a text of their choosing, and read near each other. Whether this happens first thing in the morning, as you read the newspaper or your favorite magazine and enjoy a cup of coffee, or before bed, as you are winding down the day and in search of some quiet time. Being exposed to others who are reading can have a positive effect on a child’s attitudes and habits around reading, as it did for my young readers.
The final activity in my study involved an agreement from parents to provide quiet and uninterrupted time and space to engage in independent reading for at least 20 minutes a day. One of the biggest challenges to reading at home, according to my third graders, is the lack of space and opportunity to read alone. Children are often sharing rooms, household tasks and chores need to be done, and child care responsibilities need to be managed. This, I’m sure, has only been exacerbated during the COVID-19 crisis, as everyone is now living and working from home. Home can feel even more chaotic than before, and quiet time can be a challenge. However, if you can find a calm space where children can engage in independent reading even for even small periods of time each day, it can have a positive impact on reading abilities. This space might be the corner of a room, on a bed, or even in the bathroom. We have to get creative!
If you’re ready to level up your independent reading game, task your child with practicing one simple strategy while they read. This might include asking them to jot down questions as they read, notice and note (What do you notice? What does this make you think?), or it could involve a challenge to find words that start with certain letters or that contain certain blends, such as Bl or Cr. It doesn’t have to be complicated, just one strategy that will allow children to practice on their own, and then share with you.
The last tip I’ll leave you with is: if it feels like these strategies aren’t working for your readers, be prepared to throw all these strategies to the wind. Put the book down, and try again later. This is a challenging time — stress and emotions are running high — and we all know that the dynamic between parents and children, when it comes to learning, can be difficult and unpredictable. Some days our children want our help, and sometimes they don’t want anything to do with us! Give yourself some grace and flexibility. Trust that what you’re doing is enough, and remember that one day will not create lasting, negative implications for your child’s reading abilities. Be kind to yourself and to your children, and remember that tomorrow is another day.