A letter to parents

On DeHavilland Blog, Brett writes a letter to parents.

Despite what you hear from the talking heads in the news, our schools are perfectly capable of teaching a child to read. But we have to have children who are ready to learn, who have a supportive environment at home that reinforces what they’re doing at school.

From almost the time that they’re born, it is your responsibility — and only your responsibility — to prepare them to successfully learn how to read. Fortunately this is simple to do.

Read to them every day, preferably a few times a day. Let them see you reading. Make sure they have access to a wide variety of reading materials in the home.

If parents do that, schools can do the rest, Brett says.

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Comments

  1. This would help with the vacabulary deficits, but not with the decoding issues we see. Schools don’t do a very good job teaching either.

  2. Mike in Texas says:

    KDeRosa,

    Reading to your child improves everything about reading. It is the single most impt thing a parent can do for their child’s education.

  3. SuperSub says:

    Not to mention that simply by reading to children you are exposing them to a behavior that they will learn.
    Enjoying reading books with parents = enjoying reading books later in life. LEarning to focus on the book and nothing else = being able to focus in school.
    The simple act of reading to your children has innumerable benefits.

  4. And yet many kids who’ve been read to extensively will still develop decoding problems unless they receive competent and explicit reading instruction. And, most kids who’ve never been read to can still be taught to decode and read at grade level if instructed competently. Comprehension issues will still develop for these kids though unless their language skills are remediated.

  5. There’s no evidence suggesting that reading aloud to a kid does anything other than create nice memories for parent and child.

    Provide basic parenting skills to children with no fancy extras but no abuse, and it won’t influence their reading scores one way or the other.

    What will influence their reading scores is their parent’s educational level, which brings up the hereditary vs. environmental influence–and the adoption studies tend to support hereditary influences.

    So at best, environmental issues have an impact around the edges. This guy is writing an impassioned letter for an educated audience–exactly the parents whose kids don’t need the edge.

  6. Caddie says:

    KDeRosa — what is decoding? I’m afraid I’m not up on the way reading is taught in school because I was already reading by the time I got to school.

    Cal — could you explain to me why I was able to read at a junior high level in kindergarten? Surely the fact that my parents and older sister read to me every chance they got had something to do with it?

    Even assuming that your point is just that by a certain point (say, third or fourth grade, I guess?) I would have been reading at the same level whether I had any help from my parents or not, I still must disagree. I’ve never understood the way reading is taught in schools, because I don’t sound things out and go piece-by-piece. I see words and know them, and as a result can read faster than anyone I know.

  7. Caddie, decoding is the ability to convert written text into your oral language. Expert readers no longer sound parts of words out phonetically like beginning readers, but most still decode words part at a time. They just do so instantaneously and with automaticity. Eye movement studies have borne this out. You may be one of the rare exceptions, but it is unlikely.

  8. SuperSub says:

    Cal –
    “This guy is writing an impassioned letter for an educated audience–exactly the parents whose kids don’t need the edge.”
    Please tell me that you’re not saying parents shouldn’t read to their kids because they already have so many advantages compared to others?
    As for “no evidence,” there have been studies linking number of books in a household to student success.
    Also the US Dept of Ed Commission on Reading has stated that “The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children.” (Becoming a Nation of Readers, 1985)
    I doubt that they would make such a strong declarative statement without the data to back it up.

  9. SuperSub wrote:

    As for “no evidence,” there have been studies linking number of books in a household to student success.

    And that association is obviously a proxy for something else since piling stacks of books all around a baby’s crib won’t make them a successful student when they get to school.

    And as far as the Dept of Ed Commission on Reading is concerned, the notion that all a child needs to do is hear a book being read is patently ridiculous. If that were the case leaving a kid in a room with a tape recording of “Anna Karenina” droning away would be all it takes to learn to read.

    Watching mommy and daddy read might tell a kid that there’s something important in those books and that it’s worth solving the mystery of how to get at that something but it isn’t the solution to that mystery.

    Caddie wrote:

    Cal — could you explain to me why I was able to read at a junior high level in kindergarten? Surely the fact that my parents and older sister read to me every chance they got had something to do with it?

    First, depending on where you live, reading at a junior high level when you’re in kindergarten might not be that impressive a feat but let’s leave that aside.

    Yeah, watching the big people in your life peering at books and, somehow, finding exciting, interesting stories in them would have been a motivator. So would simply imitating what the big people in your life were doing.

    And if you’re smart and lucky, you’ll learn to associate the letters on the page with the word sounds and puzzle out the code of sounds that the patterns of letters describe. But wouldn’t it be easier to have someone just lay out the code for you then to have to be smart and lucky?

    If you want a real feel for how difficult it is to teach reading then volunteer at an adult literacy program for a while. You’ll discover that teaching someone to read is tedious and boring but not difficult for either the instructor or the student.

    Mike in Texas wrote:

    Reading to your child improves everything about reading. It is the single most impt thing a parent can do for their child’s education.

    The implication being that if parents don’t read to their children, well then, what can anyone expect but that those kids will graduate high school as functional illiterates?

    Of course, it does raise the question of why someone should be paid to do a job they claim can’t be done. But that really wasn’t your intention, right?

  10. KDeRosa says:

    As for “no evidence,” there have been studies linking number of books in a household to student success.

    This is an SES correlation. More books = smarter parents = smarter kids. The books never have to be read per se.

  11. Mike in Texas says:

    Allen wrote:

    The implication being that if parents don’t read to their children, well then, what can anyone expect but that those kids will graduate high school as functional illiterates?

    Allen, its good to see you haven’t lost your ability to draw ridiculous conclusions. I said no such thing.

    Cal wrote:

    There’s no evidence suggesting that reading aloud to a kid does anything other than create nice memories for parent and child.

    Perhaps you’ve never heard of Becoming a Nation of Readers: The Report of the Commission on Reading, which concluded:

    “The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children.”

    KDeRosa has never heard of it b/c its not published by the Direct Instruction people.

  12. BNR was not independent research, it was a synthethis of existing research. Occaisionally, they, like the NRP, went beyond what the research showed or misinterpreted the research. The read-aloud portion appears to be such an example. What does the underlying research say about read-alouds?

  13. SuperSub says:

    Darn that Education Commission… I bet they were receiving all sorts of money to mislead the public with their report like that. It’s Disney and Golden Books I tell you, never did a worse bunch of crooks ever exist.
    Reading aloud makes sense. It familiarizes children with language, and if the words are pointed to as the parent reads, the child begins to associate those words with the sounds. It’s anecdotal evidence, but all the children that I knew who could read prior to first grade were read to by their parents.

  14. KDeRosa says:

    That’s because in the sense you’re using the term, “reading aloud” means crude early reading instruction delivered prior to formal schooling.

    What you are saying is that kids who are taught how to read before entering kindergarten tend to know how to read better. You’re not going to get much diasagreement.

    However, what is more controversial is the notion that reading-aloud is a necessary thing that all parents must do, otherwise academic failure can’t be blamed on schools.

    Kids who have never been read to can still be taught to read effectively and in a timely manner and should not have reading comprehension problems if their language deficits are remedied with a good language/vocabulary problem. Prior reading aloud by parents prior to school goes make the formal reading instruction process easier for schools in the sense that any prior instruction makes future learning easier.

  15. SuperSub says:

    KDeRosa-
    That is the point we have been trying to make. Reading aloud, which usually acts as initial reading education, does prepare students better for when they enter school.
    No one ever said that those who weren’t read to wouldn’t be able to read, just that the most significant thing a parent can do prior to school is to read to/with them.

  16. I think that is an overstatement.

    But, let’s carry it to its logical extreme.

    At least one more significant thing would be for parents to actually start formal reading instruction as early as possible. The quicker the child learns to read the faster he’ll become an independent reader and the more he will ultimately learn. And, the better a reader he becomes the more he will enjoy learning.

    And yet, many schools take a wait and see attitude with the lower performing kids letting them develop naturally instead of instructing them efficiently. This delay in reading will disproportionately affect the low SES kids, the ones who probably weren’t read to, further hindering their educational develoopment.

    So what is up with that?

  17. Mike in Texas wrote:

    Allen, its good to see you haven’t lost your ability to draw ridiculous conclusions. I said no such thing.

    Oh sure you have. Plenty of times.

    Either kids are too poor or too black or latino or their parents don’t come to school often enough or too often or the administration is intrusive while not being supportive or the kids watch too much television or do too much video gaming.

    Or parents don’t read to the kids.

    It’s the same, old song. It’s just the lyrics that change.

    SuperSub wrote:

    No one ever said that those who weren’t read to wouldn’t be able to read, just that the most significant thing a parent can do prior to school is to read to/with them.

    Well then maybe someone ought to put some salt on the birdies tail.

    Just what is the importance of parents reading to their child? Critical? Inconsequential? Somewhere in between?

  18. Mike in Texas says:

    Allen,

    I would say it is critical. The kids who are read to read better, and thus do better in school.

    KDeRosa wrote:

    many schools take a wait and see attitude with the lower performing kids letting them develop naturally instead of instructing them efficiently.

    Offered without proof as usual. There is a logical arguement for not beginning reading instruction immediately, lack of fine motor skills development. The child is not physically able to perform the tasks needed to read.

    I don’t suppose the Direct Instruction website contains any information about skipping does it? It ties directly in to reading readiness. But then again you wouldn’t know that b/c you haven’t read it from the DI people.

  19. edgeworthy says:

    I too would like to see more evidence that reading aloud really matters. Levitt and Dubner in Freakonomics summarize statistical work showing that Having books at home affects child outcomes, but Reading to them does not. Is this definitive? No. But none of the pro-reading studies I’ve seen could pass a high-level statistical standard. They suffer from numerous design defects. So it will have to remain an unproved assertion that just sounds nice for now.

    Furthermore, I thought there was evidence that Asian immigrant parents in the US read to kids less than both whites and blacks. Yet the children of these families often did better on tests and in school. Don’t have a cite but perhaps someone knows it?

  20. ElizabethBennet says:

    Those interested in this question should look at “Freakonomics,” which interprets an ECLS study on books in the home. Interestingly, this study found that while the presence of books in the home was highly correlated with test scores, parents reading to children was not. Obviously, the proposition that the books provide some sort of mystical osmosis is incorrect; Levitt surmises (correctly, I think) that the causation here is in what sort of parents are likely to have books in the home. (Highly educated ones, who pass along certain aptitudes to their children.) In other words, it doesn’t matter so much what parents do as what they are. (p. 175)

    This says nothing about the teaching of phonics, of course, but ECLS’ is the definitive study on the subject and it shows absolutely no correlation between parents reading to children and children reading well once they arrive at school.

  21. Mike in Texas says:

    The chart located at:

    http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d02/dt048.asp

    shows that white and Asians are read to every day at rates (49% and 47%) higher than blacks and Hispanics (35% and 39%). A quick look at the ECLS data show whites and Asians outscore blacks and Hispanics in the assessments used.

    But hey, if a self-proclaimed “rogue economist” says it isn’t so then who are we teachers to disagree?

  22. ElizabethBennet says:

    Mike in Texas, your public schoolteacher is showing. You’re thinking about this in racial categories. Levitt is referring to the overall data, in which race doesn’t necessarily correlate to likelihood that of parents reading out loud. Take a look at the rest of it. The ECLS data itself found no correlation between reading out loud and test scores overall, regardless of anyone’s interpretation.

    That “rogue” economist is a full professor at U-Chicago, which I’m sure you’d realize if you’d read “Freakonomics” and its accompanying dust jacket. It’s not exactly the O.K. Corral, and actually, Levitt is just quoting a conclusion reached by the ECLS people themselves.

  23. A quick look at the ECLS data show whites and Asians outscore blacks and Hispanics in the assessments used.

    You’re forgetting that whites and asians tend to have higher IQs than blacks and hispanics in the first place. And, people with higher IQs tend to score better on assessments than those with lower IQs.

    There’s quite a few differences between smart families and dull families. Smart familes tend to: have higher incomes, have more books, read more books (to their kids), have higher education attainment, etc.

    According to Jenson (1981) IQ correlates with performance in primary education at .56/71 whereas IQ correlates with reading aloud at .62.

    IQ is the big elephant in the room when you start looking at reading aloud correlations with education.

  24. Andy Freeman says:

    > I would say it is critical. The kids who are read to read better, and thus do better in school.

    Fair enough.

    Since there’s only 100% blame/credit to go around, “critical” places an upper limit on how much schools can do.

    How much should we pay for that?

    Or, is there some other reason that we should pay for schools?

    I forget – does MiT think that we pay for schools for the difference that they make in student achievement? If there’s some other reason, perhaps he’ll be good enough to allocate spending to the various reasons.

  25. Wayne Martin says:

    This business about the teaching of reading seems to get complicated in a hurry. The following are a couple of WEB-sites (in addtion to the US DoE site above) where “facts” can be found:

    http://www.edresearch.info/access.asp
    http://www.nea.org/readacross/resources/images/childrens_literacy_fact_sheet.pdf
    http://www.rethinkingschools.org/archive/16_04/Urb164.shtml
    http://www.nea.org/events/literacy.html

    What’s interesting is that having books in the home seems to appear in most of these materials, whereas reading to the child does not. Presumably learning to read is a short time activity, and having access to reading materials is reflective of the parents views of reading and the value of “literacy”.

  26. Walter E. Wallis says:

    I read all the comments, but could not decode some.

  27. Jack Tanner says:

    ‘If parents do that, schools can do the rest, Brett says.’

    Give us all A students and we’re all set! Others, well we’re not so good with them.

  28. I don’t believe that reading parents are essential for a kid to learn to read.

    Literacy rates have risen rapidly over time. An illiterate parent obviously cannot be reading to their kids every day, or letting their kids see them read. If the theory that reading parents are critical to children reading is right then reading should only have risen very slowly as some of the children of literate parents grew up, married illiterates, and then read to their own children. Literacy rates rose faster than that. See for example this data on literacy rates in India – http://www.nlm.nic.in/tables/f_scst.htm (and I know of no general programme to take children from illiterate parents in India and have them bought up by literate ones).

  29. Mike in Texas says:

    Elizabeth wrote:

    You’re thinking about this in racial categories.

    The data is presented in racial categories by the ECLS.

    Let’s see, the kids who score higher on reading assessments are read to more often by their parents. Sounds like a positive move to me.

    For the record, I could care less that “freakonomics” is a U of Chicago prof. I have taught 1st graders to read, he hasn’t.

  30. So if you were to formulate a motto it would be modeled on the Seebees’ and read something like this:

    The easy we may do, the difficult we can’t be expected to attempt.

    Mike in Texas wrote:

    I have taught 1st graders to read, he hasn’t.

    No, I did after they graduated high school with diplomas they couldn’t read.

  31. SuperSub says:

    Quit it with the “teachers-are-whining” schtick. Simply because we suggest that parents begin reading (initial instruction, not simply reading stories to them), does not mean that we will turn away those who haven’t. It is irresponsible to even suggest that, which many of you have.
    The fact is initial reading instruction will help a student in their classes. While it may not be necessary, it is critical to future success. Language acquisition, of which reading is part of, has repeatedly been shown to be most effective during childhood. The more that is achieved prior to school, the easier the student will acquire new information later.
    Everyone complains about the focus NCLB puts on math and reading… how this decreases the time for other subjects. Unfortunately, I have yet to discover a core subject, other than Phys Ed, that does not require a significant amount of either math or reading to fully learn and understand. The educational community AND parents have slacked off with reading and math over the past era, and now we are dealing with the consequences… high schoolers that can only function at a 6-8th grade level.
    Simply because someone suggests that *gasp* parents do something to help their kids succeed (a novel idea!) does not mean that teachers are abandoning their responsibility, nor that those who do not receive the help will be cast aside. In fact, by suggesting it, teachers are fulfilling their duty in doing whatever they can to improve the success of their students.

  32. Indigo Warrior says:

    Parental attitudes also make a world of difference. If the parents (or their tribal culture) do not themselves like reading, or deem it to be “unmanly” or “bourgeois”, then the children will pick this up. The parents may dutifully read to the kids, but that will help little if they fail to pass on a love of reading.

  33. Twill00 says:

    I don’t have a lot of data points on this one, but it would seem silly to assume that reading to children has no effect. Or that children could not learn anything without having parents who read.

    I can tell you this – the flow of books into and out of the house of a reader is significant. Do those studies rate the flow, or just the stockpile? And do the studies differentiate between age-appropriate books and other books?

    It may be that the correlation is reverse – when a child learns to read, books start to flow into or through the house, resulting in higher numbers of books remaining in the house.

  34. Anthony says:

    Brett leaves out something which isn’t really the fault of teachers, but is the fault of the schools – they’re unlikely to be able to teach children to read if they are unable to maintain discipline in the classroom.

  35. Jack Tanner says:

    ‘Quit it with the “teachers-are-whining” schtick.’….’It is irresponsible to even suggest that, which many of you have.’

    Isn’t that kind of whiny?

  36. Cardinal Fang says:

    Mike in Texas says:

    Let’s see, the kids who score higher on reading assessments are read to more often by their parents. Sounds like a positive move to me.

    For the record, I could care less that “freakonomics” is a U of Chicago prof. I have taught 1st graders to read, he hasn’t.

    In other words, don’t talk to me about research results! Don’t talk to me about data! Don’t talk to me about science! I believe what I believe, and the facts are irrelevant. Mike, you’re not representing your profession very well.

    You say that those of your students who were read to learn to read more easily than those who weren’t. Well, yes, but no one is disputing that.

    But, is the student’s success because they were read to, or is there another reason? It turns out there is another reason. Students whose parents have a lot of books learn to read more easily, even if the parents don’t read the books to their children.

    Perhaps readers have a bigger vocabulary and teach it to their children. Perhaps readers love learning, and inspire their children. Perhaps there’s some genetic component. No doubt we can think of other potential explanations. But whatever the reason, the kind of people who have a lot of books are the kind of parents whose children are successful, and reading to the children doesn’t make a difference.

    “Freakonomics” is a fabulous book and I recommend it to all.

  37. As a teacher who works with children with language-based disabilities, I see the issue as far more complicated than simply a question of reading to kids vs. not. First of all, there are a substantial minority of children who will not learn to read without explicit, highly directed multisensory instruction. These are the kids who will learn to love language, stories, and content from books, but won’t learn to access the material themselves unless they encounter the teaching method designed for their specific learning needs. However, for a kid who’s 10 and reading on a 2nd grade level, it’s a fabulous idea to sit with Harry Potter or whatever book the kid would love to read but just doesn’t know how yet, and allow the child to access the material orally. Otherwise the child’s comprehension skills and vocabulary acquisition may stall because a lot of that develops through regular reading. Thus, reading to such a child may help to reduce the otherwise enormous gap between proficient and poor readers.

    Then there are the kids who can scan a page and spit out every word on it, regardless of whether they understand a single one of those words. These kids are a smaller minority, sometimes called hyperlexic, and are similar to me when I’m reading in Spanish, which is fairly easy to decode. (Or Hebrew, which has its own alphabet but such regular spelling rules that one can quickly learn to pronounce it without the vowels written down.) But since my vocabulary and grammar in Spanish and Hebrew are rudimentary, I am not really “reading” texts in those languages, just saying words out loud. I’m not learning very much information from doing that, and certainly not appreciating the stories from those texts. Reading with a child who has the decoding skill, but not the comprehension, may be very difficult to accomplish, since that child may have difficulty with oral language. But I’ve worked with many kids who responded well to having stories read aloud dramatically, either as monologues or plays. It helped them to access the meaning behind the words. Again, though, they needed specific comprehension instruction – not just more exposure to books.

    I have worked with groups of kids who were just never exposed to books – and yes, I felt it was a disadvantage to them. What I found was that those kids lacked what I call, for lack of a better term, “general knowledge”. You’d be surprised how much kids are expected to just “pick up” incidentally, and how hard it is to explain cultural and historical references that they need to at least have heard of in order to understand material presented in the news, textbooks, and more advanced stories. So there’s more to it than just reading to your child – there’s also the matter of cultural exposure in general. This is a huge topic that is sort of off the point, but is actually what I think schools are getting at when they say they want parents to read to their kids. It’s that intangible general knowledge that comes from being immersed in literate culture, and not the actual skill of reading, that teachers would like parents to impart to their children. It’s the “culture of power” that minority educators talk about when they stress the importance of their students being able to access the frame of reference that the majority culture possesses. A frame of reference that continually shifts and evolves, but is present nonetheless.

  38. If you do put your kids in school, then of course you should teach them to read first. That way the teachers can’t screw them up too badly.

    PS WRT the “irresponsible” “whiny teacher schtick”, I don’t think that word means what you think it means.

  39. LisaFischler wrote:

    These kids are a smaller minority, sometimes called hyperlexic, and are similar to me when I’m reading in Spanish, which is fairly easy to decode.

    In that hyperlexia is considered to be an autism spectrum disorder I don’t think drawing a comparison between a serious brain disorder and ignorance of a language is all that helpful. It trivializes one while overdramatizing the other.

    And yes, .22/1,000 of the general population definitely qualifies as a vanishingly small minority and is in no way applicable to the epidemic of functional illiteracy. So what’s the point of bringing it up?

    I have worked with groups of kids who were just never exposed to books – and yes, I felt it was a disadvantage to them.

    It probably is but it’s also demonstrable that it isn’t a bar to literacy otherwise no one would ever have learned to read. And, there are plenty of kids who learn to read with illiterate parents. I’d say it’s pretty unlikely you’ll find many books in that sort of household.

    Let’s take the extreme case.

    A group of kids who’ve never seen a book let alone been read too. Their parents are uniformly entirely illiterate.

    Harder or easier to teach those kids to read then to teach middle-class kids who’ve been read too since before they were off the bottle?

  40. Indigo Warrior says:

    lfishler:
    It’s that intangible general knowledge that comes from being immersed in literate culture, and not the actual skill of reading, that teachers would like parents to impart to their children. It’s the “culture of power” that minority educators talk about when they stress the importance of their students being able to access the frame of reference that the majority culture possesses.

    What you describe is not reading itself, but the love of books and reading. That is hard to implant into a anti-intellectual culture, such as that of the inner city and outer farmland. If such a subculture treats a bright young kid as a “faggot” because he loves books, there is little that can be done to protect that kid short of transfer to a more compatible family and community (though a company of trigger-happy Marines as bodyguards might help*)

    * If something like this could be done to protect blacks from racist whites at Little Rock in 1957, then it can also be done to protect smart kids (of any color) from anti-intellectual tribal thugs of any color.