I have been teaching public school children for a decade. From first grade to eighth grade and all the grades in between, I have seen, first hand, students soar above their perceived potential. At the same time, I have seen others struggle to reach it.
I have heard all the rationales from socio-economic disparity to learning styles, from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to a lack of interest-based learning, from ineffective schools and ill-trained educators to the lack of necessary educational resources. I will not disparage those factors as they do play a role in the social and academic growth of all children, however, I refuse to believe that they cannot be overcome.
In my career I have met with hundreds of families to discuss the successes and shortcomings of each their children’s academic efforts. By the very nature of the educational process, each child and each family presents the educator with a unique set of challenges and needs that must be accounted for. That being said, it is a flawed mentality (be it explicit or implicit) that the responsibility lies solely with the classroom educators to meet these academic needs.
Looking back over my ten years in the classroom, I can categorically say that there is, in fact, one panacea that has continually produced students that excel both academically and socially. Regardless of financial status, racial background, familial makeup, or special needs, there exists a common experience that has been present in the majority of my most successful students. It is simple and timeless, and any parent has the power to do it. Nevertheless, it stands as the four words I find myself wanting to yell from the mountaintops each year as a fresh crop of families enter into my classroom:
Read with your kids!
Yes, indeed. That’s it! Read with your kids. It doesn’t matter what age the child is, what difficulties the child has in his or her academic abilities, or how busy the child (or the child’s parents) may be; in my experience there is no easier way to affect positive change on children’s academic growth than when parents make it a point to read with their kids.
Before I get ahead of myself, notice the preposition; read with your kids. not read to your kids. This is deliberate.
Don’t get me wrong, literally since the day my wife and I brought our twins home from the hospital, we have cherished reading to our kids. At nine months they now have favorite books, reach to turn pages, and genuinely change their entire demeanor when it is time to lay back and read a story.
That said, reading to kids amounts to a relatively passive experience. They receive the text as it is read to them while their eyes (possibly) scan pages of images and text. It can be stimulating or calming – exciting or the perfect pre-bedtime ritual.
While reading to kids is still more valuable than no reading or interaction at all, it only scratches the surface of the true power that lies in parents reading with their kids. Reading with your kids is an entirely active and engaging process. While that may sound complicated, it really is just a simple fundamental shift from reading to your kids.
Rather than one party simply reciting text to the other, there is the potential for a genuine exchange of information, for the generation and testing of hypotheses, for the creation and defense of opinions, for the dialogue of interpretation, and for the fostered ability to connect texts to each other and the world at large. This seemingly dubious list of goals may seem like a far cry from traditional story time, but it represents the skills being asked of students on a daily basis in the current climate of standards-based education.
Foster academic growth through purposeful reading time
In the world of education, the pendulum swings from tradition to innovation and back again and again. The Common Core movement represented one of the latest and most notable of said swings. These standards, were an attempt at creating a set of national math and literacy objectives for American students. In their creation and implementation, there was much attention given to literacy and the use of language in a manner that had typically been reserved for higher levels of academia.
These standards were also created with a growing emphasis on training and preparing students to engage with nonfiction texts on a much more regular basis (the Common Core Standards are built on an expectation of a 50-50 split between fiction and nonfiction texts). Under these standards, students as young as second grade are asked to complete cognitively challenging tasks like “compare and contrast the most important points presented by two texts on the same topic” and “identify the main topic of a multi-paragraph text as well as the focus of specific paragraphs within the text.”
While the aims of these standards are centered on college and career readiness, the reality is that most students have entered into these high academic expectations largely unprepared. Some of that is due to the sudden, yet grand shift in the educational landscape (thanks to both the Common Core push and states’ chosen replacements and alternatives); the other reason is that many children are solely reliant upon the efforts of their teachers and schools to be able to adapt.
As they always do, the academic systems across the globe will continually evolve and change based upon what the latest perceived focal point should be to produce the next generation of responsibly prepared citizens. In this moment it exists as the Common Core Standards or the rigorous alternatives states have selected in their stead, but in ten years it could be (and likely will be) something totally different.
Regardless of what the latest initiatives may be, the fundamental concept of reading with kids will never become obsolete. Parents can and must be at the forefront of fostering literary competence in their own children. We teachers cannot do it alone. There is no substitute for attentive time reading with children, asking probing questions, identifying new vocabulary, predicting outcomes, making connections, and simply discussing text. While this type of activity happens daily in classrooms across the country, no teacher can replace the type of one-on-one attention a parent or family member can provide.
If all a parent did was read with their child for at least thirty minutes a day, there is no doubt that there would be measurable gains in that child’s academic career and, quite frankly, to the quality of education we as teachers can provide. I have seen the transformation take place with some of my own students. As such, I have started sowing the seeds of literacy with my own children (to be fair, they can’t talk, so reading to them will have to suffice for now…).
With a minimal time investment, parents can contribute to conceptual understanding, vocabulary growth, comparative skills, textual comprehension, and improved socialization skills all at the same time. In school, we as educators can then build on these skills with increased opportunities for rigor, exploration, and student-guided learning.
As a teacher, as a parent, as a person hoping for an educated, engaged, and prosperous society – I humbly beg of every parent out there…
Read with your kids.