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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

Lost Reading Instruction Blues: What's a Worried Parent to Do?

July 20, 2020

Parent question: As a parent, I’m worried about my children being out of school during the pandemic. Our district still hasn’t decided whether or how to open again this fall, so it isn’t even clear if they will be going back to school. They did their distance learning most of the time this spring, but those online meetings with the teachers and the assignments they had to do don’t seem to be enough. What should I be doing at home?

Shanahan's response:

Usually the questions I’m asked can be answered from research or my own experiences as a teacher or school administrator. That’s not the case here. I’ve never tried to teach classrooms of kids over the Internet myself and the research on this is virtually non-existent (though perplexingly there appears to be a growing cadre of “experts” with neither more research nor experience than me). I’ll do my best to generalize from what I do know about more usual instructional situations.

There are three things that make a difference in academic learning — the amount of teaching, what is taught, and how well it is taught.  

The first of these is the amount of teaching and practice the students get. That’s the most obvious problem right now. Most kids lost two months of schooling in the spring and looking forward it isn’t clear how much they will lose going forward.

My hunch is that the time already lost may not have been as damaging as it could have been, since many kids missed spring break, standardized testing and the preparations for that, and the end of year celebratory activities (e.g., student Olympics, end of year parties, faculty-student softball games), none of which was likely to make much contribution to reading improvement.

Going forward, we aren’t apt to be as lucky.

What can you do to keep the time loss from being debilitating? Definitely you need to make certain that your child is taking part in the academic activities that your school is providing. Your kids need to log onto the school’s lessons and meetings. These might leave much to be desired but take advantage of them anyway. If you are able to sit in on these and talk to your kids about the information, all the better. Likewise, any homework should be treated as obligatory. Make sure your children do that and that those are returned to the school as the teacher indicates.

Additionally, you should schedule daily reading times for your kids to read books and magazines. Usually I’d recommend relying on the library for that, but obviously that isn’t available in many communities right now. There may be some cost to this recommendation. However, there are many sources for online books that are free (go into the resources section on my website, for instance — there are several sources there).

In any event, keep your kids reading and talk to them about it (get them to retell the stories or to talk about the subject matter). Perhaps the school would be willing to lend you a set of your child’s textbooks in reading, math, science, and social studies; those could be used. (If your kids aren’t yet able to read on their own, read to them — and, again, with a lot discussion).

This is a great time to get kids writing, as well. Buy a tablet for them to record their thoughts and ideas on a daily basis. They can write about what they are doing, or what they watch on television last night, or about the books that they are reading.

The second issue deals with what needs to be taught. There are particular things that students need to learn if they are going to make progress in reading.

Younger children, ages 3-7, need to learn to decode text (that is, to turn the letters and spellings into pronunciations). There are a lot of free materials and programs that can be used to give your kids practice with these skills. For instance, go to the PBS KIDS website for that kind of activity, and, again, there are other similar free resources noted on my website.

Kids also need practice reading aloud (ages 6-12). It would be great if you could carve out some time each day to listen to your child’s reading. It is good if that reading is a little hard for the kids — in other words, that they shouldn’t be able to read it perfectly from the beginning. The site Reading A-Z provides fluency practice passages at different levels, so you can experiment a bit to figure out which levels are hard enough. Have your child practice a passage 2 or 3 times to get good with it (meaning that he/she reads the right words and that it sounds like language).

Reading comprehension is important, which is why I recommend talking to your youngster about what he or she reads. They’ll remember more of it and will pay closer attention if you show an interest in what they know about these texts.

And, then there is quality. Many parents worry that these kinds of lessons will not be as good as the ones delivered by teachers. That may or may not be true, but that comparison isn’t the point. Kids need to be engaged in reading and writing, and practicing those skills, and whatever you are able to provide is going to be better and more effective than what they are going to get otherwise.

One quality factor is going to be consistency. It is better to do a small amount of something every day, than to save it all up for one big school day. Set aside 30 minutes a day for your child to read. Set aside time to listening to their reading. Create a writing time, too. These don’t have to be all day affairs. It could be 30 minutes of reading and then go out and play in the backyard for an hour. 30 minutes of writing a story, followed by 30 minutes of television time, and so on. 

I hope your children’s school is able to re-open safely and that you’ll feel comfortable with those arrangements. Every plan I’ve heard so far (every other day, two days a week, every other week, etc.) includes some real loss of learning time. The advice here may help you to keep those losses from doing any real damage.

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"I feel the need of reading. It is a loss to a man not to have grown up among books." —

Abraham Lincoln