How Parents Can Help Children Succeed In School

image of adult reading to child

Reading Aloud + Talking with Children = Off to a Great Start! (photo from Natalie Maynor on Flickr)

Below is my response to a great question posed by Amy (aka @teachmama) on the “We Teach Reading” group in the We Teach Ning. You can find that question here: “Learning During Read Alouds.”

Hi Amy,

If there was one thing I wanted parents to know, it is that the amount of talk that happens in the home is correlated to the size of their children’s vocabulary as they enter school and that the size of their children’s vocabulary is strongly correlated to reading comprehension and overall academic success.

Letting parents know that they need to talk with their children is especially important for those parents who come from a culture where they think it is strange to talk to children and for those parents who grew up in homes without a lot of talk. I would also let them know that reading aloud to children (or discussing pictures for parents who struggle with reading) offers reasons to talk about many things with their children and that it will feel natural once a routine is set in place.

Reading aloud to children also builds knowledge of the world and knowledge of the word (vocabulary) which are necessary to make inferences (or read between the lines) while reading or listening. Not being able to make inferences (or connect-the dots) between what is written (or said) and what is implied (or left unsaid) means that comprehension cannot happen. Authors and speakers imply; therefore good readers and listeners must infer to make sense of the message. The more we know, the more quality inferences we can make.

To say this in another way, if parents do not read and talk a lot with their children before they enter school, their children will be at risk for school failure. It would be difficult for even the best teachers who use the best intervention programs to help these students ever catch up with peers who have had many stories read to them and who have heard a lot of talk in the home.

One thing I would always start with is a picture/text walk and making predictions. As I read, I would discuss whether the predictions should be modified, rejected, confirmed, or if it was still too soon to say. Of course these decisions should be based on evidence in the text and from our background knowledge, or personal experiences. That evidence should be discussed to help promote good thinking skills.

Making predictions may have led to a reason, or purpose, for reading the text. If it didn’t, I would be sure to set one and share it with the child. In other words, “Let’s read to find out _____.” Having a purpose for reading leads to more engaged reading. More engagement with the text leads to better comprehension.

Although it is not necessarily the most difficult “strategy” to tackle, I think one of the most important things we can do is to encourage children to wonder as they read and for us to share our own wonders, too. It is important to teach children that not all wonders can be answered, but that good wonders lead to great (and exciting) thinking. Discussing answers to the wonders in terms of what is possible and plausible helps build critical thinking skills. Discussing where the answers (if any) might be found helps develop research skills which are needed for academic success.

One Sentence Summary: Read to your child often and talk about what you read.

I’ve blogged about the importance of talk before. If you are interested, see What Happens in the Home Before Kids Start School Affects Their Vocabulary & Overall Academic Success for the research behind my thoughts.

If you could only share one thing with parents that you think would really have an impact on their child’s academic success, what would it be?

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  • http://thejoyofliteracy.blogspot.com/ rebecca

    You are so right on. I was talking to a parent the other day, and I gave him the same advice- to read with his daughter every day to build language and motivation to read. He said, “Wow, I had never thought of that.” So simple, yet so powerful for the child. I love your constant emphasis on vocabulary. I, too, think build a child’s vocabulary is so essential to reading success down the road. Thanks for your blog and for sharing your experience! I put a link to your blog on mine, hope that’s okay!

    • http://www.twrctank.com/ Julie Niles Petersen

      Dear Rebecca,

      Thanks for sharing your story. As teachers, I think we find it surprising that parents don’t already know they should be reading to their children. That is also unfortunate, because I think a lot of teachers assume all parents know this, so they never bring it up. I’m so glad to see that you do!

      Yes, vocabulary is important. Michael Graves (a vocabulary guru) discusses the close relationship between vocabulary size and comprehension, as well as whether the close relationship is correlational or causal in this short pdf: http://www.cehd.umn.edu/reading/documents/FAQ/VocabComp.pdf

      Thanks for your kind words and for sharing your own experiences (and resources) on your blog: http://thejoyofliteracy.blogspot.com . I’ve subscribed to it in Google Reader and included it in my sqworl collection of literacy blogs and websites: http://sqworl.com/u10mz8 

      I really appreciate you taking the time to comment and for linking to my blog.

      Best,

      Julie

      • Debbie Harrar

        Hi Julie,
        It’s amazing how quiet the classroom gets, and how absorbed students become when I read a story to my third grade students.  They love it!  It’s a great way to model fluency, tone and emotion in reading as well as an excellent way to build vocabulary.  I wonder if parents think that reading aloud is something age appropriate and eventually outgrown.  My 17 year old daughter very recently told me how her 12th grade English teacher read to them.  She said, “Mom, I sat in the front row and I was totally engaged.”  I don’t think that reading aloud is ever outgrown.  I have found it to be motivating and inspirational especially for struggling readers.  I’ve encouraged more non-fiction in my classroom and incorporated Time Magazine for Kids into my reading / social studies blocks to build vocabulary, fluency, comprehension, and awareness of current events.  I encourage students to take the magazine home and share with parents.  I am hoping that this will spark conversation between parents and their students about the events happening in their world.  This is another way that I think parents can be actively involved in their children’s education.

        • http://www.twrctank.com/ Julie Niles Petersen

          Debbie: Thanks for taking the time to respond and share such positive literacy experiences. Reading your comment made my day!!! 

          I love how quiet and eager students get during read aloud time, too. Reading aloud to children is one of my favorite things to do. I don’t think reading aloud is ever outgrown either. I know I loved when my university professors read aloud to me.

          I also love that you encourage your students to take home non-fiction text to spark conversations between parents and students!!!! I bet they love it, too!!

          Thanks again for sharing, Debbie! :)

  • Jlittle

    You are totally correct with all that you say and that is the beginning of literacy and comprehension. Learning to speak and understand oral language is the foundation for everything in school, but far too few realize the importance of expanding simple language into complex and rich descriptions.

  • Jennifer Little

    There was another study (actually printed in 4 parts) around 1970 and the authors’ names escape me at the moment that found that the language deficit Head Start students had parents who had identical language (deficits).  Patrick Finn (around 1994) found that low SES families use language differently from middle class students (and middle class teachers who teach a middle class curriculum).  Their language is used as a tool to accomplish a task – mostly nouns, verbs and a few prepositional phrases.  For a research study (1995-8) for substance abuse prevention, I tested about 500 4th graders in inner city schools with 2 language tests and found similar results.  One teacher “violated” the study protocols and started teaching her students specific language skills to students who were performing 2-3 years behind grade level.  On follow-up testing, a girl, who was absent about 1/3 of the year and performing 3 years behind grade level originally, had the same test results on the language tests as a gifted student.  Five years later I was working in a magnet high school and found 3 students from that class attending.  No other students in the study were attending any magnet or intensive programs.  I have seen similar results from students I have taught over the years so I know it wasn’t a fluke.

  • http://www.mindfulmum.co.uk Mindful Mum

    I just wanted to drop you a quick note to say how useful and well written your articles here are, so well done. We run a similar blog for parents over here in the UK (www.mindfulmum.co.uk) and it’s always nice to get another person’s view on these things.

  • Ryan Anderson

    So happy to hear this. We’ve always favored a more holistic approach to
    education. Too often our children are treated as if the classroom were an
    assembly line. some great discussion, thanks