Connecting the Dots: Who Can Help Our Kids Learn to Read? Parents!

As a parent of a child with dyslexia, I came to this world of reading wars, phonics, balanced literacy, leveled readers, and other instructional methods that we argue about, as an innocent. I merely wanted to know why our daughter was struggling so much, and why nobody could help her learn to read.

When she didn’t progress at school, I thought that I could teach her to read. As an English major, a publishing professional, and a past writing tutor, I was a natural candidate, but my methods and attempts didn’t work. I couldn’t teach her, and the school couldn’t seem to teach her, so then I thought that there must be a print-based or computerized program that could teach her to read. If there wasn’t, I was sure that my colleagues and I in educational publishing and technology could invent a program that would magically work. We had solved educational challenges before; surely we could figure this out. (Perhaps now we could create something, but we didn’t have the background back then.)

As I slowly entered the world of the science of reading; direct, explicit instruction; multisensory instruction; and eventually Orton-Gillingham, I still couldn’t help our daughter learn to read. I couldn’t hear the sounds myself! While I could probably teach a course on the five pillars of literacy and help someone with instructional methods, my inability to differentiate tones restricts my ability to teach a child who is beginning to develop phonemic awareness. What I can do, though, is to find and learn resources based on developing phonemic awareness, phonological skills, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Our daughter is way beyond the essentials at this point, but there is still plenty I can do to help her gain fluency, expand her vocabulary, and improve comprehension. Hindsight is always 20/20, and I wish I knew then how much I could have done to help her learn to read instead of relying on everyone else to teach her to read.

We can all help our kids to read. That’s not to say that we don’t need tutors or specialized services for some of our kids who have dyslexia and other language disabilities. But there’s still plenty we can do to help kids start to hear how language works and to understand how sounds and printed letters work together to form words.

You’re Pushy!

It’s a little presumptuous to think that we parents can be experts in one of the foundational areas of education. It also seems like we should get mini-credentials for the knowledge we must acquire in this pursuit. Our mini-credentials would certify us as reading experts, so there would be no need for us to interrupt or explain ourselves in (IEP) individualized instruction plan meetings where leveled readers and guided reading are recommended. Our credentials as experts in the science of reading would speak for and prevent those recommendations from being made.

Like me, most parents don’t plan to become reading experts. (Of course, I thought I was a reading expert until I learned about the science of reading, at which point I realized that I knew nothing.) We want our children to receive proper instruction that results in reading proficiency, or we want interventions that result in improvement. What we don’t want is to become pushy know-it-alls, “those parents,” but we may not have a choice.

Many parents do become reading tutors or seek training in Orton-Gillingham or other science-based intervention programs. Many parents are teachers themselves, and they can’t believe that they don’t have the skills to teach their kids to read. A friend of mine who tutors estimates that 70 percent of the kids she tutors have at least one parent who is a teacher. Every parent of a struggling reader has a story; those of us who involved in education ourselves seem to take our inabilities to help our kids the hardest.

Helping Our Kids to Read

Now that I’m no longer an innocent, I navigate the world of literacy and reading differences with more confidence. With all the semantics, politics, and philosophical differences, it is not for the faint of heart. As parents, we face enough risk and uncertainty without walking into a minefield in our kids’ educational environment, and we must recognize that the people and organizations committed to literacy are passionate about what they believe. I try to focus on that passion and commitment, but it’s not easy, since I’m not objective. Admittedly, I am in what we might call “the choir”: I sing the praises of evidence-based approaches to reading. There are many, many people around me, however, who are not in the choir, but that’s another story.

So, here’s what we can do as parents, both to empower ourselves, and to start helping our kids to read:

  1. Realize that there’s no such thing as just a parent. I’ve had many brilliant discussions about reading with parents, and when I ask about their backgrounds, they say, “I’m just a parent.” There’s no such thing! See this recent story about Moms in Philly who took literacy into their own hands!
  2. Understand that you have the power to help your kid! You may need a tutor to help them become proficient, but you are not helpless. Learn about the five pillars of literacy, about direct, explicit instruction, and about multisensory learning. Go to the dyslexia sites on social media hosted by homeschoolers; the homeschooling community is huge in this area and they have figured it out. We are not a homeschooling family, but I rely on the homeschooling community for many excellent resources.
  3. Reach out to other parents in similar situations. You may not need a support group, but you should find your “peeps.” If you can’t find your peeps, call me. I will always talk to a parent in a similar situation. Always remember that you are not alone.
  4. Work with local organizations to support state policies that promote early screening and teacher training. Tell your story! One person can make a difference, so every phone call or email counts.
  5. Learn the science, but listen to anyone who is creating something that works. I believe in science, but I also believe in instinct, and numbers don’t always tell the whole story.
  6. Trust your instinct. You are most likely the person who sensed all along that there was an issue or who first pushed for assessments or better services.
  7. Remember that no path is forever. If you make a mistake, you can change direction.
  8. Consider the whole child. One of the most difficult decisions we made was to stop the services that our child was receiving to provide her with a better experience. It was the right decision for our child at that moment.
  9. Realize that your child does not need to “learn to learn.” Children have a natural curiosity. Your child does need to learn to read. Reading is not natural for most people. Do not let anyone tell your child to start guessing or looking at pictures. Children need to be taught.
  10. Let your children read what they want. Reading material may include magazines, novels, and so on. Once they can decode and have started reading, do not let anyone push them into categories or leveled readers. Just let them read! Once they can understand, they can learn anything.

Teaching our kids to read is not a skill that only a teacher can own. Information about how to best educate all of our kids to read should be disseminated widely to everyone. At Teach My Kid to Read our passion is creating educational content and experiences. We hope that we can help spread the word about the science of reading, about dyslexia, and about truly appropriate instruction and interventions. We hope that, over time, kids with dyslexia and other language disabilities will face fewer struggles and will experience more learning.

What has your experience been? Please leave a comment in the “Leave a Reply” section below.

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