Questions that Parents Should Ask About Reading

parents reading with daughter on couch

We are proud to feature this guest post by Mary Field, head of academics of the International School of San Antonio, about the questions that parents should ask about reading.

When San Antonio Charter Moms asked me to write about reading for their summer blog series, I asked myself, “What can I say that will be useful to parents that has not already been said before?” Then it occurred to me, why don’t I write about all the questions that I wish parents would ask me about reading, and offer solutions that are also fun to do in the summer.

Reading and Knowledge

Why do you have a knowledge-rich curriculum and what does that have to do with reading?

According to cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, reading tests are really knowledge tests. Knowledge is essential to making sense of new texts. When I was learning Chinese, I began to notice something about my progress. Eventually, it was clear that reading a text about a topic that I was familiar with was far easier than reading about something that I didn’t know. Newspaper articles about American politics were far easier to understand than the advertisement about blood pressure medicine next to it. The research bears this out, students who are “poor readers” tend to do better when they read about topics that they already have prior knowledge about. “Good readers,” it turns out, know a lot of stuff.

Summer activities: Going to museums, the zoo, the botanical garden, etc.

Reading Is Phonics

Why don’t you talk more about cultivating a love of reading in students?

At the International School of San Antonio, most of our students are young children. So when we are teaching them how to read, they are starting from the very beginning. Reading, at its most basic level, is a process of mapping sounds to their written representations. So for our youngest learners, synthetic phonics is the best way for them to become readers. It is hard to love to read if the words are still opaque and the most basic task of reading is a struggle.

If you are worried about your child’s reading level, you might consider teaching your child using synthetic phonics yourself. There is an article available on San Antonio Charter Moms to help you get started, based on a webinar with yours truly.

Summer activities: Find a synthetic phonics program and practice daily at home.

Evidence-Based Literacy Instruction

“Balanced literacy” sounds good, but what is wrong with teaching literacy that way?

The term balanced literacy sounds so appealing! It reminds us of a balanced diet, and what could be wrong with that? In my degree program, we learned to teach reading through balanced literacy. For our homework we made word sorts, talked about reader’s workshop, and evaluated online games for teaching literacy. Absolutely none of our assignments taught us how to put a three-letter word in front of young children and teach them how to read it. This is a real problem if teachers are spending precious time writing creative lesson plans but don’t know how to help children in the most basic first steps of reading. I should know, I was one of them!

Summer activities: Phonics, again.

Teens and Literature

Why do older kids have to eat their vegetables when it comes to reading?

I know that summer is the season of beach reads, and that is fine, but it really is important for older readers to keep challenging themselves with texts that make them really work those reading muscles. I love a good genre novel as much as the next person, but students absolutely need to be prepared for challenging texts. Medical school textbooks, law school cases, research papers are all often challenging reads and these are exactly what students need to be able to read in the later stages of their educations and for their careers.

Some might be tempted to swap out the classics or the canon or whatever you want to call it for a couple of graphic novels or the Hunger Games. I am not a high school English teacher, but I do know of a super star English teacher, Jasmine Lane, who explains why that is a bad idea on her blog. In short, not teaching literature to reluctant teenagers does not do them any favors. It is denying them access to something incredibly valuable just because teaching it is hard.

Summer activities: Read a work of literature together.

Charter Moms Chats

Watch Mary Field discuss the questions about reading that she wishes parents would ask her in an interview with Inga Cotton on Charter Moms Chats on Thursday, June 17, 2021 at 4:00 PM Central on Facebook and YouTube.

Mary Field is the head of academics at the International School of San Antonio. She has taught Mandarin Chinese in San Antonio since 2015.

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