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Early Literacy: Now is the Time to Get Parents on Your Side

By Ernest H. Johnson, Ph.D.

It is no secret that the home environment has the largest direct impact on student achievement. So why would a teacher ever think about implementing a literacy program for students without involving parents? One of the best methods for doing this is to create opportunities for students to teach their parents, through small homework assignments. Imagine that you (the teacher) gave your K-5 students a single “literacy-enhancement” homework assignment to give to their parents’ every day for 30 days. Imagine that these assignments to parents focused on phonics, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, and phonemic awareness. Imagine that after each assignment that you had parents send you a note about “why” they thought the assignment was important for their child’s literacy development. If it is true that our habits are formed by the words we use to describe our behavior, and then now is the time to provide parents with the right works to form strong literacy habits for their children. Doing what is necessary to get parents on your side now to prevent a reading problem is far better than waiting for problems to emerge.

Below are a list of homework assignments for parents (The A,B,C’s for Empowering Your Child to be An Excellent Readers) that my wife, Mattie Perry Johnson, and I created for parents when she was a Library Media Specialist for an Elementary School. The list was made by consulting parents of advanced readers about the best ways to make reading at home a household habit. While the list has been modified a bit, I use it routinely in the parent/literacy engagement work with educators and parents. Rather than simple providing the parents with a poster of the ABC’s, we encourage teachers/counselors to work on one or two items each day (or week) with the parents. Essentially, the student brings home an assignment to the parent. The parent has to write about their “compelling reasons” why taking the actions would be beneficial to their child. They are encouraged to think about how their actions might affect their child today and in the future. They are also encouraged to think about the positive and negative consequences that their actions will have on their child’s life. Parents are also encouraged to share their thoughts about the assignment with their child.

One of the things that teachers most often assume is that parents of their students are just like them. There are some cases where that’s true, but in others – it’s simply wrong. The danger in this is that parents implement and change things for reasons that teachers may not have considered. If having compelling reasons are the primary driver in decision making, then teachers need to help parents discovering their compelling reasons. For most people, not having strong enough reasons is the major obstacle to change.

In many cases, parents might want to change how they approach reading with their child, but think they don’t have the skills to do so. Removing this obstacle requires them (the parent) to clarify their values about the benefits of helping their child to become a good reader. As educators, we must back away from attempting to convince parents to see things our way and help them to discover their compelling reasons for making changes. We have to help them wrestle with reasons to change. In doing so, we will discover what makes them worry about their child’s future. And they will discover their real reasons for making reading an essential part of everything they do with their child.

While there are other options for getting parents on your side (holding special training for parents, newsletters, posting on the school website, highlighting how parents can help during school events), it might be more engaging and productive if you got your students to help facilitate the process. Important character building lessons about commitment and consistency will not go unnoticed when students are involved. Students are more likely to feel confident about themselves when they are empowered to be a leader. Also, parents are far more likely to assist you when they genuinely believe that you want their assistance.

Ask your child to tell you about their favorite books.
Bring something to read wherever you go and have your child to do the same.
Count the number of words your child can read in a minute…and keep a chart of the progress.
Don’t forget to let your child see you reading…they will do what they see you doing.
Every day and in every way, encourage your child to read.
Figure out ways to make reading fun, exciting, and relevant.
Get a dictionary for looking up words…and have several in your house.
Have your child tell you about the kind of books they want to read.
Insist that your child reads at least one new book every week.
Journal together with your child about the books both of you are reading.
Keep books and reading materials where they can be easy noticed.
Listen to books on tape with your child…they are free from the library.
Make a chart of the number of words your child (and you) reads every week.
Never end a day without reading with your child.
Open a library account for you and your child.
Practice sounding out difficult words with your child.
Question your child about what they are reading.
Remind your child to sound out all parts of the words.
Select interesting books to have at home based on what your child wants to read.
Try a night without TV, Movies, or the Computer – just reading!
Use a dictionary to help your child lookup unfamiliar words.
Visit the library with your child once a week…and let them choose books they want to read.
Watch a movie, video, or television program with sounds off and captions on.
X-out the idea that you can’t afford books – they are free at the library!
Yes, it is true – children need to read on weekends too! Those who do make better grades.
Zero in on making sure your child has books to read during weekends, holidays, and the summer break.

Experts in early grades literacy agree that the most successful approaches to sustainable literacy include factors inside and outside of school. Involving parents in the learning process is an essential part of the challenge of helping children maintain their progress as readers and writers. A major focus of our work at NCCAT is on the best practices teachers can use to engage parents in the learning process. Visit our website to learn more about our early literacy programs or call us to schedule training at your school.

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