Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do- Book Review

A few weeks ago I posted about reading resources for parents and mentioned Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do by Daniel T. Willingham. I purchased the e-book version because I was too excited to wait for Amazon to deliver a paper copy, which was a blessing because I read it on my phone and Kindle over the last few weeks. It took me much longer to read than I anticipated because I couldn’t stop highlighting and writing notes.

Since I started teaching I’ve been on a quest to find a book to help parents (and teachers) address reading concerns and I believe I have finally found it! This book is truly one of a kind. Willingham’s writing voice is superb. He speaks to the reader as a fellow parent/educator with a calm demeanor. He never makes the reader feel incompetent nor does he command or belittle the reader.

One of my favorite ideas from this book is to start now. The introduction states this and it is repeated many times throughout the text. I love that Willingham doesn’t make parents or teachers feel that it’s too late. Many feel that by the time a child is in middle school it’s too late to improve reading skills and motivation, but Willingham constantly denies this with realistic, supportive ideas for adults.

The book starts off with a great explanation of general reading information including: the role of sound, the role of knowledge in comprehension, and motivation. As an educator, I loved his clear explanations of phonics and the role of sounds in reading. I was one of the those children who struggled with phonics, which resulted in my reading struggles and repeating kindergarten. I think if my parents had read the excerpt below during my struggle period it would have helped them understand.

“If reading is a code between written symbols and speech sounds, it’s going to be hard to learn the code if you can’t hear those sounds. Lots of research indicates that this reasonable supposition is right. Children who have trouble learning to read often have difficulty hearing individual speech sounds. At the other end of the spectrum, children who more or less teach themselves to read turn out to hear them easily. This relationship between the ability to hear speech sounds and reading is not unique to learning to read English— you see it across languages. So we have our first clue about how we can help kids become good readers: help them with this auditory challenge.” (Willingham, Daniel T. (2015-02-24). Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do (pp. 12-13). Wiley. Kindle Edition.)

Part one of the text examines reading in birth-preschool age children. My interests the last few months have been on this age group because of my daughter and the two classes I’m teaching, Mommy & Me Literacy and Children & Literacy. The author’s main points in this section are to create a love of reading and to prepare children for decoding. He gives great ideas/suggestions for parents, educators, and child care providers. One of my favorites he mentioned was using word games to help students with speech sounds.

“Here are some examples of word games that help children to hear individual speech sounds: Some children’s songs and rhymes center on word play, for example, The Name Game (“ Dan, Dan, bo-Ban, banana-fana fo-Fan, fee fi-mo-Man. Dan!”) and Apples and Bananas (“ I like to eat, eat, eat, eeples and baneenees”). Classic nursery rhymes use much of this sort of word play. So do Dr. Seuss, Shel Silverstein, and other children’s authors. Sing songs they know, replacing the initial letter of each word with the letter of your choice, for example, “Mary had a little lamb” becomes “Bary bad a bittle bamb.” Find excuses for alliteration: “Great golly! Gobs of grapes!” (Willingham, Daniel T. (2015-02-24). Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do (p. 33). Wiley. Kindle Edition.)

Before a child can read, he or she must be able to recognize letters, which Willingham discusses. One of the easiest ways parents can help children with letter recognition is what Willingham calls “letters in the wild”. Caregivers should interact with children daily with letters they see on billboards, logos, etc. “If you prompt interest in letters in these daily interactions, it’s that much more likely your child will show interest in letters during read-alouds.” (Willingham, Daniel T. (2015-02-24). Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do (p. 36). Wiley. Kindle Edition.)

Part two of the book addresses kindergarten-second grade. I really liked how Willingham starts off this section by discussing the different reading programs used in schools, phonics vs. whole-word, and balanced literacy. Each school district uses a different approach, so it’s important for parents to be aware of the program their school uses. It’s also important to keep in mind that each student learns differently. “Programs vary, and kids’ experiences within a program vary.” (Willingham, Daniel T. (2015-02-24). Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do (p. 83). Wiley. Kindle Edition.)

The author also addresses the hot topic of technology: “With all the power we attribute to technology, that seems like a pretty wimpy effect. But the modest impact is actually typical for educational technology interventions, no matter what the subject: math, science, or history. More disturbing is a point made by researcher John Hattie: when you try anything new in the classroom, you see, on average, this sort of modest boost to student learning. Why? It’s not clear. (My guess is that the excitement of trying something new makes teachers enthusiastic, and that excitement rubs off on students.) The conclusion I’m emphasizing is that educational technology interventions in general (and those targeting reading in particular) have been less successful than we would have expected.” (Willingham, Daniel T. (2015-02-24). Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do (p. 85). Wiley. Kindle Edition.)

Willingham does go on to mention that technology apps and videos vary in quality and how they are embedded. On the flip side, he also does a great job of mentioning how technology can provide individual feedback and other positive ideas (I really appreciate how he can be so calm when discussing hot topic things).

I love that he follows up the discussion of technology with techniques and ideas parents can use at home with their kids. He includes ideas such as: reading with your child, choosing the right book, providing feedback and dealing with reading frustration. Reading is a challenging skill that takes lots of time to develop, so it’s only natural for children to get frustrated with reading while being at home with a parent. The author includes some great ideas for parents on dealing with this frustration.

“I can offer four suggestions if you find yourself frustrated. First, the habit of not talking much is not only good for your child (so she hears mostly her own voice, reading) but also good for maintaining your composure when you’re frustrated. Second, when you do speak, you can usually find an intonation other than frustration that carries your message in a positive way. When my youngest would look to me for help on the same word three times in sixty seconds, my inclination was to shout, “You KNOW this one.” I trained myself to say, “You know this one,” with the intonation of, “You sly dog.” I probably should have said nothing, but at least I used a positive tone. Third, remind yourself that the whole session is only five or ten minutes. Fourth, if you find that you just can’t keep it together, quit. Ask your child to read with you later. Grinding through the process gives a little practice in decoding, but it carries too high a cost in motivation.”(Willingham, Daniel T. (2015-02-24). Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do (p. 90). Wiley. Kindle Edition.)

The final part is third grade and beyond. Since I’ve taught middle school language arts for five years, I was really curious about his thoughts on motivating struggling readers at this stage. Fluency is discussed in great detail in this part of the book, and it’s fascinating how Willingham connects fluency to spelling.  “It would be nice to get kids to fluency faster, especially given that national tests indicate only about half of kids have reached desired levels of fluency by fourth grade. Is there a way to hurry the process along? Three techniques can help. First, explicit spelling instruction seems to improve fluency. Although the spelling knowledge you use to read is not identical to the knowledge you use when you’re thinking about how to spell a word, there is some overlap. So that’s a reason to include spelling instruction in schools, even though we all use word processors with spell-checkers.” (Willingham, Daniel T. (2015-02-24). Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do (p. 137). Wiley. Kindle Edition.). I have worked in environments where administration feels that students don’t need to spend time on spelling after a certain grade, but it is evident that spelling does translate to an increase in fluency.

The next big concept Willingham tackles is reading comprehension. This is the number one struggle I see with struggling readers in middle and high school. The author addressing the importance to reading comprehension strategies which include ideas like activating prior knowledge, listening actively, summarizing, visualizing, etc.

However, it is important to note, as the author does, that texts become increasingly more challenging the older a child gets. By third grade students are starting to read more nonfiction texts (articles, textbooks) and they are expected to understand the material and then interact with it in some aspect. In addition to that, some schools have made the transition to digital literacy. Instead of simply stating a positive or negative stance, the author breaks down and examines the different components which include general tech savviness and the ability to evaluate information. He then follows up his thoughts with information about the digital revolution.

“One change wrought by the digital revolution is that kids are actually reading much more than they used to, even though reading is commonly thought to be in decline.” (Willingham, Daniel T. (2015-02-24). Raising Kids Who Read: What Parents and Teachers Can Do (p. 156). Wiley. Kindle Edition.). If you think about what students today are doing, this makes total sense. Kids are constantly reading tweets, captions on Instagram, blogs posts, etc. They may not be reading novels, but they are constantly reading.

Overall, I am in love with this book. The ideas and suggestions are explained in a clear, concise manner that is extremely user friendly for those not familiar with the education or reading world. It is the perfect book for any parent because it addresses all stages of reading. It is the perfect book for an educator to use to provide parents with guidance.

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