Is Your School Helping or Hurting Your Child’s Literacy?

Five practices that discourage reading and six ways to encourage it

Posted Jul 22, 2016

Xalid Demoza/FreeImages
Source: Xalid Demoza/FreeImages

In the age of technology, fluent reading is more important than ever. Competent readers have a big advantage in learning and in life. How can you ensure your child learns to make coherent sense of written material, which encourages successful exploration, learning, and discovery in all academic fields, as well as many domains of life?

What NOT to Do: Five Ways to Discourage Kids’ Reading

In a recent review of the research on literacy practices that don’t work, Nell Duke highlights five of the most common and least effective instructional practices in North American schools:

1. The Weekly Word List

One frequently used approach to enriching kids’ vocabulary is to give them a list of words and ask them to look up those words in the dictionary or online. The next task is to define the words, use them in a sentence, or something similar. Because these tasks are disconnected from most kids’ interests, and has no apparent relevance in their lives, any learning they do tends to be short-term. This is not a good way to spend your child’s precious learning time, whether in class or as homework.

2. The Reading Prize

Many teachers create incentive programs to encourage kids to read more. Whether it’s putting the child’s name up on the Rapid Readers list in the hall or handing out stickers, treats, bracelets, or other small tokens to the child who has read the most books (or says he has), these prizes actually tend to undermine kids’ motivation to read. They make children less likely to choose reading as an activity, not more likely. Not smart.

3. The Weekly Whole-Class Spelling Quiz

Since time began—or at least as far back as the 1950s when I was in elementary school—teachers have been giving their classes a list of words to memorize on Monday, and then a spelling quiz on those words on Friday. For many kids, it’s worse than a waste of time. The good spellers don’t learn much, and the ones at the bottom of the ranking are increasingly entrenched in feeling like losers. And the ones in the middle don’t retain a whole lot of what they’ve learned for the Friday test. There are much better ways to encourage literacy skills.

4. Unstructured Independent Reading

I love seeing a child engrossed in a book, so the idea of an independent reading time where every child in the class sits and reads appeals to me in lots of ways. But the research suggests it’s a bad use of classroom time. Some kids—those who already love reading—will enjoy that use of class time; most won’t get much out of it; and some will feel even worse about themselves when they notice others enjoying their books and they can’t even figure out what’s happening in theirs. Independent reading time that includes no structure, guidance, or support doesn’t foster reading achievement or an interest in books.

5. Using Recess as Punishment

It shocks me that many schools still use recess as part of their punishment and reward system. All kids benefit from a break in classroom routine that involves physical movement, and most kids need more exercise, free play, and outdoor time than they usually get. Generally speaking, it’s the kids who have trouble with literacy tasks who most need recess. Kids do better on all academic tasks—including reading, writing, and problem-solving—when they’re getting ample time for moving, playing, and stretching. If your child is deprived of recess when he hasn’t finished his schoolwork, or hasn’t done well on a test, it’s time to take action. Take a look at the articles linked below that address the importance of free play and outdoor time, as well as the link to a blog on effective advocacy.

What Works? What DOES Encourage Kids’ Reading?

1. Reading for Discussion, Meaning, and Interest

Much better than giving children word lists and asking them to define or use those words in sentences, teachers and parents can help kids develop all literacy skills, including vocabulary, by getting them to read stuff they want to read, and then to discuss what they’re reading with others. You can encourage active engagement in topics of interest by fostering discussion, and helping kids to draw connections from what they're reading to other written sources, and to real life.

2. No Prizes, Just Chances to Chat with Others

Kids who get opportunities to interact with their peers and teachers and parents about the books they’re reading are a lot more likely to become and stay interested in reading for the long term, than are kids who are given prizes for the number of books they say they read all by themselves. It also helps to give kids special times and places at school for their book club interactions.

3. Different Assignments and Different Tests for Different Kids

One size hardly ever fits all kids, even if they’ve been grouped by age and ability (as occurs sometimes with giftedness and learning problems). So it’s not surprising to learn that the weekly whole-class spelling quiz doesn’t work as well as assignments and assessments that are more individually tailored, taking into account where each kid is in their learning. Much better than context-free spelling quizzes are assessments that require kids to analyze, synthesize, and apply what they’re learning to one or more contexts. 

4. Thinking Together Before and After Reading Alone

Kids enjoy reading a lot more, and learn a lot more from it, when teachers help them learn how to choose what to read, and when they help them develop strategies for more efficient reading. They also benefit more, and are more motivated to read more, when they’re given frequent feedback and opportunities to discuss what they’re reading. Independent reading is great, but it requires structure and support and guidance along the way.

5. Add More Outdoor Playtime, Don’t Take it Away

There’s a rapidly growing body of research showing the benefits of ample outdoor play. In addition to the obvious physical benefits, kids who get more recess benefit cognitively, emotionally, and academically. Kids who are having trouble with their reading need more time for play, not less. Nothing good is achieved by depriving kids of recess as a punishment for bad behaviour or incomplete work.

6. Keep Reading to Your Child, Even After They’ve Learned How to Read

A regular one-on-one reading period—maybe at bedtime—is a great opportunity for bonding,  a moment of being quietly together in your busy lives. It also gives you material for wide-ranging questions and discussions; builds your child’s vocabulary; supports focus, memory, and concentration skills; stimulates imagination and creativity; expands your child’s world; increases their empathy and tolerance for others; and nurtures their self-discovery. You can take turns choosing what you read, from old favourites you remember as a child (maybe Charlotte’s Web, Treasure Island, or The Wind in the Willows), to books your child chooses at the library, at the local bookstore, or from your bookshelves.

Although many common literacy practices aren’t effective, there are some great ways to support kids in acquiring the love of reading that encourages high-level learning across the life span.

For more on these ideas:

“What Doesn't Work: Literacy Practices We Should Abandon,” by Nell Duke   

No More Reading for Junk: Best Practices for Motivating Readers, by Barbara Marinak and Linda Gambrell

“Meeting Words Where They Live,” by Carol Jago

No More Independent Reading Without Support, by Debbie Miller and Barbara Moss

No More Spelling and Phonics Worksheets, by Jennifer Palmer and Marcia Invernizzi

No More Taking Away Recess and Other Problematic Discipline Practices, by Gianna Cassetta and Brook Sawyer  

“Keep it Simple! Three Parenting Tips for Healthy Life Balance,” by Dona Matthews

“Play, Run, Skip: Twenty Ways to Keep Kids Active,” by Dona Matthews

 “Advocacy in Action: How to Change the World for Your Child,” by Dona Matthews

“Reading to Kids: Ten Reasons It Matters; Ten Ways to Do It,” by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster

“Read to Your Child Starting at Birth: It’s Good for Learning, Thinking, Imagining, and Relating,” by Dona Matthews

Beyond Intelligence: Secrets for Raising Happily Productive Kids, by Dona Matthews and Joanne Foster