Show Parents How to Read with their Child Productively

It's pretty natural for parents to ask teachers about how to help their child with reading. The question might come in different forms, sometimes like this... "Hi, I'm Johnny's mom. He's loving third grade. Hey, I've been meaning to ask you about his reading. What can we be doing at home to help him improve?" OR sometimes like this... "Hi, I'm Johnny's mom. He's loving third grade. But doggone it, every time I try to help him with his reading, we end up in a fight. Any tips?"

All readers, from the strugglers to the most avid, can benefit from their parents' involvement. With the huge emphasis on close, critical reading and thinking deeply about texts, how can we take advantage of parents' knowledge as readers, and usually their willingness, to support what we are trying to develop in class?

One thing.

Read out loud with your child.

I'm talking about all elementary grades here, and even more so with upper elementary. Yes, that's right, I'm saying to urge parents to sit with their third, fourth, and even fifth grade child and take turns reading out loud with him or her.

This one act opens the door to so many other things, things that I don't think many parents realize. If we can help parents recognize (1) the skill they have as readers and as thinkers themselves, and (2) that they are capable of sharing that skill with their child through modeling, then a very powerful reading support system begins to take shape.

Let's look at the opportunities and benefits that are available through reading out loud with your child. I'll be speaking straight to the parents now...

Change Your Mindset
We want you to approach the idea of reading with your child as a fellow reader, not as a parent. When you view the experience as equals... just two readers with the same book, your child feels less judged, his thinking more valued. It doesn't mean you need to pretend to be someone you aren't; children will see through that in a heartbeat. Be real. Bring your reading experience to the table. But simply by modeling your reading voice and sharing your honest thinking about text, rather than trying to instruct your child on how to do something, you can keep the interactions positive and productive, and we'll still get the reading growth as a byproduct.

Be Careful with the Corrections... and the Compliments
Don't focus on what your child is doing wrong in his reading. Correcting all mistakes and misinterpretations leads to your child getting frustrated, then you getting frustrated, then your child getting attitude, then you getting snarky, then your child shutting down. Am I right?

But also be very careful with the compliments and praise. Too much "Good job!" or "That was perfect!" and subconsciously you begin sounding like, "I'm better at this than you, so I'll judge your performance." I'm not saying to never praise your child. Just support him with "reader-to-reader" compliments and observations, rather than "expert-to-novice" ones. Here's an example of a compliment from a fellow reader: "I like to stop and reread, too. It helps make sure the story sounds just right." Or, "When you explained what the character meant right there, I was thinking the same thing. How cool is that?!" Think of it this way: if you wouldn't say it to a friend in your own book club, don't say it to your child.

Choose a Variety of Texts
Picture books lend themselves nicely to reading together because you and your child can read an entire book in one sitting. Upper elementary children tend to think picture books are "only for little kids," but authors like Patricia Polacco, Eve Bunting, William Steig, and Chris Van Allsburg, would beg to differ.

And if you can get your child to buy into a picture book here and there, you might go out on a limb once in awhile and pull out a favorite from your child's younger days. Frog and Toad, Henry and Mudge, Olivia... Since reading the actual words of an old favorite is easy, you can dig deep into themes and underlying messages. (And don't think all those books are fluffy. Frog and Toad would beg to differ.)

Chapter books are probably the most natural choice, especially for upper elementary. Try choosing one separate from the books he reads on his own, one that is "reserved" for just the two of you. That way, you both are always on the same page with the story, both literally and figuratively.

Other short texts can also be appealing to read together: magazine articles, poems, kid-appropriate community-related Facebook posts (Humans of New York, anyone?), and ahem, blog posts.

Take Turns 
Agree on how to share the reading. Not sure where to start? Try this: you read one page out loud, then your child reads the next page out loud, and you continue taking turns. Make sure you are sitting next to your child so both readers are looking at the words being read.

When you are listening to your child read, be sure you are really trying to understand the story yourself, not just assessing your child's performance. Help him with difficult words, nudging him to give it a shot first before you make a suggestion. Help him with new vocabulary he comes across.

When you are reading, try to model strong reading fluency. Don't read fast. Rather, read with clear phrasing and expression. Pause once or twice to talk about something from the text.

Think Out Loud
Verbalizing your thinking, in detail, is huge. When you think out loud, your child hears the kinds of things a strong reader thinks about when she reads. It can take some getting used to, because much of what adult readers internalize happens so naturally, but teasing these things out for your child to hear is valuable. For example: "Do you see what I did there? Man, I really goofed that sentence up, but I didn't realize it until I got to this comma. So I decided to just go back and read the whole sentence again." Or, "This part reminds me of that time when you and I went fishing. Remember how frustrated we were?" Or, "I think I know why the author said that phrase right there. He's trying to trick us, don't you think?"

Encourage Predictions, Stances, References, Feelings
Look for opportunities to pause the text to talk about it. Don't just wait until the end, either. A few timely exchanges throughout makes for a more meaningful post-discussion. Through modeling and prompting questions (in a "I truly want to know what you think" sort of tone), encourage your child to make predictions, take a stance and form opinions on issues, refer to parts of the text that support his thinking, and share how certain sections or phrases make him feel.

And afterward, try something like: "I'm proud of you for working on that (or) thinking so hard about that (or) sharing your thoughts about that (or) taking a stand on that (or) being honest with how you feel about that. Aren't you proud of me, too?" You might get a minor eye-roll, but a smile will probably accompany it.

Don't Push the Writing
Yeah I said it. Unless your child really enjoys writing down his thoughts about a book, don't even ask him to do it, even when you and I both know that writing-about-your-reading is important and something we do all the time in class.

Don't ask him to summarize the story in a paragraph. Don't ask him to create a story map. Don't ask him to write a book report. Do you do any of those things when you read for pleasure? Instead, focus on discussing ideas out loud, because guess what: being able to understand and analyze a text, explain and support one's own thinking, and listen to, build on, or disagree with someone else's thinking, all verbally, well, I'd argue it's as important, (if not more so) than putting it into writing... and it's almost always more appealing.

Spill Conversations Over
Carry your conversations into other parts of the evening. I know you're already in a time crunch as it is. Talking about a book in the car, while setting the table for dinner, during dinner, or during the bedtime routine, can help curb the feeling that you're just adding one more thing to an already crowded night.

*    *    *

Teachers, think about the power of a one-to-one reading conference with a student. Even a few minutes of focused, custom instruction with a reader impacts that reader right away. (If only we had more time for this, right?) But we can give parents a few tools, not ones to replace the instruction we give at school, but tools to help them open up and share their own reading toolbox. And in turn, they help fill their child's toolbox, too.

Be sure to click the image above to download a free parent brochure I created. It contains many of the tips I wrote about in this post, as well as some example prompting questions parents can use when they are reading with their child. **Now includes a Spanish version too!**


A Classroom Library Makeover... for a Friend

I did a makeover on Mrs. Hiatt's first grade classroom library.

Now wouldn't it be cool if I said I'd scoured the country looking for a willing teacher to allow me into their classroom to re-do their library and happened to find Mrs. Hiatt? Well, the real story is a bit more personal. And cooler.

Mrs. Hiatt is a first grade teacher. My oldest daughter, Maille ("My-lee"), actually was in Mrs. Hiatt's class just last year, so I know how wonderful a teacher she is. And she and my wife, Megan, are good friends. Oh, and did I mention that Megan teaches in the room next door to Mrs. Hiatt? So Maille got to spend first grade with a first-rate teacher with Mommy right next door. It was a special year, to say the least.

The week before school started this year, I was helping Megan re-organize her library. The whole fam came along: there was Megan, re-labeling a stack of books; me, sifting through chapter books, deciding which series should be a category; Maille, who was given the job of sorting a pile of picture books into realistic fiction and fantasy (though very slowly because of getting caught up in reading every other book in its entirety); Adelyn (4), who was dragging a cart around the classroom, making pit stops to nab Arthur and Froggy books from our freshly made stacks; and Emerson (2), who was following Adelyn around the room, moving said Arthur and Froggy books to locations never to be found again.

Mrs. Hiatt popped her head in, and after chatting a bit, she asked if I'd be interested in overhauling her library. And that's the story behind the job.

Now let's get to her library.

The "Before"

The next day I met Mrs. Hiatt in her room and we talked about her library. 

Interesting nuggets that surfaced from our conversation:
  • Mrs. Hiatt has a lot of books.
  • They were not organized: no categories, no labels.
  • The lack of organization did not stress out Mrs. Hiatt. (She is go-with-the-flow in an awesome sort of way.)
  • Mrs. Hiatt saw the advantages an organized classroom library would bring to her students.
  • Mrs. Hiatt, in her classic go-with-the-flow style, gave me complete control.

My main goal was to organize the current books within the current theme, using the majority of the current containers. Thus, the finished library would not have a drastic change in appearance. But infusing a new organizational system that would be easy for students to understand and maintain, coupled with additional details and touches of charm, would make the project a success.

You can see that pulling out the baskets of books for a closer look revealed some issues.

So that's where I started. Mrs. Hiatt left me to it.

The "During"

I dug in by unloading the baskets of books. I sorted as I went, mainly by genre, but on the look out for multiple books by the same author or within the same series. Being a first grade library, the chapter book collection obviously was not as robust, but on the other hand, I was finding a ton of nonfiction beginning readers. It was important that the library maintain an appropriate range of levels, so these books would be important to keep. 

I also began finding quite a few, shall we say, old books. Now I'm all for including classic stories, but I draw the line here: 

As it turns out, some of these very old books were Mrs. Hiatt's husband's childhood books. Not joking! (Luckily, the one pictured above was not Mr. Hiatt's.) I love the sentimental value of these books and the personal connection that could be shared with students. But after my tongue-in-cheek suggestion for a "Vintage" category was turned down, most of these books were taken out, leaving more room for the more appealing books. 

After a couple of hours, the stacks had grown to teetering. It was then time to make some decisions about the categories. With the size of Mrs. Hiatt's main book containers rather large, I knew each category needed a healthy amount of books to fill the basket appropriately.

Here are the categories I ended up with:
  • FICTION CATEGORIES: Realistic Fiction, Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Folktales & Fables, Mystery, Readers, Chapter Books, Picture Book Favorites, Series Favorites, Magic Tree House, Junie B. Jones
  • NONFICTION CATEGORIES: Science, Social Studies, Animals, Joke Books, Math
The last major step was to create and add the labels, ones for the containers and ones for the books.  Since this is first grade, I added an image to each label to make it easier for students to match a book back to its home. I printed the book labels on 1" x 2 5/8" shipping labels, and made the category labels on card stock, four to a sheet.

The "After"

Putting Mrs. Hiatt's library back together was fun! Are you ready to see it?

The large bookcase that was crammed with books received some needed attention. I reserved the top shelf for books that Mrs. Hiatt commonly uses in her teaching, and the bottom shelf for over-sized books. With the middle shelves, I de-cluttered a bit to make them more user-friendly, and added a little charm by turning some books horizontally, adding a couple of new, inexpensive baskets for a couple of her smaller categories, and placing some fun little knick-knacks that fit Mrs. Hiatt's nature theme.

The built-in bookshelves hold the main stock of books, using the plastic containers Mrs. Hiatt already had, with category labels laminated and held on with metal rings. I placed a new wicker basket on the floor that fits picture books perfectly (50% off at Hobby Lobby made it less than $10).

Next to a comfy chair, I placed a basket with some timely books, kind of like having the current magazine issues on your coffee table.  Finally, I created a poster with simple library rules. I kept it in line with the nature theme and displayed in in a nice frame.

I went ahead and made a few versions of the classroom library poster for YOU! And as a bonus, there are coordinating bookmarks included! Click the image below to take you to the free download from my TeachersPayTeachers store.

Click the image above to get the free posters.

I hope you picked up a few insights into organizing a classroom library. If you'd like more information about classroom libraries, check out my 5-part series HERE. Thanks!

Your Night-Before-the-First-Day-of-School Pep Talk

You were made for this moment.

Scratch that.

You were made to make moments. And tomorrow you begin.

Tomorrow, you begin the first series in a collection of moments. Not all will be happy. Not all will be engaging. Not all will be rigorous. Not all will be noticed. Not all will be remembered.

But some will be.

It will be a blur, tomorrow. You are going to try to get too much accomplished. That's okay. Go ahead and try. But in the midst of whatever you accomplish, just remember to make a moment for each child.

One for each will do for now.

A warm smile from your eyes. A small request by name. A wink. A shared look, that says hey, we're in this together. A bit of positive feedback. A short conversation about family. A gentle word of encouragement. A sly smile that brings someone in on the joke.

A little encouragement for teachers as they get ready to start the year.Let go of the worry that everyone needs to get to know each other right away. It's the first day of school, not the only day of school. It will happen. Take it slow.

But do tell them about you. Share stories with them. Normal stories. How you were feeling the night before, for instance. Tell them about your family. About your summer. About your favorites. About your thoughts during your drive to school.

The act of telling a story does more than just tell a story. It builds trust. Community. Honesty. Comfort. Realness.

So do it. Often.

Be confident. Make clear decisions. Even if you are winging it and you in fact have no clue what is the best thing to do in that moment. Even if it ends up being the wrong decision and you have to reverse course and make a new decision.

No waffling. Students don't mind being led in the wrong direction temporarily. They at least feel led.

Don't be too critical of how the day unfolds tomorrow. Don't judge it too harshly. Those kids will be coming back the next day regardless. Let it be what it is. The first series in a collection of moments.

Taken all together, it's not going to be easy.

But you can do it.

Because you were made for this moment. Each one of them.

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