Parent-to-Parent: How Are Our Kids Learning to Read?
Last spring, as my husband, daughters, and I drove east on the I-10 to visit family in Los Angeles, my seven-year-old, Jayna, piped up.
"Hey, that's Cesar Chavez Avenue. I know Cesar Chavez,” she said. “He was a worker who helped organize other migrant workers get better jobs. They weren't paid very well or treated well, so he helped get them to vote and get better working conditions."
My husband, our older daughter Ella, and I just looked at Jayna. We thought: Where in the world did she learn that?
After some careful prodding, we figured out Jayna’s knowledge was a product of the different approach to teaching her school had recently adopted—including a challenging and diverse reading curriculum aligned to the Common Core State Standards. In English Language Arts, the standards highlight the importance of focusing lessons on not only excellent works of literature, but also using informational text to build students’ understanding of our world. This approach gives kids a strong foundation for reading—because the knowledge you have affects how well you understand what you’re reading.
As a classroom teacher for ten years and, later, a curriculum coordinator, I’ve spent a fair amount of time with the Common Core State Standards. I understand the shifts in materials and teaching they call for. But I’ve been surprised by how clearly I see the results of those shifts for my own children—particularly when I compare Jayna's early elementary education to Ella’s, who did not engage with the same challenging materials.
For instance, we read Little House on the Prairie at home that spring. Instead of just empathizing with the fear that Ma and the girls felt when the Indians knocked on their door, Jayna pointed out why many Native Americans were frustrated and angry after the U.S. government forced them to relocate, even describing the Trail of Tears—information that was not offered in the book. She’d learned about this in her second grade class, through a unit on Westward expansion during her reading instruction.
Ella often asked why Jayna was learning so much, and why she hadn't had the same experience in second grade. To try to answer her, I looked back at the stories in the textbook that Ella was reading in school at that age—before the full implementation of the standards. They included: A Trip to the Firehouse, Big Bushy Mustache, and Mrs. Brown Went to Town, among others. They were entertaining narratives, but their subject matter was irrelevant. While they helped her build the basic skills of reading, they did little to teach her about the world—or give her context through which she could wrestle with more challenging and arguably higher quality literature.
I explained to Ella the difference in expectations, and how the new standards prioritize challenging content for even our youngest learners. I also explained that she would be fine because we read a lot at home, and now that her school has fully transitioned to the Common Core, she is working with stronger materials and is indeed learning a lot.
But I still get the sense there is a micro-achievement gap between my daughters, even though they attend the same school with many of the same teachers and otherwise demonstrate comparable academic aptitude. Which raises the question, what should parents look for in their child’s classroom in order to ensure they’re getting the very best instruction? Here are a few things I’d recommend, parent-to-parent:
Clearly, content matters. Find out what books and topics your child will be reading about. Make sure they factor in diverse perspectives on rich topics. All children (even the youngest) should have ample opportunity to learn about the world; these topics are fascinating to children and will help them read other books later on.
Scan your child’s syllabus. Units driven by broad themes (friendship or community) or skills (characterization or point of view) should be replaced by rich material that center on topics (like World War II, life cycles of insects, or Ancient China), where students are learning lots of vocabulary and information. They’ll be building skills and addressing broader themes in the process, but they’ll have a much more exciting learning experience.
Pay attention to their homework. The standards call for children to have ample opportunity to read, write, and discuss high-quality texts. If you notice their homework assignments include a lot of worksheets or skill and drill test prep, something is amiss.
If these factors are not up to par, first and foremost ensure your child has access to a range of texts and enjoys reading at home. Then read the standards and the resources provided by the National Parent Teacher Association and get involved at school. At parent conferences, ask how the staff is moving toward implementation of the standards and the shifts in instruction and materials they call for.
I’m thrilled when Jayna (now in third grade) comes home fascinated by a discussion she had around Roman Civilization or when Ella (now in fifth grade) proudly shares the essay she’s written on water scarcity, in which she’s accurately synthesized multiple sources. The shift to more challenging—and more interesting!—learning experiences is essential for our kids, and every child deserves to reap the benefits.
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