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Shanker Blog: It Takes a Community to Raise a Reader

The relationship between family engagement and literacy development is often a one-sided story. Researchers regularly inform us that familial involvement in a child’s reading is vital to emergent literacy. However, we seldom hear about the differences and complexities in resources, time, language, and strategies that influence family engagement. We know that being involved in reading activities at home has a positive impact on reading achievement, language comprehension, expressive language skills, interest in reading, and attitudes towards reading for children throughout their educational careers (Clark, 2007). Yet, many families would benefit from knowing more about how to support their child’s literacy development. Thus, it is important for schools and families to build partnerships that strengthen at-home literacy. To this end, schools must actively reach out to families and equip them with the necessary tools to support their children’s literacy development.

To start, schools need to go beyond the usual newsletters sent home or isolated comments in yearly conferences. Instead, schools need to equip families with working knowledge and useful tools to support their child’s literacy. To establish partnerships with families, schools must commit to creating a firm understanding of the community they serve. Home visits and parent-school liaisons can bridge the communication between school and home and build a strong foundation for partnerships. Becoming more active within the community will help schools develop a greater understanding and awareness of the cultural norms, values, and ideals central to their community members (Howland et al., 2006).

After embedding themselves within the community, schools should become a hub for the families they serve. Schools can host events, round table discussions, classes, and book drives as ways to provide learning opportunities to families and the community. Literacy events are a fantastic way to learn new activities, celebrate reading milestones, and discover new authors. Roundtable discussions hosted by educators and administrators allow families to share ideas and learn new ones, participate in goal design, and take ownership and empowerment over their child’s learning. GED, ESL, parenting, or literacy class options help support at-home literacy and build on the confidence and knowledge families start to construct during roundtable discussions. Finally, book drives are a great way for community members and families to donate books they no longer need, as well as cultivate a collection of new texts that are engaging and exciting for their children to read (Parrett & Budge, 2016). When planning any event, it is important for schools to understand that job situations, childcare, and transportation are challenges that many families face daily. Therefore, it is essential to plan events at various times using a variety of mediums to reach as many families as possible. Additionally, schools and educators must not become critical of parents who may not have the opportunity to regularly participate in educational activities. Rather, schools should be flexible and able to provide adaptive services to support all parents, meeting them where they are, and helping them support their children’s literacy (Brown et al., 2019).

Once parents and families start to build a toolbox of strategies and knowledge to support at-home literacy, they start to become reading role models who promote good reading habits. As a reading role model, one should surround themselves with various types of reading material: books, magazines, newspapers, grocery lists, traffic signs, etc. and engage in conversations and questioning about texts (Tom, 2021). Additionally, research has found that practicing literacy skills in a home language that is different from what children use at school is not harmful or confusing.  Rather, reading materials in any language helps promote pre-literacy skills and cognitive development in children (Breiseth, 2010). Reading role models demonstrate the pleasure one can gain from reading a good book and help children understand how reading connects us to the world around us.

Families can also turn reading into a social event between parents, siblings, grandparents, neighbors, and friends. Research suggests that “15-30 minutes of interactive reading can help students grow as readers” (Simank & Nicodemus, 2020). Interactive reading goes beyond children just listening to a story—it requires them to interact with it through questioning, predicting, and inferencing (Nelson, n.d.). Interactive reading is crucial for young readers’ pre-literacy skills and helps older readers model fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Finally, it allows all readers to make connections, link prior knowledge, and open windows to diverse worlds.

After families and parents take ownership of at-home literacy, they can help their children do the same. Families must help children choose books based on their passions and interests which will eventually allow them to exercise agency in identifying the books that are the most relevant and purposeful to them. Families should prioritize interest and choice over reading levels. While it is important that children are reading books that are developmentally appropriate for them, and not picking out a Stephen King book in 1st grade, research finds that “children who are interested in a topic or have experience and background knowledge are likely to be able to read and comprehend difficult texts” (Farnsworth, 2020). It is also acceptable if a child wants to abandon a book. If a child loses interest in a book, has trouble reading for a sustained amount of time, or complains about a book, it’s time to close the cover and find a new one—we should not force the issue.

Local libraries are great places for children to exercise choice in selecting books and are another invaluable resource for families as they typically offer a variety of events, classes, and workshops to promote literacy for all ages.  Libraries have a variety of book options that many families may not have access to at home. Libraries are quiet, safe spaces for many children and allow them the opportunity to use the internet, complete schoolwork, attend events, join a book club, or practice their literacy skills. Furthermore, libraries are a great place for parents to build on a child’s interests by selecting books of different genres (novels, short stories, poems, informational texts, etc.) about the same topic; research suggests that such a strategy can be a powerful way for children to build knowledge and vocabulary (Neuman & Roskos, 2012). These “text sets” help children learn vocabulary, concepts, and information in many different contexts and are another way to incorporate interactive reading. Families can take this opportunity to help children analyze the features of a text, build meaning, and learn new strategies to help monitor reading (Wright, 2019).

It takes community partnerships between families, schools, and other local organizations to raise children who are passionate about reading. Successful at-home literacy practices start with meaningful partnerships with schools where families can obtain the knowledge, skills, and confidence to support their children’s reading. From there, families can model good reading habits, partake in interactive reading, visit the local library, and allow choice to help mold enthusiastic readers.

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Kayla Reist

Kayla Reist is a fellow at the Albert Shanker Institute in Washington, D.C. She is currently completing her master’s degree program in Educational Transform...