Sometimes it’s hard to be both a parent and a teacher. I feel conflicted, especially during conference times for our own two kids. In this post, I describe the literacy partnership that we began 13 years ago, way before our first parent-teacher conference with Mr. Z. The jobs of teacher and parent aren’t the same, yet we are all in this together in supporting our readers. 

Dear Mr. Z,

The clock on the wall clicks suddenly and distracts me from the question you’ve just asked. Our middle school parent-teacher conferences are 8 minutes long and time will trickle away unless I keep my wits.

As I refocus on your face, you murmur the question again, eyebrows raised, “Did you read a lot to Chelsea when she was little?” You’re pointing to a row of numbers marching neatly across a grid. They’re high scores. An image of my daughter bowed over a piece of paper, pencil clutched tightly in her grip, comes to my mind. It contrasts with my next thought. It is my husband, my kids and me in bed with a book, laughing at something on the page.

We laugh so hard that a couple of us almost fall off the bed.

I take a deep breath, pinch my husband under the desk and then sit on my hands. My husband gets it; he knows what I don’t have time to say here. I nod dutifully. Yes, we did read a lot when our children were little!  And still do.

I am careful to stem the gush, not to fill our brief time with a torrent of literacy information and the habits that we cultivated to help both our kids develop a love of reading. It’s sometimes awkward to be the parent in a conference when I am also a teacher myself. I have a lot to say about this and 8 minutes won’t cover it. What we need, Mr. Z, is a little collaboration time.

Since time is short I’m giving myself the luxury of writing you a letter instead. Hope you don’t mind.

We read a lot, talked a lot and sang a lot to both our kids from the very beginning. You could say that words have been a star attraction – really, the center of attention – in our house.  

You know, as teachers we’re immersed in lots of scary statistics about literacy and impact of early literacy neglected. Consider the classic Hart and Risley study, which shows how children from word-impoverished homes fall farther and farther behind in all learning-readiness factors. This grim study concludes that, without intervention, these learners rarely catch up.

Awareness of this reality led me to create afamily literacy center in partnership with the school literacy specialist in an urban K-5 library. My work there was driven by the possibilities of disrupting the dynamic; if lack of early literacy routines virtually ensures that kids will not acquire the reading skills needed to excel, why not provide active, regular programming? How about a collection of 17,000 books to share?

In our own family, my husband and I immersed our kids in spoken and written texts at every chance we could, in music, books and conversation. I visited the public library every week, raiding the children’s collection and testing out each author on our audience. Would it be Eric Carle and Tomie dePaola to make their eyes light up this week? How about a little Maurice Sendak in Where the Wild Things Are, for some spice? No monsters tonight? Okay, then, another rendition of an old favorite for comfort: Goodnight Moon. “In the great green room, there was a telephone…”

We racked up late fines while we read those library books again and again. Bedtimes were an hour-long routine, surrounded by bright, teetering stacks of books, always on the verge of tipping off the bed.  I read the books ahead of time to make connections and plan things to point out “I notice…what do you notice?” I practiced accents and made up my own endings if I didn’t like the author’s conclusion. As our kids grew, we explored stories, wondered aloud at the characters and speculated what it would be like to live their lives. All this built our readers’ attention spans, vocabulary, background knowledge, and helped them develop empathy.  But most of all – and this is important, Mr. Z – it was fun.

Our years of reading aloud were shaped by Jim Trelease’s Read Aloud Handbook, in which he makes a powerful case for associating reading with pleasure. Trelease frames it around these two immutable truths:

     Reading Fact #1: Humans are pleasure centered.
      Reading Fact # 2: Reading is an accrued skill.

We hope to pass the torch to you, Mr. Z; a middle school classroom is a great place for reading aloud. Don’t let anyone or the pace of your curriculum convince you that your students have outgrown it. They haven’t.

Maybe you’ve read the research Trelease explores which shows that kids with their own libraries develop closer connections to authors and derive greater meaning from stories. In fact, there’s a high correlation between the number of books in a home (in teacher-speak) and literacy development.  We created balanced libraries in our children’s rooms when they each turned two. With their own books, they could explore some of the other uses of good stories: they could calm themselves and revisit an earlier time of their development. One day I noticed my son reach for a book after a tantrum; I saw that he had found a way to calm himself through a favorite story.

Our  kids  loved fiction. Yet we wanted to stretch their exposure to nonfiction books too. I noted topics on which they would linger most often. I found books that matched those interests, most books on target with their reading level, some slightly above their level and a few slightly higher still. The higher level books were all bait for our own read aloud plans;  I knew that interest peaked through independent exploration would allow them to absorb more complex text read aloud.

My husband recalls the carefully curated collection of books that would periodically appear on the coffee table and in their libraries. The height of the displays, the arrangement and the books themselves were all  designed to be discovered by little hands. Novelty drove the nonfiction reading nearly always. Collections were tailored to their interests of the moment.

We would build our readers by this blueprint, I thought.

With our first child, I began the journey in considering literacy development from a teacher’s perspective. The momentum grew when my husband and I fell in love with these shared reading experiences ourselves as parents. Day after day, year after year, books came with us on vacation, in the car, during errands and visits. We developed a deep connection ourselves to the experience of sharing words, stories and wisdom with our two growing readers.

I wish that I could say that it has all been smooth sailing, but keeping our kids reading daily has taken more effort as they’ve reached middle school. Middle school reading is a whole ‘nother story. The academic demands are higher, the homework volume increases, the extracurricular and social activities mount, and then there is the creeping screen time. Suddenly, pleasure reading has shrunk to occupy a much smaller sliver of time.  (Parents, let me know in the comments how you keep your middle schoolers engaged in reading every day!)

Yes, Mr. Z, we read to our kids every day and books are still a focus  in our home. And this is so much more than you needed to know. But if you want to trace the literacy path between infancy and achievement in your 8th grade classroom, here’s our how-to guide to share with other parents, drawn from a range of thought leaders like Jim Trelease, literacy specialists and children’s librarians everywhere:

 Parent Librarian’s DIY: How to Build a Reader in Eight Steps

  1. Start Early In the last trimester of pregnancy,  a fetus has developed aurally and responds to the sound of your voice. After your baby is born, set a goal to read aloud every day.
  2. Limit screen time – Passive screen time takes away from early literacy activities such as reading with a parent/caregiver and exploring books independently. Quick scene changes sensitize the developing brain to expect a new stimulus every three seconds. No matter what your perspective on media use, here is the bottom-line: early and prolonged screen time is not literacy-friendly. Also see  Media Use in School-Aged Children and Adolescents.
  3. Set a bedtime reading routine – This single, repeated ritual will do more than anything else to build a reader. Discuss the stories with your emerging reader; asking open-ended “I wonder” types of questions can stretch imaginations and help them put themselves in the story. “I wonder why.. I wonder where.. I wonder if..”
  4. Visit the library every week – experiment with authors; meet the children’s librarian. Bring home books. Lots of books. Bring home more of the authors which you and your child enjoy most.
  5. Build home libraries – keep the old favorites and rotate in new fiction and nonfiction titles periodically. Give books as gifts year round. Take books with you wherever you go.
  6. Model reading – let your child see you reading different texts for different reasons; talk about your reading and let your kids know that you think it’s important.
  7. Sing, talk, laugh with your children every day – have conversations about what you see and explore language with your child.
  8. Repeat, repeat, repeat and enjoy the journey!

Thanks for all the great teaching you do in your classroom.

We make a good team.

Shannon and Brian Betts, Parent Readers-at-Large