The third rail
But there’s one component to the development of literacy that we dare not mention. It doesn’t show up in any policy discussions, nor do we talk about it (publicly, at least) as being a part of any of the solutions mentioned above. It is The Solution Whose Name We Dare Not Speak.
Parents. There, I’ve said it.
Research has clearly shown that parental involvement - parents seen reading in the home, parents reading to their children, parents ensuring that children have an array of reading materials available to them - is one of the most critical indicators of success in helping a child learn how to read.
And the education community treats this as an unmentionable secret.
Sure, we address it to an extent at the local level: schools send home tip sheets, bring parents in to sign reading compacts, and do their best to keep parents apprised of kids’ progress through updates and report cards. But we’re asking too late – so many of the building blocks of literacy happen before a child ever walks into a formal school – and I think we’re probably beating around the bush, hinting and cajoling without ever laying things out in black and white.
My jaw would drop – DROP – if I ever saw a public figure call us on this. Just imagine the following speech by a politician:
My fellow parents,
The ability to read is the single most important indicator of success in life. If your child does not learn to read and read well, his opportunities in life are so limited that you may as well buy him a mop and a bucket right now: he won’t get much further than minimum-wage manual labor for the rest of his life.
Despite what you hear from the talking heads in the news, our schools are perfectly capable of teaching a child to read. But we have to have children who are ready to learn, who have a supportive environment at home that reinforces what they’re doing at school.
From almost the time that they’re born, it is your responsibility – and only your responsibility - to prepare them to successfully learn how to read. Fortunately this is simple to do.
Read to them every day, preferably a few times a day. Let them see you reading. Make sure they have access to a wide variety of reading materials in the home.
That’s all it takes: do that, and they’ll be ready to learn how to read when they get to school. We’ll take it from there, although of course we’ll still expect you to do your part at home by continuing to read, continuing to emphasize the importance of reading, and holding yourselves and your child accountable when we send home work that reinforces what we’re doing in school.
And if you don’t? Shame on you. You’re failing your children, relegating them to a life filled with the frustration and despair that come with living on the fringes of society. They will always look longingly at the lives that others are able to build for themselves and knowing that success is permanently out of their grasp. It won’t be the fault of the schools, nor will it be the fault of “society.” It will be your fault, and yours alone.
So please: read to your children. Let them see you read. Give them access to books and other reading materials. And help them lay the groundwork for a life that can take them anywhere they decide they want to go.
Good night, and good reading.
Is it really such a political lighting rod to expect parents to be parents? Why aren’t we stating what is so obvious to so many: that parents have an essential role in the education of their children?
Now, I do realize that we’re not in the age of the stable, nuclear family – that some parents are trying to raise kids on their own, some are working two or more jobs, and some are struggling with things I can’t even imagine.
But the fact is, every kid has a limited window of opportunity here: if we miss it, their potential for literacy, and with it an education and a shot at a good life, shrinks dramatically. There are no do-overs – we get one shot, and that’s it.
It’s time for every parent to be reminded of their role in the education of their children - no sense keeping it a secret anymore.