As parents, most of us want to be able to understand and support our kids’ reading development, even when they attend school. But how do we know what they need? Sure, you get your child’s report card, and maybe some state test scores or reading assessment data. It can be hard to figure out what to do with that information, though.
Asking your child’s teacher specific questions is a great way to get information about your child’s reading growth. Plus, as many schools, districts, and even whole states transition to methods that better reflect the science of reading, asking direct questions can help you keep up with how reading instruction looks in your child’s classroom.
As a literacy specialist and parent of five children in various stages of reading, here are the types of questions I keep in my head during parent-teacher conference season, or anytime I’m wondering about my kids’ reading progress:
1. How does my child seem to feel about reading at school?
Before you try to make sense of your child’s reading skills, it’s helpful to have a sense of their reading emotions and behaviors at school — which could be different than at home! Do they love snuggling up on the classroom beanbag with a great book? Do they zone out when reading independently, but eagerly add to the conversation during a read-aloud? Do they enjoy playing partner games, or being part of a book group, or would they prefer to work alone? How do they react when a reading task is hard?
2. What phonics concepts does my child know and where are they headed next?
Ideally, in elementary school, your child’s reading teacher will teach phonics skills in a specific, planned sequence. Along the way, they’ll assess children to make sure they’re learning the intended concepts. For instance, kindergarten classrooms usually start by teaching consonant sounds and short vowel sounds, moving kids toward reading consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) words like “mat.” Later, students learn about consonant blends, like sl, pl, and fl, consonant digraphs like sh, ch, and th, and many vowel patterns, like all the ways to spell the long vowel sounds.
It will help you to know what your child already knows, whether there are any holes to fill, and what they will be learning soon. You’ll also want to know any cues kids have learned to remember phonics principles. Is “ch” simply a “digraph” or is it an “h buddy,” an “h pal,” or something else? Is “silent e” called “magic e?” Whatever the lingo is at school, you’ll want to speak it at home, too.
3. Can you show me a book my child read recently at school? How did they manage it?
If you’re helping pick out books for your child to read at home, you need an accurate understanding of what your child’s school reading material demands of them, and how they handle it. Rather than trying to navigate the iffy world of reading levels, just ask to see a book or two!
Ask if earlier readers read decodable books at school. These are books written specifically for kids to practice the phonics skills and high-frequency words they’ve been taught. For kids reading traditional books, notice how much text is on each page and what kind of vocabulary and ideas it includes.
Ask how fluently your child read a particular sample book; did they need to stop and figure out lots of words, or could they mostly read at a reasonable rate? Did they sound natural when they read or like a robot? How did follow-up conversations or writing tasks about the book content go?
4. Does my child seem to remember and understand what they read?
All kids, whether they hear books read aloud or read themselves, are working on reading comprehension. Ask for examples of questions that teachers ask about books, and how your child usually responds. Do they remember what a book said, but struggle with critical thinking questions? Do they seem to be learning and using the vocabulary words the class talks about? What conversations about books would be most valuable to have at home?
5. What book topics or genres does my child seem to like?
Research tells us that content matters to readers; we’re generally better at reading about topics for which we have some context. If you find out your child loved the recent science unit on birds and read tons of bird books at school, you could offer some more at home. If you find out they’re struggling with a book club book set in Japan, or the Great Depression, or about someone experiencing homelessness, you could give them a boost by reading aloud a related novel or picture book at bedtime to build their background knowledge. If your child loves graphic novels at school, add some to his or her birthday list.
Go ahead and ask teachers to suggest more books based on what kids like. My own kids are much more likely to take a book recommendation from a favorite teacher than from me!
6. Is my child’s progress what you’d expect? If not, what help is available?
Learning to read is a huge task. It’s okay for kids to struggle sometimes. However, if the instruction kids receive in their classrooms isn’t enough, ask what your school’s multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) includes for reading. This model includes “tiers” of support to give kids the boost (or more significant help) that they need.