There is no shortage of reading material on what parents can do to help their children learn to read. For some useful information, Natalie Wexler has authored “The Knowledge Gap” as well as a blog and articles in the Atlantic and Forbes.
Alas, well-meaning yet ill-informed parents continue to get published. Last year, I wrote about “How to Raise A Reader” by Pamela Paul and Maria Russo. This year, we have “Bringing Up Bookmonsters: The Joyful Way to Turn Your Child into a Fearless, Ravenous Reader” by Amber Ankowski, Ph.D., and Andy Ankowski. Both books contain a mishmash of useful tips and seriously misguided advice. Both also miss the mark when it comes to supporting parents of children with dyslexia and overlook important avenues to build equity in access to reading.
As I read Bookmonsters, I saw much familiar advice—advice I took. Read early, read often. Talk to and with your child. Read signs on the street; read signs at the museum. Listen to books when you cannot read out loud. All of these suggestions are helpful and important, but they aren’t enough for a parent of a struggling reader or a victim of poor instruction and low expectations in school.
Plus, when they suggested how to carry this out, their advice seemed to leave out people who live in cities, walk, bike and take buses and subways. There is certainly time when walking with a stroller or towing a kid on a bike to talk with your child, pointing things out for them to observe and help them grow their vocabulary. Family bike rides are mentioned later, but not as transportation for young children. People in cities with good public transportation have an extra opportunity to read to their kids, but this isn’t mentioned.
Home libraries are discussed, but not with advice for people who can’t afford a home library. That’s why we have public libraries. Still, in some cities, public libraries are underfunded and have hours that some working people can’t accommodate. The Ankowskis discuss libraries further into the book, as a home literacy field trip destination for kids.
When the authors move into home instruction, they discuss identifying syllables before they discuss sounds. Experts agree, it’s the other way around: Phonemic awareness leads to phonological awareness. They suggest parents say the sounds the letters make to help children learn the sounds, but they add a schwa to the end of many consonants like J says Juh. We don’t eat juh-am out of a juh-ar. This video explains how to help clip the sounds in a phoneme so children learn the sounds the letters make.
While young children don’t often have the manual dexterity to write our alphabet, we know that reading and spelling reinforce each other. Although alphabet magnets and blocks are mentioned, the strong connection between reading and spelling is left out of the book. You can tell that a child hears and segments all the sounds in a word if they choose a letter to represent each sound when spelling—even with magnets and blocks.
Clearly, the Ankowskis children, who are often highlighted as examples, are part of the 35% of kids who learn to read despite the haphazard phonics instruction we have in most classrooms. They got enough from their parents and were able to figure out the rest of the code of the English language easily.
My son was not one of those kids. There are many more kids like him, too. While 90-95% of kids could learn to read, our actual literacy rates are well below this mark. You can see the data on the Nation’s Report Card and see some of what it costs on the Education Consumers Foundation website.
But we don’t see poor results just in test scores. We see the effects downstream, in upper elementary remediation, middle school and high school special education, college remediation courses, adult literacy programs, and the rates of illiteracy among the homeless and people in prison.
Clearly, we need more accessible books, podcasts, and a national campaign to help parents understand how children learn to read and why so many schools are failing to teach them to read. Books about teaching kids to read should help parents know what to expect schools to teach and should prepare parents to be good advocates for their children. Unfortunately, Bookmonsters does neither.
Here’s where to get more useful information. APM Reports has curated Emily Hanford’s series of radio documentaries and other articles in one spot. The Hechinger Report published this article for parents. And reading instruction specialist, consultant and advocate Faith Borkowsky has written guides for parents, and others.
Even a dyslexic kid who got good remediation a bit late can tell you more about learning to read: “Mom, remember that refrigerator magnet toy that said “every letter makes a sound and A says aahh? It should have said: almost every letter makes a lot of sounds and the combinations make more.”