Lost Reading Instruction Blues: What's a Worried Parent to Do?

  • amount of reading
  • 18 July, 2020

Parent question:

As a parent, I’m worried about my children being out of school during the pandemic. Our district still hasn’t decided whether or how to open again this fall, so it isn’t even clear if they will be going back to school. They did their distance learning most of the time this spring, but those online meetings with the teachers and the assignments they had to do don’t seem to be enough. What should I be doing at home?

Shanahan respond:

Usually the questions I’m asked can be answered from research or my own experiences as a teacher or school administrator. That’s not the case here. I’ve never tried to teach classrooms of kids over the internet myself and the research on this is virtually non-existent (though perplexingly there appears to be a growing cadre of “experts” with neither more research nor experience than me).  

I’ll do my best to generalize from what I do know about more usual instructional situations.

There are three things that make a difference in academic learning – the amount of teaching, what is taught, and how well it is taught.  

The first of these is the amount of teaching and practice the students get. That’s the most obvious problem right now. Most kids lost two months of schooling in the spring and looking forward it isn’t clear how much they will lose going forward.

My hunch is that the time already lost may not have been as damaging as it could have been, since many kids missed spring break, standardized testing and the preparations for that, and the end of year celebratory activities (e.g., student Olympics, end of year parties, faculty-student softball games), none of which was likely to make much contribution to reading improvement.

Going forward, we aren’t apt to be as lucky.

What can you do to keep the time loss from being debilitating? Definitely you need to make certain that your child is taking part in the academic activities that your school is providing. Your kids need to log onto the school’s lessons and meetings. These might leave much to be desired but take advantage of them anyway. If you are able to sit in on these and talk to your kids about the information all the better. Likewise, any homework should be treated as obligatory. Make sure your children do that and that those are returned to the school as the teacher indicates.

Additionally, you should schedule daily reading times for your kids to read books and magazines. Usually I’d recommend relying on the library for that, but obviously that isn’t available in many communities right now. There may be some cost to this recommendation. However, there are many sources for online books that are free (go into the resources section on my website, for instance – there are several sources there).

In any event, keep your kids reading and talk to them about it (get them to retell the stories or to talk about the subject matter). Perhaps the school would be willing to lend you a set of your child’s textbooks in reading, math, science, and social studies, those could be used. (If your kids aren’t yet able to read on their own, read to them – and, again, with a lot discussion).

This is a great time to get kids writing, as well. Buy a tablet for them to record their thoughts and ideas on a daily basis. They can write about what they are doing, or what they watch on television last night, or about the books that they are reading.

The second issue deals with what needs to be taught. There are particular things that students need to learn if they are going to make progress in reading.

Younger children, ages 3-7, need to learn to decode text (that is, to turn the letters and spellings into pronunciations). There are a lot of free materials and programs that can be used to give your kids practice with these skills. For instance, go to the www.pbskids.org website for that kind of activity, and, again, there are other similar free resources noted on my website.

Kids also need practice reading aloud (ages 6-12). It would be great if you could carve out some time each day to listen to your child’s reading. It is good if that reading is a little hard for the kids—in other words, that shouldn’t be able to read it perfectly from the beginning. This site: https://www.readinga-z.com/fluency/fluency-practice-passages/ provides passages at different levels, so you can experiment a bit to figure out which levels are hard enough. Have your child practice a passage 2 or 3 times to get good with it (meaning that he/she reads the right words and that it sounds like language).

Reading comprehension is important, which is why I recommend talking to your youngster about what he or she reads. They’ll remember more of it and will pay closer attention if you show an interest in what they know about these texts.

And, then there is quality. Many parents worry that these kinds of lessons will not be as good as the ones delivered by teachers. That may or may not be true, but that comparison isn’t the point. Kids need to be engaged in reading and writing, and practicing those skills, and whatever you are able to provide is going to be better and more effective than what they are going to get otherwise.

 One quality factor is going to be consistency. It is better to do a small amount of something every day, than to save it all up for one big school day. Set aside 30 minutes a day for your child to read. Set aside time to listening to their reading. Create a writing time, too. These don’t have to be all day affairs. It could be 30 minutes of reading and then go out and play in the backyard for an hour. 30 minutes of writing a story, followed by 30 minutes of television time, and so on. 

I hope your children’s school is able to re-open safely and that you’ll feel comfortable with those arrangements. Every plan I’ve heard so far (every other day, two days a week, every other week, etc.) includes some real loss of learning time. The advice here may help you to keep those losses from doing any real damage.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Jan Hasbrouck Jul 18, 2020 08:30 PM

Great suggestions, Tim. I just added a slide to presentation I'm doing soon for The Reading League quoting you with this great, common sense recommendation: "These don’t have to be all day affairs. It could be 30 minutes of reading and then go out and play in the backyard for an hour. 30 minutes of writing a story, followed by 30 minutes of television time, and so on." Thanks!

Donna Bales Jul 18, 2020 11:43 PM

Parents can assist their children in reading signs and advertisements while traveling from place to place, read the recipe cards, game directions, want ads, etc. Watching youtube videos about reading strategies is a great strategy.

Rayna Dineen Jul 19, 2020 04:18 AM

I agree! I also think supporting your child to read books on topics of interest to them will help motivate them to read on their own, for fun. Don't worry if they end up reading 10 books about the Titanic. Once you can get a child hooked on reading and wanting to read, everything else falls into place. Readingquestcenter.org has a curated selection of excellent reading resources for both parents and teachers that are especially helpful for beginning readers and readers with learning differences. Red Apple Reading is a great online program for supporting early readers and they have a special deal for parents right now. There are also wonderful decodable books for beginning readers written by Nora Gaydos. They are funny and engaging and yet follow a very clear sequence of phonetic learning. You can get each set of 10 for 99 cents on the Amazon Kindle app. Epic has a fantastic selection of fiction and non fiction books at all reading levels. Also check out wideopenschool.org for more ideas.

Amy Geary Jul 19, 2020 08:13 AM

Thanks for the common sense advice! As a teacher of struggling readers, many parents often ask what more can they do at home. These activities can be done as a part of a family routine. I will be sharing this. Thank you!

Nancy Duggan Jul 19, 2020 11:20 AM

Researched Info, activities, toolkits and kids magazine and resources for parents on reading can be found at NCIL - National Center for Improving Literacy. https://improvingliteracy.org/family

Ginny Osewalt Jul 19, 2020 11:52 AM

Fluency practice with non-fiction reading passages often serves as a wonderful springboard for extended learning opportunities! It's the norm for my students become inspired and excited to learn more about the topic they're reading about, and I'm thrilled to help make that happen. The door opens wide for building vocabulary and background knowledge.

Ellen Viau Jul 19, 2020 12:35 PM

I totally agree with you! If parents just start with reading with their children for just 30 minutes, it will be the best thing to help their children. I will also add those suggested websites for the parents. Thank you for this simple advice. I wish more parents that are asking for the in-person classes during a raging virus would listen to how simply they can help their children.

Beata Beigman Klebanov Jul 20, 2020 01:08 AM

For parents who are looking for ways to keep their 8-11 year olds reading, consider using Relay Reader: relayreader.org. It is a free app that implements interleaved reading where the child is taking turns reading out loud with a narrator (audiobook). The app has The Adventures of Pinocchio -- a 130 page classic that would support about 5-6 hours of reading. The app is also providing frequent checks for basic comprehension.

Jeannette Jul 20, 2020 10:47 AM

Great blog post. Check out Raz kids...wonderful online library. It’s the Netflix for books.

Dr Lora Lepisto Brown Jul 20, 2020 05:25 PM

These are indeed unprecedented times for all of us~ and especially for education. 'School' as we knew it, is now history. We, as educators are at our best when pressed with challenging times. My heart goes out to parents and families as they try to grapple with trying to 'home school' and work full-time from home. Tim, your suggestions certainly help to 'take the heat off' so parents don't think they have to try to emulate the classroom setting. Sometimes, less is more~ and with all working families have to deal with, you have eased the burden considerably. Blessings~

Dr. Sam Bommarito Jul 20, 2020 05:51 PM

Have to agree with Jan Hasbrook that that is a GREAT quote (because it is such good common sense advice)! Expecting to use it when writing about distance learning and talking to parents about distance learning. Thanks for your insights!

Tan K Huynh Jul 21, 2020 01:19 PM

Thanks for this article, Shanahan.

One of the best things we can do for students during this time is encourage them to read and support families to read with and talk about the things they're reading. Even if parents cannot read English, students can retell the stories in their home language, and then a conversation can ocurr there!

Erin Bramscher Jul 21, 2020 11:26 PM

Thank you for this article that I can share with my students’ parents! Do you have any ideas for reading intervention teachers who have to do remote learning? I am very nervous about how to effectively teach my students this year.

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Lost Reading Instruction Blues: What's a Worried Parent to Do?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.