Time to Tell Parents the Truth about Helping their Kids with Reading

  • 26 November, 2017

Blast from the Past: First posted November 26, 2017 and re-posted April 24, 2020. Parent involvement in their children's learning is always important. However, during this pandemic that responsibility becomes imperative. In some cases, this responsibility can be best met by making sure the kids' are logged on for distance learning with their regular classroom teachers. Unfortunately, that isn't universall available or might not be working well. That's where this blog entry may be helpful. It lays out some very basic things parents can do to help. Keep it enjoyable. Be safe.

Teacher question:

Our schools have recently sent the home reports and parent-teacher meetings have recently taken place. I have heard from quite a few concerned parents that teachers have told them their child is 'struggling with reading' and have recommended reading to the child at least 20 minutes a day. These are parents of children k-2. The recommendation to read to the children frustrates the parents, and me as well, since all of them are already doing this. They are looking for more specifics on what to do. Do you have any insight?

Shanahan response:

Let's face it: As much as teachers complain about a lack of parent support when parents try to help, we tend to elbow them aside and ignore their concerns. No wonder my friend, Chris Lonigan, refers to this advice as the "chicken soup of reading." 

Your question reminds me of my own experience as a parent.

It was parent’s night in my child's first-grade. We were new to the district and the teacher had no idea what I did for a living. Her spiel started out:

“At ______ School, we teach reading scientifically.”

I sat up straight.

For the next 45 minutes, she explained that she was going to be teaching letter sounds and using a basal reader.

Scientific? Not especially. But it sounded reassuring and impressive. She seemed knowledgeable, the program seemed sophisticated, and our kids were going to be well served, apparently. 

I started to think about what would happen in a few weeks if some of her charges weren’t doing so well (about 20% of kids don’t). It occurred to me that, she would most likely do just what your teachers did: she'd recommend that the parents read to their struggling kids.

The conversation I imagined at the time would go something like this:

Teacher: Johnny is not doing well in reading.

Mom: How can I help? What can we do?

Teacher: Read to Johnny.

Mom: But I do read to Johnny. How can I help? On parent’s night, you told us about the sophisticated scientific way that you teach reading. How can I help with that?

Teacher: A reading program like ours is best left to skilled professionals, Mrs. Jones.

Mom: But I’m a physician (or lawyer or engineer or banker or, well, you get the idea). I can handle it.

Teacher (frustrated): I’m not sure this is taking a helpful turn. Perhaps you could meet with our school principal.

A few things you should know:

  1. Research is clear that the vast majority of kids in K-2 who suffer from reading problems will tend to have difficulties with skills like phonemic awareness, decoding, high-frequency words, and oral reading fluency. (There are definitely other important reading skills; those just don’t matter much early on.)
  2. Research is also clear that reading to kids—whatever its benefits—has little or no impact on the development of any of these skills that are so prominent in the early grades. (For the most part, reading to kids improves their knowledge of vocabulary word meanings—the lack of which doesn’t disrupt early reading much because such texts only use limited numbers of words and depend heavily on words known to be in kids’ early oral vocabularies).
  3. Research on having parents read to school age children has not found positive reading gains to result from the practice.

In other words, your colleagues are prescribing a practice that has not worked in the past, that would not be likely to work given what it can do, and that ignores the actual problems that the kids are likely to be having—so even if effective, reading to the kids would not help them to read better.

What a crazy approach, especially given that research shows parents really can help their children to learn to read and that they often will... if asked, if encouraged, if supported.

I can’t recommend exactly what should be recommended here because that is going to vary, depending on what the kids need. Parents can help with phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, high-frequency words, letters, etc., and we should ask for help with whichever ones are a pressing need at the moment.

Here are a few examples of how parents can really help:

1.     Oral reading fluency. Listen to your child read daily (teachers can provide both the books and the guidance on how to do this). Research has shown that, once kids are reading, it is helpful to read aloud.  to someone. I encourage parents to use the Pause, Prompt, Praise (3P) approach for this activity:                                                                                                                             

Pause: When the child makes a mistake, Pause… give him/her a chance to correct it. Don’t butt in until the child gets to the next punctuation point or where it is obvious that the error isn’t getting fixed. 

Prompt: When a child makes a mistake, you can prompt him/her to sound out the word better (look at that again… sound it out… what if we break the word there?) or to use the meaning (does that make sense?… what should that say?). If the child doesn’t get the word after one prompt, tell the word and keep going. 

 Praise: Praise the child for anything he/she does well (you read that great, you made a mistake, but you fixed it, etc.).

2.     Phonemic awareness. Play word games: For example, I spy with my little eye something that begins with /m/. Recently, while dining with my grandchildren (a prek and a k), I'd say a word, “Big,” and they would try to change just one sound in the word to make a new word (dig, or bib, or bag, etc.). Gosh, that was fun.

3.     High frequency words or letter names. Give parents the 100 most common words (grade 1) or the 300 (second grade). Have the parents quiz the kids in 5 or 10 word/letter sets during commercial breaks of television shows (that would, for a 30-minute show, give the youngster 6 minutes of interval training). 

For more specific examples and free materials for phonics, phonemic awareness, and other skills go to the Resources section of my website, https://www.shanahanonliteracy.com/ppt-resources and look at Great Sites for Teachers and Parents. Especially helpful in this regard are Reading Rockets, Balanced Literacy Diet, and Reading Bear. 

There is no good reason not to tell parents the truth about what their children are having trouble with. And, there is no good reason not to provide them with specific activities, materials, and advice on how they can help their kids to succeed.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Kim McCready Nov 26, 2017 08:57 PM

Hi, Dr. Shanahan,

I teach 10th and 11th grades and also have students who struggle with reading comprehension- especially on passages that are of AP or SAT-level difficulty. Can you offer any guidance besides strategies offered in test prep books?

Harriett Janetos Nov 26, 2017 10:22 PM

I've been sending home the phonics readers from the basal series that preceded the one our district currently uses, and I have seen remarkable improvement in those first and second graders who are reading to a "print partner" at home. There are 7 - 9 stories in each book, and they bring them back for the next in the series (10 books for first grade; 6 for second) after they are able to read each story fluently. I highly recommend this means of involving parents. My one challenge is helping some students find a print partner who can read English.

Tim Shanahan Nov 27, 2017 04:39 AM

Great idea, Harriet.

Erin Schryer Nov 27, 2017 01:53 PM

Thank you Dr. Shanahan, I so appreciate your detailed and quick response to my inquiry. I am passing this information along to the parents who reached out to me for support. You have validated some of my initial thoughts and given me even more to share.

Harriett Janetos Nov 28, 2017 07:29 PM

Speaking of parent involvement, here is an interesting article by a parent https://www.parent.com/sight-words-are-so-2016-new-study-finds-the-real-key-to-early-literacy/ which cites current research on the importance of invented spelling.

Invented Spelling in Kindergarten as a Predictor of Reading and Spelling in Grade 1: A New Pathway to Literacy, or Just the Same Road, Less Known?
Ouellette, Gene; Sénéchal, Monique
Developmental Psychology, v53 n1 p77-88 Jan 2017

Anna Dec 01, 2017 07:39 PM

Thank you Dr. Shanahan for all of your insight. I work with English Language Learners in grades 3-5. Many of them started school between grades K-2. Since these children were learning to comprehend the language and gain those basic language skills in English, they did not all grasp the phonemic awareness, high frequency words and fluency. So, by the time they reach grade 3 or higher they are challenged by all of the academic language and tier 3 words. If you have any experience with English Language Learners, what might you suggest for closing that gap for ELLs?

Tim Shanahan Dec 02, 2017 04:07 AM

And research on ELL student indicates that their parents can and will help — if asked (but usually those parents are not asked).

Laurie Dec 04, 2017 05:53 PM

As a reading specialist who has spent many years working with students in preschool through fifth grade, keeping it fun is the name of the game, especially when reading is a real challenge. Unfortunately, some of the fun wears off for struggling readers around first grade when the pressure to meet benchmarks manifests. Parents don't need to have a teaching degree to help their children, but there are times that well-meaning parents can hinder a child's reading progress. Allow me to explain. "You KNOW that word, you JUST read it on the last page!", sound familiar? Parents are eager to help their children and can become frustrated when reading doesn't come easily and progress is slow and inconsistent (even when you provide them with good strategies like 3P's). Ask most teachers who have tried to work with their own children and I think you will find that the endless patience we posess in the classroom is harder to muster at home. Struggling readers need more support and more ENCOURAGEMENT. The last thing they need after being in school all day is another round of frustration and pressure. I recommend that parents in grades k-2 read to/with their children because that experience is usually positive, pleasant and offers a pathway to literacy. Practicing sight words and repeated readings are great, but if the student sees reading as all work and no payoff, what's the point?

Jessie Jan 20, 2018 08:24 PM

This article provided me with great insight on what to do as a teacher if I have a child who is struggling to read. As a teacher, I often have parents ask me how they can help their child make progress toward their goals at home. When a parent offers to help their child with school work at home, I immediately light up. Many of my students' parents have other challenges in their lives and working on academic skills with their kids is at the bottom of their list. While I am not condemning these parents who are just too busy to focus on school, it is exciting to have a parent ask me how they can help. I can imagine the frustration a parent might feel if they are told to read to their child when that is already something that they do regularly. I would assume that if a parent is asking about how they can help their struggling reader, they already do things like read to their children. It surprised me that research indicates that reading to school age children at home does not lead to positive reading gains. After reading this article, I will make more of an effort to give my parents specific interventions to work on with their kids. I love Dr. Shanahan's suggestion to work on oral reading fluency, phonemic awareness and high frequency words and letter names.

Jamie Sexton Mar 08, 2018 06:28 PM

It certainly is always the right time to tell parents their child needs more help with reading. Parents need to be held accountable just as much as teachers are in helping their child grow. It does no good for a child to be expected to come to school to learn and then get home and nothing educational takes place. Early literacy starts at the home as parents are equally, if not more important than teachers are to teaching their child reading skills. However, as teachers, it is very important that reading specialists are active amongst schools, especially at the elementary level, to devise ways to help parents teach the required reading skills. As reading specialists, there are various ways to help parents get involved. On parent/teacher meeting nights, parents can be taught different strategies to implement when reading. Parents can be given books if they do not have access to books at home. Another big way parents can get involved is through family literacy projects where the whole project is done at home with the parent and child and then the child receives a grade based off their work. There are many different ways parents can get involved and they all need to be told when their help is needed.

Tj Morris Apr 12, 2018 09:30 PM

My aunt is a teacher and vents to me often about how kids are suffering in the reading department. She can tell which kids have parents that read to them, they are above others and their comprehension skills are better then peers. My aunt forwards this product to the kids that are lagging behind their classmates, and immediately sees improvement. http://f76aforhzlu47wayrfvesjszqj.hop.clickbank.net/

Julie Powell May 17, 2018 11:27 AM

At 2 years and 4 months, my son can read an entire book by himself.

He is reading at a 2nd grade level and at our church school, his teacher is amazed.

Here's how he did it:


Best of luck!

Dorita Dorsey Jun 09, 2018 02:17 PM

I always thought that reading was important so when my kids got old enough I started teaching them to read early I was doing pretty good on my own but then a friend introduced me to this reading program and it did wonders on my kids reading all of the are reading above grade level thank u to the programClick Here!

Melanie May 01, 2021 04:32 AM

I wasn't a struggling reader but I was certainly a reluctant one. I felt like because I was more than willing to read aloud, and able to do so effortlessly with great expression, I didn't need to practice the task independently. I carried this attitude into young adulthood and my older three children suffered greatly in school because of it. They were great readers, too and therefore (like me) did "just enough" to get by.

It wasn't until I became the para for an amazing reading specialist that I saw what we had all been missing. I realized that enforcing the "read 20 minutes at home" rule and simply having relevant conversations could've made their academic studies less stressful.

How can I be so sure?

I bore two more children (now 12 and 9 years old) who are having a completely different, pleasant academic experience. Sure there have been a few changes in education and a few teachers have retired, but the major difference is one thing and one thing only...Me! (the parent). When the kids saw that my attitude towards reading changed, everything changed.

I took on what some of us Christians call the "strengthen what remains" mentality and started implementing the knowledge I gained as a para. I'm happy to say that although they were middle and high school at the time, they finished strong. Now, I have a 23 year old college graduate, a 22 year old bookworm and a 19 year old who is finishing up his freshman year in college with great academic success!

Still, there's a bold confidence in my younger children that didn't exist in my older children when they were in school. Not only that, but their language skills are much more developed.

We parents are our child's BEST option. So I'd say to parents of struggling readers AND reluctant readers:
1. Team up with the teacher, take on the role of a mentor, and take immediate action.
2. Develop a growth/learning mindset and instill that same mindset in your reader (regardless of age).
"Oh the places you (BOTH) will go!"- Dr. Seuss

Don Potter Apr 25, 2020 04:55 PM

Here is more information about Reading Bears.


Mary Dunne Apr 26, 2020 04:50 AM

What is the name of the phonics books or the basal readers that Harriet recommends? It would be helpful. Thanks, Mary Dunne

Peggy Apr 26, 2020 07:01 PM

Really! No. I agree with teachers. Kids get enough drill at school. And having you child read to you is part of reading with your child. The PPP suggestion is great! But drills at home are not a good idea. Kids learn to read at different ages. We need to acknowledge that. And stop grading reading. Reading can be fun if it’s not seen as drills. But more drills at home is not the answer.

Harriett Janetos Apr 26, 2020 08:01 PM

The books I've been sending home are the Houghton Mifflin decodable readers (10 green for first grade, 6 orange for second), which our district had purchased after the NRP published its report, and which I had salvaged when we went on to a different ELA program a decade ago. Now with distance teaching, I'm using the books made available through Fly Leaf Publishing https://portal.flyleafpublishing.com/instructional-resources/, which are currently free. They come with smart board lessons that I either use as is or modify during my Zoom lessons, and then the children read these books to their print partners, just as they've always done. One thing I like about the annotate function in Zoom is that the kids can choose a "stamp" (arrow, check, heart, star), and I can stamp underneath each word as they read, which is especially useful when reading multi-syllabic words where kids often get the first syllable right and then guess. Here's where we can stop, and I can take the pen and use the stylus to guide kids toward mapping out the sounds in each syllable. I'm trying my best to make lemonade out of distance learning lemons.

Tim Shanahan Apr 27, 2020 02:18 AM

If more parents took responsibility (and many want and these days need to) fewer kids would get lost in the system. Your notion that reading is just for fun and you don’t need to do any work to gain it is great for the kids who learn easily and it’s hell for the other 90 percent.


Auður Björgvinsdóttir Apr 27, 2020 10:24 AM

Thank you for your blog Tim.
I would like to share our positive experience of working with parents.

In my school we have special reading information meetings for the parents of the youngest children. We expect someone from every child´s home to come to this meeting. We explain how we teach reading, what we do when kids are having trouble learning to read, how we assess reading skills and what parents can expect this first year of school. We make it clear that we expect cooperation from the parents and what this cooperation entails. We also provide them with some methods like echo reading and choral reading and tips about what they can do when reading training at home is not going well (yes, parents are expected to listen to their child´s reading every day and we tell them how to do it and provide books). They listen to how a child, reading about 60 words per minute, sounds just to get the feeling for where they are heading with the training. Last - but not least we tell them that teaching children to read is a joint venture, that they can always contact the teacher if they are worried or frustrated, and that their contribution is extremely important for their children. We have been doing this for the past 8 years and our experience shows that almost every parent is up to the task. Between 90 and 95% of parents attend and almost everyone is taking care of the training at home as we expect.

Tim Shanahan Apr 27, 2020 12:59 PM


I remember vividly being surprised that for school age children, reading to mom or dad had a bigger effect on learning than the parents reading to their kids. I read to my kids a lot but I also engaged them in the types of activities noted above.

Thanks for sharing.


Esther Sep 29, 2021 02:33 PM

I have the same type of question as Kim -- my students are 6th graders, but many are still struggling readers. Playing word games or reviewing high frequency words are likely going to be less useful for these parents. What can they do to help their students?

Timothy Shanahan Sep 29, 2021 10:52 PM


It is going to matter what it means to be a struggling reader. Are they 1-2 years behind or 5-6 years behind. If it is the latter they are still going to need a substantial amount of explicit decoding instruction. If it is the former, I would focus more on fluency work, morphology, comprehension, writing, and the like. Word games won't cut it in my opinion.

good luck.


Dusty Childers Feb 08, 2021 05:30 AM

I have two girls at home from school due to the pandemic. My oldest has had some trouble in the past with writing but mostly reading. I searched the internet for help and tried hooked on phonics and one other my wife chose and they didn't click with her. I decided to let my daughter help pick and we chose this. I wanted to share this because it honestly helped. Not only my daughter but my wife and I too! The stress level is lowered a ton. bit.ly/3jEkYmJ

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

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Time to Tell Parents the Truth about Helping their Kids with Reading


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

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