What would happen if parents were engaged as true partners in an alliance to support their child’s reading? Dr Jayne Jackson, lecturer at Massey University, found out…
There is a body of existing research that shows that parents can be effective in promoting the reading skills of children who are struggling to learn to read. Most of this research takes one of two forms – either the parents are taught to follow a set of responses under the direct supervision of an expert, or parents are invited to school to learn about school-based reading programs so they can apply this knowledge at home. While research has shown gains for some readers using these approaches, both methods ignore the complexities and diversity of family life and the potential value of collaborating with parents in new ways. These traditional approaches may also encourage dependence on the expert and actually erode a parent’s confidence in taking independent actions to support their child’s reading.
When I designed my doctoral research I wondered what would happen for readers if parents were engaged as true partners in an alliance in support of their child’s reading development. An alliance is a relationship based on equality where varied expertise is valued and power is shared. Within my research I viewed parents as experts on their child, their home situation and their values and beliefs regarding literacy while I brought a commitment to developing a productive alliance and reading expertise to the partnership. I aimed to create a positive working relationship with each parent so that we could both contribute our varied knowledge in service of the child as a developing reader.
The first thing that I discovered during the research is that families are incredibly diverse in their approaches to literacy. In my study, one parent was a keen reader with a house full of adult and child books, in another household one parent read nothing other than school notices and thought owning books was pointless.
One family had two parents who worked outside the home, many of the symbols of economic success, and children who were busy with many extra-curricular activities. One family made the choice to have a stay at home parent and less economic power. All had children who were struggling to learn to read.
A key point in the development of each alliance occurred when I shared assessment information with each parent. I talked about the assessment tools and their child’s results but most importantly I invited parents to enter into a conversation about this information and to contribute their knowledge of their child. I welcomed both agreement and disagreement of the assessment results and together we created a portrait of the child as a reader that was detailed and complex. Developing a shared understanding led to joint goal setting informed by both the parents and their priorities and aspirations and by assessment data.
Following joint goal setting, I met with each parent, every week for 8-12 weeks. At each meeting we discussed the previous week’s actions. We celebrated successes, explored what had and hadn’t worked, and speculated about the reasons. We also drank coffee and made a plan for the coming week. Parents then took actions to support their child read by implementing the jointly developed actions. Frequent meetings and the supportive nature of the alliance seemed to support the parents to take action, and to develop confidence.
The parents in the study were able to contextualise and personalise reading support strategies. Some of the actions taken by parents were relatively simple. One made a minor change to an existing routine of playing word games in the car on the way to school so that the game focussed on two specific blends that their child was struggling with. Other parents took more complex actions which involved long term commitment. One took on boosting comprehension skills by engaging their child in deep conversation after reading together instead of asking specific questions to prompt recall from the text. Another parent boosted comprehension by having the child ask questions for the parent to answer following reading.
I found that ideas for actions that were discussed with the parents were most likely to be implemented when the parent could alter an existing routine. In contrast, the parents struggled to implement actions when both the technique and the routine were new. As the alliance developed, parents felt increasingly confident in the actions they were taking to support reading and became increasing independent. One parent used some of the ideas to coach their child in maths. Another used similar ideas to support the reading growth of her other children.
At the end of the research I re-assessed the children’s reading. Results showed growth of between 6 and 18 months in reading skill. In addition to this all children in the study had increased phonics skills. One parent reflected on a transformed relationship, “My child now sees me as a support not just as someone who nags.” Another commented, “I no longer lie awake at night wondering what will become of my child.”
In summary, I learned that parents can make a difference to their child’s reading. Teachers may find it useful to use some of these actions:
- Share information honestly and openly
- Acknowledge that parents have equally valuable but differing expertise
- Engage in developing joint understandings and shared goal setting
- Find out what already happens at home and make suggestions so parents can refocus existing routines to meet specific reading goals
- Follow up and ask how things are going