Strengthening teacher-parent alliances for emerging readers

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 at 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 programmes under the direct supervision of an expert or parents are invited to school to learn about school-based reading programmes 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 struggling 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 broughy 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 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’s and children’s 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 aged eight to ten 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 eight to 12 weeks. At each meeting we discussed the previous week’s actions. We celebrated successes, explored what had and hadn’t worked, speculated about the reasons and drank coffee. We also made a plan for the coming week. Parents then took actions to support their child read by implementing the jointly developed plan. Frequent meetings and the supportive nature of the alliance seemed to support the parents to take action and 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 parent 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. Some actions which parents took were more complex and involved a long term commitment. One parent 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 after 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 existingn 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 increasingly 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 reassessed the children’s reading. Results revealed growth of between six months 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 someone who nags.” Another commented, “I no longer lie awake at night and wonder what will become of my child.”

In summary, I learned that parents can make a difference to their child’s reading. These actions could be useful for teachers working with paretns to boost reading:

  • 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 exisiting routines to meet specific reading goals
  • Follow up to ask how things are going

Dr Jayne Jackson is a lecturer in the Institute of Education at Massey University. During her career, she has been a classroom teacher, syndicate leader and deputy principal in a range of schools in Auckland, and has also taught in the USA. Her research interests include situated literacy and the development of productive relationships between parents and schools. She is passsionate about all children having positive experiences at school.

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