Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

By S. Jenkins, Ph.D., and Katina Taylor

As a reading professor, I am often asked by parents, “How can I help my child to read on grade level?” Unfortunately, this simple question is deceivingly complex. Here are a few lessons learned while working with one former struggling reader.

During a phone conversation in October 2005, a longtime family friend Katina Taylor explained how her third-grade son had continuously experienced difficulty learning to read, and she asked me to recommend a reading tutor. Instead of recommending one, I began to tutor her soft-spoken 9-year-old myself in November 2005.
During our first parent/teacher conference, I learned that Tre’s school had identified him as a special education candidate and had already begun the placement process. Specifically, Tre had been referred to the school’s Institutional Support Team for monitoring and assessment. His classroom teacher had requested that he receive special education services, and several staff members implied by that he would repeat the third grade. He had previously repeated the first grade based upon low reading scores.

Fortunately, with additional support from his school, parents, and our weekly tutorial lessons, Tre overcame the odds and successfully completed the 2005-06 school year. Due to our continued literacy work over the summer, he also began the next school year in a regular education fourth grade class, reading on grade level.
With this level of success, we decided to continue the tutorial lessons for the 2006-07 school year. Once again, with everyone’s help, he was successfully promoted to the fifth grade. Nonetheless, bringing and keeping Tre on grade level has been an uphill battle. The most difficult aspect of this journey has been simply finding the time to maintain contact with teachers and school staff members, juggling our professional and familial responsibilities, and maintaining our endurance through major life changes, such as the births and deaths our families have encountered.
It is through our two years of successes and challenges that we have learned the following lessons.

Five Important Lessons Learned
Lesson 1. Take precautions to prevent your child from ever becoming a struggling reader. It is much easier to prevent your child from falling behind than to help him or her catch up. We suggest that you regularly read to and with your child from birth. Add reading to the set of skills that you automatically teach your child, such as using a spoon or saying please and thank you.

Lesson 2. Do not rely upon the school to teach your child to read. Many schools are overcrowded and understaffed; many classroom teachers do not have the training necessary to assess, diagnose, and instruct struggling readers. Therefore, it is critical that you teach your child pre- and early literacy skills prior to entering school. Then, continue to support his or her literacy development throughout his or her schooling experience.
Your local library is the most comprehensive place to locate literacy-related resources and information. Libraries have free book clubs, infant reading times, after-school academic support, computer classes, lists of upcoming events, and helpful librarians who will assist you in locating literacy-related books and websites.
Additionally, The Pennsylvania Center for the Book’s website, www.pabook.libraries.psu.edu, contains a family literacy link that provides a wealth of activities, programs, and resources available for you to download.
Likewise, educators Carolyn Chapman and Rita King have written a series of instructional strategy books that are helpful to both teachers and parents. Check out their book that focuses on reading, Differentiated Instructional Strategies for Reading in the Content Areas (Corwin Press, 2003).

Lesson 3. Teamwork makes the dream work. We believe that Tre’s reading gains are largely the result of the team or network that was formed—his parents, classroom teachers, after-school staff, reading specialists, and reading tutor. Together, as the strongest influences in his life, we worked as a united front to reinforce literacy practices. We believe that, without knowledgeable people on his side every step of the way, he would not have the confidence needed to remain on grade level.

We found the following steps helpful to forming our team:
Identify team members. At a minimum, they should include the student, the parents/guardians, classroom teacher, and a trustworthy, knowledgeable family friend, mentor, or influential person in the child’s life who is committed to providing weekly academic assistance. Next, everyone needs to drop egos, titles, and any prejudices that may exist and focus on how to work together to help the student to progress.

Stay in contact with team members (monthly, at a minimum). Stay connected through formal or informal conferences, phone calls, emails, field trips, school visits, or simply sharing lunch in the school cafeteria.
During each conversation with your team members, identify: 1) the student’s reading strengths and weaknesses, 2) what is working and not working, and 3) one monthly goal. This will help each team member to identify how he or she can contribute to the team. For instance, if the goal was to improve Tre’s vocabulary, his parents and tutor would volunteer to review his vocabulary words with him twice each week while the classroom teacher agreed to email the words to the team every Monday morning. Then, during our next meeting, we could discuss the vocabulary progress that had been made and re-assess vocabulary as a goal—therefore, initiating the communication cycle again.

Lesson 4. Re-read required school books, materials, and activities—with a twist. One of the biggest challenges for Tre is, in his words, “the long, boring stories” that he is required to read in school. We attempted to remedy this issue by allotting time in the tutorial lessons to read texts of interest to him and by re-reading school stories and completing interactive projects.
Currently, Tre is editing a computer-generated story describing the life and experiences of Anne Frank. While in school, Tre read the story of Anne Frank, but he did not grasp the book’s subject matter. When asked, he could not define key terms and people, such as concentration camps, Nazis, or Hitler, discuss the main events of her life, or locate Germany on the map.

So, we began by doing Internet searches of Anne Frank, visiting websites, and reading a variety of library texts.
Tre is now editing his book entitled, Anne Frank’s Life, which he dedicates to his “teacher, classmates, and entire school.” As soon as the book is bound, he plans to have the school librarian place a copy on the library shelves.
According to Tre, “It makes more sense to do this project than just reading the one book.”
Lesson 5. Discover the student’s interests, passions, fears, dreams, extracurricular activities, and family outings. Then, routinely use this subject matter to teach practical uses of literacy, such as researching histories, making postcards, sending emails, following arts and crafts directions, creating to-do lists, reading maps, cooking recipes, and locating definitions of words.

For example, Tre’s family recently visited Deep Creek Lake in Western Maryland. To prepare, we visited several websites and used a real-time webcam to view the lakes, mountains, and resorts. We also discussed related spelling/vocabulary words and plotted the distance from home. This helped to increase Tre’s excitement and confidence in his literacy skills.

Looking to the Future
Our journey together has taught us many valuable lessons. First and foremost, we understand the importance of our team continuing to work together to support Tre’s reading success. We sincerely hope that our lessons will be of help you and your struggling reader, too. BC

S. Jenkins, Ph.D. is an assistant professor at Coppin State University where she teaches courses in the Masters Reading Program and conducts research with struggling readers. Katina Taylor is the mother of a successful fifth grader and works for the federal government.

New RIF Leading to Reading Website for Parents and Youngsters
Reading Is Fundamental, Inc. (RIF) has launched a new, free educational website to help parents and caregivers develop the language skills of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. RIF’s Leading to Reading is a fun and interactive online resource featuring stories, games, music, and other engaging activities for adults to experience together with young children. Both English and Spanish versions are accessible at the website www.rif.org.
“Since language develops far more rapidly during the first five years of life than any other time, it is important that parents read and interact with their young children as often as possible,” says Carol H. Rasco, RIF’s president and CEO. “This site encourages children to discover the joy of reading at an early age.”
The RIF Leading to Reading site is organized into three easy-to-navigate sections: babies and toddlers (ages birth to 2), preschoolers (ages 3 to 5), and grown-ups. Features of the site include:
a wide selection of animated and audio children’s stories; finger play videos; interactive videos introducing children to age-appropriate subjects such as animals, art, and geography; nursery rhymes and lullabies; online coloring and doodling; and a sing-along songbook.
The grown-ups section features expert Q & A, a RIF Leading to Reading video with literacy tips and activities, book search, and parent and caregiver journals.
The RIF Leading to Reading website is compliant with all Internet safety guidelines and is free of advertising. BC

© Baltimore’s Child Inc. November 2007

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