First Person

Parent blog: Teaching kids to be readers

Boulder psychologist and mother of three Suzita Cochran shares seven tips she’s learned through experience about helping even reluctant kids become better readers.

I knew having three kids would make me a more humble parent, I just didn’t realize how much more humble!

Students at Denver’s Bruce Randolph School show the power of reading. <em>EdNews</em> file photo.

When it comes to reading, each of our kids has taken a different path.  We have one who was a natural reader.  He would have loved reading no matter what we did as parents.  If we’d only had him, I wouldn’t be writing this post.  Instead I’d be thinking, “What’s the big deal with teaching kids to love reading?  It just happens.”

Our two other kids have required a more active parental campaign in order to learn to love reading.  Much trial and error and, hence, lots of learning on our parental parts.

What I’ve learned:

1. I can’t read aloud to a child at bedtime.  I become too mind-numbingly tired and exhaust all my energy fighting sleep.  It’s just not worth it.  For the first four or five years of parenthood, I felt exceedingly guilty when I heard other parents talk about bedtime reading with their kids.  Thankfully, I’ve moved past this.  Now I read to my kids after school, on weekends, holidays or sick days.

2. Reading aloud creates a shared memory.  Especially when I do the hard work of finding a book we’ll both enjoy, reading aloud has become one of my favorite parenting activities.  I’ve noticed that we talk about certain books we’ve read together again and again, the way we might fondly recall an enjoyable vacation experience.

3. Let the child do what he needs to in order to focus on the story.  With my son Daniel, the cozy image of me reading with him snuggled beside me was the first thing I had to let go of.  He’s a ball of energy, and with him reading aloud works best after a strong dose of exercise. Then, before we begin reading, Daniel chooses something to keep his hands occupied – a floor puzzle, Rubik’s cube, cards – some quiet activity which doesn’t require too much concentration.  Even though this may seem like a song and dance to do merely to read a book together, it’s exceedingly superior to my wiggly, unfocused alternative.

I recently read an article with the subheading, “Fidgeting may enable children with ADHD to stay alert.”  It stated that all the children in this particular study fidgeted when remembering and manipulating computer-generated letters, numbers and shapes.  However, the children with ADHD wiggled even more.  As far as I can tell Daniel does not have ADHD, but it was so pleasant to see that I don’t have the only super-squirmy boy.

4. Use characters from your kids’ books to help you better understand your kids.  This is an old child psychotherapy trick. You may have noticed that past a certain age, kids dislike talking about themselves.  Yet they’re usually willing to tell you something about their friends.  So ask them “what Amelia would do in this situation” or “what Ben’s opinion of something is” and you are likely to hear indirectly about your child’s views.

Back to books … This strategy can also be used with characters in books.  While reading aloud or talking about your child’s current book, ask for details about her favorite characters.  What does she like about these characters?  What does she think a character would do or feel in various circumstances?  You get the idea.

5. Don’t purchase video games until a solid love of reading has been established.  This rule was enacted mostly for our dear Daniel, who would likely trade his left leg for the chance to play 2-3 hours of video games.  I haven’t actually seen this happen (the game-playing marathon) but Todd and I know it’s true.  Parental intuition.  It’s been hard to hold the line on video games, but not having them in the house has definitely allowed Daniel to focus more on reading.  I’m not exactly sure how to define “a love of reading has been established” but I’ll know it when I see it.  We are slowly getting closer.

A study at Carnegie Mellon found that even average 8- to 12-year-old readers had stronger white matter connections in the brain area called the anterior left centrum semiovale than poor readers.  However, when poor readers in the study were given six months of intensive instruction, their white matter connections improved significantly.

6. Do what you need to in order to hook a child into a book.  Unlike our son who loves reading anything and everything, our second two children often have a tough time getting into a book.  If I am quite sure the book is a good fit for the child, I often read the first chapter aloud to them.  Then they read the rest of the book on their own.  Or if the book is slightly above their ability level, I’ll sometimes buy an audio version for them to listen to first.  Then later, they read the book unaccompanied.

I also periodically encourage confidence boosters.  When Daniel is struggling through a challenging book, I’ll have him put it aside and instead open an old favorite.  It was at one of these moments that I realized the Geronimo Stilton character would be part of my life for so much longer than I ever wished or hoped for!

7.  Reading really does improve writing.  Okay, I have heard teachers say this before but I never completely understood it until recently.  While reading one of Stephen’s school essays this year, I finally saw how reading enhances writing.  He wrote about coring trees at science club and his essay included the sentence, “The tree was in a group of similar Cottonwoods, most of which were now succumbing to the forces of Fall.”  I mean, we just don’t speak this way in our home. Alas, would that we did.  And I know they don’t talk that way at school!

Stephen must have picked up this language from a book. Although he’s only in 6th grade and his writing is still evolving, I love that he has a huge store of ideas and techniques from his reading to inspire his writing.   Between this and improving my brain’s white matter connections, it’s enough to encourage me to read more!

I’d love to hear other people’s tips for creating readers!

And here are two books I recommend that my kids loved:

Esperanza Rising, by Pam Munoz Ryan.  Third through seventh grade girls would love this one.  This is a story about a girl from a wealthy Mexican family.  When she is 13, her father is killed and her life changes drastically.  Now poor, her small family immigrates to California and they become migrant workers.  This book is fiction, though based on the life of the author’s grandmother.  I read this aloud to my kids and we all loved it, though some parts were pretty sad.

The Circuit, by Francisco Jimenez.  Try this one especially with third though seventh grade boys.  This is an autobiography by a man who is now a college professor in California.  His family immigrated to America from Mexico when he was a young child.  They too were migrant workers in California, following a circuit of fruit and vegetable picking from year to year.

I recently read this aloud to Daniel, though Stephen and Annie also listened at times.  Daniel really connected with the main character and it helped him to understand the importance of family over possessions.  The story only follows the main character to age 15, so Daniel and I looked the author up on YouTube because Daniel wanted to know how things turned out for him in the end.

First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on, where this post first appeared.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.