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Sugar House Journal

11 ways that Utah teachers say parents can help their students gain literacy skills

Oct 30, 2018 14h39 ● By Jana Klopsch

Parent volunteers read stories to young children each morning.

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

On the same page

Teachers at Athlos Academy know that parent involvement is key to their child’s development of literacy. 

“We want to teach the parents as well as the students that reading is important and that we all need to be on the same page with it,” said Athlos Public Relations Specialist Courtney Haake. 

The charter school, located just south of Herriman High at 12309 South Mustang Trail Way, held a Literacy Night on September 20 to show parents how literacy is taught in the classroom and to provide information on how they can support their child’s reading skills at home.

Creating a Culture

To emphasize the importance of reading, Athlos Academy, now in its fourth year, has created a culture of reading.

“The culture of reading is really at the heart of all that we are doing,” said middle school teacher Steve Merrill. 

Parents are encouraged to make reading part of their family culture, letting their children see them read and providing a variety of reading materials.

Merrell said listening to a fluent reader helps develop comprehension skills so parents should read aloud to their children no matter their age.

Providing a place

Reading at Athlos begins before school at Breakfast and Books. From the corner library in the cafeteria, students choose a book to read while they eat breakfast. Older students read independently while younger students listen to a volunteer read a story aloud. 

Before and after school, middle school students have their own private reading space—a lounge in the library, complete with couches, pillows, popcorn and hot cocoa. Merrell wanted the teens to have a coffee shop-type environment to encourage recreational reading. 

“It’s good to have a place to sit and actually read and have someone that can recommend a book that you will actually like, that will be on your level,” said Merrell.

Many teachers at Athlos have carved out a reading corner in their classroom, with soft cushions and a variety of books, where students can read comfortably. They encourage parents to provide a similar special reading spot at home.

Embracing Technology

At Athlos Academy, teachers use a digital English language program that is vertically aligned throughout the grades to provide consistent curriculum. Students interact with the program on individual chromebooks or classroom Smart Boards.

“We use it constantly,” said Barbara Merrell, a kindergarten teacher. She feels it is one of the most effective ways to make use of the few hours a day she has with her students. 

Middle school students easily embrace the digital format. Reading assignments are supplemented with video “trailers” to get students excited to read. Students also watch videos segments of teens involved in literary discussions, modeling a variety of skills students need to master to engage in their own discussions.

Teachers like Steve Merrell take advantage of teen culture and encourage online chats to complete assignments and ask students to write a blast—a 140 character response similar to a tweet—to review books or share what they’ve learned.

Screen Time

Second grade teacher Stephanie Burton has advice that may surprise parents—use TV time as reading time.

“The new trend is to watch TV with the subtitles on,” she said. To hear and see the words at the same time helps the auditory and visual learners make a better connection, she said.

Steve Merrell suggests students listen to audiobooks while they follow along with their book.

“One of the number one supports for struggling readers is actually being able to read and listen,” he said. 

Get Physical

Burton invites students to learn through movement. She asks her second-graders to put their hand on their head when they hear the “sound of the week” or one of their vocabulary words. 

She said students learn sight words better when they write the each letter of the word in the air—combining kinesthetic, visual and auditory learning.

Make it Relatable

“A teacher’s job is to help students make the connections to make sense in their world,” said Steve Merrell.

He encourages his students to read a text and then apply it to their own experience. Recently, his students read an article about why kids play video games and whether they are beneficial or not. The article integrated into the curriculum as the basis of a research project and debate topic.

“It’s just a solid curriculum to springboard into student interest,” he said. “It’s about feeding that energy that comes out of these lessons.”

The stories fourth-graders in Sherri Anderson’s class read to study specific grammatical elements are often about  what they are experiencing socially or what they are learning in other classes.

“A lot of what we’re learning and reading about are things the kids can really relate to,” said Anderson.

Get on their level

Students learn best when reading material is on their level. 

Althos’ digital reading program provides differentiated reading texts for all subjects for middle school students. Students read the same passage, but to ensure it is neither too easy or too difficult, the program customizes the length, vocabulary and text complexity to individual levels of literacy.

“There’s just a lot of autonomy for the student and I think, ultimately, that’s what transitions a student from being reluctant in their reading and their engagement with reading,” said Steve Merrell. 

The range in reading abilities is most significant in a kindergarten classroom. Through the digital differentiated curriculum, homework and assignments are customized to each child—whether they are approaching, on, or above grade level. 

Make It Fun

Teachers at Athlos incorporate movement, music and games into reading activities.

In Kindergarten classrooms, literacy is a lot of listening to stories, singing songs, and playing games.

For reluctant readers, it’s important to find a book they enjoy.

“The hardest thing is to find out what they’re really interested in,” said Burton. She said when a child is exposed to a variety of books, they will eventually find what sparks their interest. And once they find a series they like, they are motivated to read the subsequent books.

Steve Merrell tries to incorporate a variety of assignments to shake up and unlearn the hatred for reading students may have. He wants students to discover the joy of indulging in a story as well as realize that reading is a tool to learn anything they want to.

Point it out

Parents may be surprised by Steve Merrell’s final advice—follow along the words with your finger as you read.

He believes tracking is an advanced reading skill. Everyone (even adults) could read more efficiently if they track with a finger or pencil. 

Time is everything

Teachers agree reading 20 minutes daily should be part of everyday homework, even during the summer.

Valerie Loredo, a first grade teacher, said the minutes add up quickly. Kids who read 20 minutes per day are exposed to more vocabulary and perform better on standardized tests. 

Burton wants parents to realize the focus on literacy for young students is paramount for academic success.

“If they don’t read by third grade their chances are very diminished to catch up,” she said.