The Long "E"

 “Which is it, a long “e” like in easy or a short “e” like in elephant?” I asked.

“It’s the long ‘e’ “ she replied.

“Oh” I said. “We weren’t sure and, really, if I’m testing these kids I should know that sort of thing.”

“Yes” she said, and then laughed. 

“You know, this isn’t easy,” she explained, “teaching kids to read. Phonics. All of it. Here I’ll give you a book. It’s actually pretty helpful.”

She walked over to her crammed bookshelf and found the book she wanted and handed it to me. 

“It should help” she said as her 20 kindergartners came streaming back into the classroom.

It did, but not much. I still didn’t feel I knew how to help a young child (an “emerging reader” as they now call them) learn how to read. It was dazzlingly hard, even with the book. 

Reading together had been a big part of raising our two boys, but as a parent I had never bothered to figure out how reading to a child translated to their being able to read on their own; Now I needed to know.

As a Title 1 teacher in a high poverty elementary school in rural New England I was in a position to help kids who were having trouble in school, specifically with literacy skills. It felt like both a great opportunity and a great mystery so I started reading everything I could find, asking my colleagues lots of annoying questions, and observing classes that seemed to be producing readers. 

After a few weeks I was moved from kindergarten to second grade. On my third day in the new classroom I walked by a boy who had been very engaged during our group session on math but was now sitting at his table, staring at his workbook. I sat down next to him. 

“Can I help?” I asked him.

“Yeah, I guess” he answered. 

“Let’s see what they’re asking. ‘ If Sally has five apples and Tommy has four, how many apples are there?’”

“Nine” he said without hesitation.

“That’s right!” I said. “So, what was the difficulty?”

“I didn’t know what they were asking” he replied, a little surprised I hadn’t figured that out.

“Oh” I said.

“OK” I went on, “let me read the next one. I’ll bet you’ll get it just as fast. Let’s try and write this one out, shall we?” 

“Sure” he said as he picked up his pencil for the first time in 30 minutes. 

And there you have it: Literacy is the root of all learning.

Now I ask you, how can a child do math if he can’t read the questions?

And what is the most effective way to help a child learn to read when you have a limited amount of time? 

Furthermore, how is it that my kindergartners didn’t know their letters by the end of the year? Was it the teachers? The curriculum? 

The kids? The air we were all breathing? 

Last question (for the moment): How can we get everyone on board to help our kids? 

They say that unless you define the problem you’ll never get a workable solution, even with great questions, so I started looking for the root of the problem. 

By the end of the year I found it: Preparation. 

Before I go any further I have to say I am not an expert. I study a lot of experts, almost daily, but that does not make me one ( an important distinction). I am, however, an experienced educator having taught in higher ed for many years, been a resident counselor for quite a few and now having experienced public schools as a substitute teacher and Title 1 aide for a year. That gives me a unique perspective, but it is still just one perspective. And here is what I have decided after my crash course in public schools:

Parents are a missing link. They are an unbelievably important part of the puzzle that is learning. But, in many cases, parents need to learn how to help their kids in school. Just like I had (and still do) need to learn how to effectively help a student. 

Unlike me, parents don’t have the luxury of sitting in classrooms with excellent teachers watching how they do what they do — teach our kids.

Bottom line: parents want to help their kids, but when it comes to school (especially reading and math) they don’t always know how. I know that now because I am learning the mechanics of reading, of phonics and sight words and how to guide an emerging reader through a book that is hard for them. Stuff I wish I had known as a young mom. Stuff every parent, and child, would benefit from knowing. 

Another thing I have learned is shocking: That by the time your child is in fourth grade if they haven’t learned to read they will have major issues with school. Major.

I don’t know what I thought would happen if our boys didn’t read at grade level when they were young but it was something like ‘they would learn eventually . . .’ But that wouldn’t make up for all the content they had already missed,  or for how they would feel about themselves as students and learners. 

What to do?

I am starting a VLOG Series that is designed to use the wisdom of teachers to help parents help their kids. We call it:

Teacher Tips: Helpings Parents Help Their Kids

These are going to be short video blogs (vlogs) that can be found online and accessed through the school website (Conway Elementary is the brave forerunner) and Bear Pond Learning. Com. They will focus on tips from real classroom teachers and also model best reading practices in the classroom which can be transferred to outside the classroom. 

We hope to hit all the grades from K-6 and also have “Tips” from other school professionals who can give advice on everything from how to talk to your kids at dinner (so they’ll respond), to how you can help them navigate their math homework. 

Conclusion: Everyone wants kids to succeed at school. Some people know how to help. We should get them and the people who love the kids the most (their families) together, and in ways that are both accessible and non-threatening. This is one way to try and do just that!

Chaz WilcoxenEducation