As an education consultant, I found myself overwhelmed this summer with email after email from parents with a similar request: “My child is struggling with reading. Please help.”
Each plea tugged at my heartstrings. In addition to these clients, my phone buzzed with close friends whom I’d assumed had their children’s literacy skills — reading, writing, speaking and listening — under control. But their children, like so many others across the country, are experiencing the long-term impacts of COVID-19 that go beyond physical and mental health.
Our nationwide literacy problem is nothing new. For nearly 20 years, student literacy has been an urgent discussion in the education community. According to national statistics, roughly 21% of the U.S. population struggles with literacy — with California having the lowest literacy rate. In the Golden State, 76% of fourth-grade students read below proficiency level, according to a 2021 report by Think Impact. The widening learning gaps have been attributed to excessive absences among teachers and students and the emotional trauma brought on by the stress and anxiety of going to school during the pandemic.
Multi-state licensed therapist and clinical social worker Alexis Young says that while schools sought to use technology to bridge the educational gap during the pandemic, there has been a drastic increase in anxiety and inability to focus because of overexposure to online programming and social media.
When I first meet with new clients, I always remind them: “You are the first teacher your child ever had. Let’s talk about how you can teach literacy at home.”
While many parents are open to working with their children, they are unsure how to begin. They also wonder how to fit teaching literacy into their already busy schedules. As a single mother, I can relate. I spent several years figuring out how to navigate my role as a parent, high school teacher and business owner. To my delight, my young son played a vital role in helping me develop a plan that strengthened our family and jump-started his literacy.
One of the greatest misconceptions is that literacy has to look a certain way — specific terminology, well-structured lessons and rigid thinking processes. Literacy should and can fit into our normal lifestyle with ease. Here are a few ways to integrate literacy into your daily family life.
First, know your child’s reading level — often available through standardized and other reading tests given at school — so you can provide the best literacy support possible. If your child’s school does not provide such information, community-based literacy centers may be able to provide assessments.
Start a family book club
When people think of book clubs, Oprah Winfrey’s famous book picks or a group of older women sipping wine and reading the latest popular novel may come to mind. However, book clubs are a growing trend that can benefit everybody, including parents and their children.
I’ve encouraged many parents to start a book club in their homes. It is one of the easiest ways to identify your children’s literacy problems and create a literacy culture in the home. If your children are around the same age, have them vote on one book each week or month for the entire family to read. If there is a wider age gap, select a theme or holiday within the month and choose books based on that theme for each age and reading level. Then, select a day for the family to discuss the books. To get the discussion rolling, try writing questions out on slips of paper and placing them in an empty fishbowl or other container.
In addition to cultivating a culture of literacy at home, books offer a great way for parents to talk about subjects that affect children without the discussion feeling too uncomfortable. Want to talk about bullying and self-confidence? Consider the children’s book “Stand Tall, Molly Lou Melon” by Patty Lovell. Looking for a way to discuss depression and peer pressure with your teens? Check out Holly Bourne’s “The Manifesto on How to be Interesting.”
Cook new recipes as a family
When I was still teaching fulltime, I used to come home exhausted in the evenings. I had three missions: spend quality time with my son, prepare dinner and get ready for bed. The “quality time” goal always seemed to slip just out of reach. As I cooked, my son watched television, played learning games on his tablet or scribbled in a coloring book at the table. After dinner, bath time and preparing for bed zapped what little energy I had left.
But this cycle shifted when my son was 2. One evening, he pulled his step stool up to the counter next to me and asked if he could help cook dinner. His inquiry had me so befuddled that I stumbled around trying to figure out what a toddler could do in the kitchen. That first night, we experimented with stirring, grabbing ingredients from the refrigerator and looking at recipes together.
I soon realized that making cooking a family experience encouraged vocabulary enhancement and comprehension — two essential literacy components. My son responded well to identifying objects, learning to read easy labels on food and using cooking language. I used index cards to label different objects in the kitchen. Each evening, I would take a few minutes to review the labels before we cooked dinner. Eventually, he practiced the words on his own and used them in conversations.
This kind of labeling does not have to be relegated to the kitchen. Try labeling toy boxes and other items in all of your rooms. The extra benefit of this tactic is that it does not require constant direct engagement to be effective. Children connect words with items through repetitive exposure, sound and phonetic recognition.
Our fun and success with family nights in the kitchen inspired my son and me to write a cookbook entitled “Cooking with Mom” to encourage other families to spend time together. Our book shares tips for parents to engage their children in cooking and teach kitchen safety. My son, now 7, has enjoyed his learning experience so much that our book has led to speaking engagements and a YouTube channel called Cooking with Fam.
Make libraries great again
Libraries are one of the most underused places for free literacy resources and activities, yet they are the foundation of literacy and intellectual stimulation for learners of all ages. In a world of social media and apps, libraries have sought to regain the attention of the crowd that used to pack their building for computer use, free magazine reading, story times and other literacy-based activities.
While the internet is a hard market to compete with, the public library isn’t giving up — especially during a time when literacy support is needed more than ever. This past summer, the Los Angeles Public Library offered a program called Summer with the Library, where participants could earn points and badges by participating in library arts and literacy-based activities. This program provides online and in-person participation and resources for all age groups, including adults.
Not only could this program partner well with a family book club, but family members can also use it to spark friendly competition. Children and parents set rules and goals for the competition. They can agree upon a prize or prizes for meeting literacy goals. Parents can assign a prize based on reaching multiple goals or offer one major prize for the person who earns the most badges or points through the program. Parents should not shy away from participating in the competition as well. Nothing motivates kids more than beating their parents in a friendly battle!
Connect with community-based literacy programs
If you’re looking for additional literacy assistance beyond your child’s school, Los Angeles is home to community programs that focus on literacy, parent engagement and classroom intervention.
The Special Education Literacy Clinic of California State University at Northridge provides literacy support for special education students and their families. The center partners tutors with families to assess and identify students with learning disabilities and works with families to teach literacy to students diagnosed with mild to moderate disabilities. The tutors are reading specialists and university students working toward degrees in special education and educational therapy. Director Vanessa Goodwin says the clinic has been active for more than 20 years, providing invaluable services to local students and families. However, as education and student learning evolve, so does the program, and one of the most significant changes happened due to the pandemic. According to Sue Sears, coordinator of clinical services, the clinic began offering services online and building relationships with children and families outside the Los Angeles service area. While the center plans to re-open its doors to the public this fall, the online component will remain in place.
The Leimert Park Village Book Fair is a non-profit, community-based organization that has promoted family literacy and education for the past 15 years. The fair, which will be a hybrid of virtual and in-person programming this year, focuses on inclusivity and diversity in literacy by bringing a wealth of prominent African American authors, panelists and poets to the community. Cindy E. Exum, executive director and producer of the book fair, aims to provide an atmosphere where literacy is celebrated, families can receive educational insight and local writers can strengthen their visibility and connection with the community. This free event provides activities and resources that bring literacy from to the community.
Another program aiming to help families improve student literacy is Tackle Reading, an educational initiative to promote a love of literacy and passion for football. Founder Kathryn Starke, a literacy consultant and author, partnered with the NFL to bring retired and current NFL players to classrooms and public family literacy events. While parents significantly influence the learning atmosphere, programs such as Tackle Reading help to reinforce the importance of literacy and inspire children to enjoy reading. Starke doesn’t just throw the pass for famous athletes to read to children — she goes for the touchdown by providing literacy training for educators and parents, too.
For many years, I believed children lacked interest in reading because other things were more appealing to them. But my philosophy on student literacy and learning evolved during my 13 years as a classroom teacher. I realized that the culture I established around reading, the patience I demonstrated and how I implemented literacy strategies in my classroom, influenced my students. We discussed the meanings behind song lyrics, shared personal stories related to our school-selected texts and, most importantly, I showed my students how excited I was about reading. As a parent, I try to maintain the same passion for literacy with my son. Each night, we set aside time to read, and we like to watch movies that correlate with our books’ themes. It’s been amazing to listen to him make connections between the books we read and movies we watch.
Literacy is ingrained into everything we do — from learning how to use the latest social media platform to learning how to perform life-saving surgeries. My hope is that we continue to search for fun ways to shift literacy from strictly a school concern to a part of our daily family lifestyle.
Jamie Mayes is the owner of Jamie Mayes Educational Consulting & Literacy Services, LLC. As the author of seven books, Mayes believes that meaningful literature and proficient literacy are the keys to transforming families and society.