3 Ways to Know If Your Child Is Learning To Read Based On Research

Published by The Connected Reader on

Do you remember how you learned to read? 

How children learn to read is personally interesting to me because I’ve got a seven-year-old who is about a year into truly independent reading, and two three-year-olds who have recently begun to identify their “J” and their “E” – the first letters in their names. 

You know that I love reading and believe in the connections reading creates. You might not know that I’ve worked in education for 15 years with a focus on middle school and high school literacy and language learning. 

And y’all. I’m going to lift up an ugly truth that I’m not sure enough parents of young children are aware of: You cannot trust that your child’s school is teaching them to read based on science and research. Research surveys have shown that an estimated 75% of kindergarten, first, and second grade teachers are using an approach to teaching reading that is ineffective.

Let me make this a bit more nuanced. This is not because teachers aren’t doing their jobs. It is because education is a business and for decades, a few authors and publishing companies have cornered the market on curriculum that is ineffective , and even in the face of updated research, they have not backed down. It’s a lot more than this, but that is the gist.

So what do you do if you are a parent of a young child (up to second grade) or an older child who is struggling to read? 

Take a breath. Don’t panic. And begin building your awareness of how your child is being taught to read. I’m sharing three things you can do now to start.

Have a working knowledge of the research

You don’t need a doctorate in education, I promise. 

TL;DR: The latest nation-wide assessment of reading tells us our children are falling further and further behind in reading. Decades ago, brain science and research determined that the most effective way to teach children to read is through phonics and sounding out words. Many schools across this country (across the world!) are still teaching children to read using a strategy called “cueing” that has children rely on context like pictures and the first letter of the word to determine the word. 

If you find that overview as devastating and rage-inducing as I do, and you have time, I encourage looking into a few resources to build your knowledge. 

You have 10 minutes? Read this for an overview of the problem. 

Are you a visual learner? Take a few minutes to look at this to understand how the brain learns to read.

Have a little more time to get in the weeds? Try this podcast from journalist Emily Hanford, who has spent the last few years documenting the problem. Or pick up this book. To be transparent, I haven’t yet read it, but it comes highly recommended. 

And finally, if you want to understand how we got here, Hanford just released a new podcast telling this story. I’ve listened to the first three episodes and called my friend who is an early literacy consultant and I was screaming in outrage while walking my dog around the block. My neighbors are for sure concerned.

Know the approach at your child’s school

Talk to the director and teachers at the preschool. Schedule a phone call with the kindergarten teacher at the beginning of the year. Have a conference with the first grade teacher. 

You don’t need to be an educator to ask good questions about how schools and teachers approach teaching reading. You can simply ask what curriculum they use and you can access guidance on what curriculums are aligned to the research.

If you want to get in the weeds, ask: 

  • How do you teach phonics? You want to hear explicitly, systematically, and intentionally to all students. 
  • Do you use decodable books? You want to hear a yes.
  •  Does your curriculum include cueing as a strategy? You want to hear a no.

Keep tabs on how it’s going

Big E, my now seven-year-old, entered kindergarten in August 2020. Online. At the time, I was recently laid off, so I became intimately familiar with how her teacher was teaching reading as I, too, attended kindergarten via an iPad. This is a whole other blog post.

Now that we are back in-person, you can still monitor what’s happening in a few ways. 

  • Review the work your child brings home, including the books that are sent home for practice. When children are initially learning to read, the texts should be decodable.
  • Read with your child and observe how they are reading. Are they sounding out words? Does it feel like they are guessing at words instead of sounding them out?
  • Notice and ask your child how they are feeling about learning to read. Are they feeling frustrated? Are they avoiding opportunities to read and practice at home?
  • Finally – and this requires more time and may feel uncomfortable – you can always ask to observe at your child’s school.

What has been your experience with a child learning to read? What support do you need as a parent to feel strong in advocating for your child? Comment below to share!

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links, meaning I get a small commission if you decide to make a purchase through my links, at no cost to you. Even if you don’t use the links, I highly recommend checking out Bookshop.org for access to tons of titles while still supporting an indie bookstore.


Shara · November 3, 2022 at 6:38 pm

So… as I was getting my degree to be a ***Reading Specialist*** over the past two years I was horrified that my program still touted workshop and cueing as an effective way of instruction. It was mind boggling to me especially since 95% of teachers in the program were early educators. The research is so clear and it is inexcusable that parents need to be the ones pushing schools to change, but the truth is, it is necessary.

    The Connected Reader · November 3, 2022 at 7:57 pm

    It is mind boggling. As an educator who was focused on secondary literacy, I was never trained on early literacy skills in depth and I never understood the true scope of the problem. I knew about the science of reading, but I thought it was something that was new in last few years – not that it has been around for DECADES. In the first article I link to, it says that in addition to being prevalent among 75% of K-2 teachers, cueing is taught in 65% of graduate schools of education. Unreal! I would love to hear more about how you are combating this on the ground!

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