Raising Kids Who Read – a review

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It is hard not to really like Daniel Willingham. Here is an academic and psychologist who has helped a great many educators, including this one, to understand a range of complex cognitive processes and given practical advice about how to apply insights from the field for the benefit of student learning. His 2011 book Why Don’t Students Like School? is regularly cited by enthusiastic teachers in their blogs who value the explanations and examples he has provided, particularly around dispelling some of the myths about the way people learn and the importance of knowledge acquisition in the learning process. He is not the only name in town, but he is certainly a leading figure who I suspect has made a significant impression on a great many classrooms up and down the country.

One of the reasons why I think Willingham has become so popular is due to the clarity of his writing: it is engaging, warm and so obviously on the side of the teacher. His latest publication Raising Kids Who Read continues in the same vein. The book is not primarily aimed at teachers, though there is much that I think most teachers can take from it, particularly if they have children of their own. Raising Kids Who Read is aimed more at parents, specifically parents who want to help their children to develop a love of reading and create a home environment where reading is part of their son or daughter’s ‘self-conception’ – something that they do, see as part of who they are and, crucially, something they enjoy.

Establishing the self-concept of the child as reader is the central thesis of the book and there is a great deal of practical and actionable guidance on how to make this possible. For Willingham, ‘reading motivation is fragile and difficult to bring back once its gone’. As such, any parent eager to help his or her child to improve their reading, whether through developing their ability to hear different sounds, to make sense of the marks on the page or to understand the significance of what they are reading, must not lose sight of the enjoyment first principle. Whilst by hook or by crook teachers are responsible for ensuring every student learns to read, mothers and fathers who want to support their child’s journey to fluency and understanding have to resist the urge to create classrooms at home.

Raising Kids Who Read is organised in a clear and methodical way, beginning with a brief overview of the science of reading before moving on to the tripartite structure that underpins the rest of the book. These three sections broadly cohere to the different phases a child goes through as they learn to read: the preschool years of preparing to decode by learning speech sounds and the relationship between sounds and letters; the early years focus on learning to decode and acquiring necessary background knowledge; the move towards increased fluency and enhanced comprehension. At each turn there is a short research overview followed by helpful practical steps on what this actually means for a parent looking to support their child’s reading development.

There is much food for thought, even for the most knowledgeable of parents. Those unfamiliar with the technicalities of learning to read will likely learn a lot, such as the idiosyncrasies of the English alphabetic code, the role that background knowledge plays (particularly how it enables the drawing of inferences from texts), the arguments for and against phonics teaching, and the ineffectiveness of teaching general reading strategies. Willingham remains clear and accessible throughout and places emphasis as and when required, such as stressing how ‘you need knowledge to read, and reading gives you knowledge’.

Throughout Willingham’s preferred style is to present evidence about what is most likely to lead to successful reading in a clear and reasoned way, one that allows readers to draw the conclusions he has reached but without ever feeling that they have been made to do so. Willingham acknowledges where evidence is inconclusive and is big enough to concede ground to views he does not seem to share, such as the arguments put forward by supporters of whole word learning. He points out that evidence can be presented to support either camp and that ‘the advantage conferred by using phonics instead of whole-word learning is moderate, not huge.’ Rather than assessing who is right, Willingham focuses instead on the consequences of following each method. This way the conclusion that ‘systematic phonics instruction maximises the odds that everyone in the class will learn to read’ appears obvious and necessary.

Despite Raising Kids Who Read being largely an advice manual for proactive parents, I found it impossible not to read it from the dual perspective of both parent and teacher. I nodded along at the parts that sang to me as a father, such as the sections where Willingham emphasises the importance of being able to distinguish between the different sounds in words when learning to read. As with many other children, my eldest daughter suffered from glue ear when she was in her reception year and her inability to hear sounds properly had a marked effect on her early reading progress. She could not hear the sounds, so found it hard to discern them in print or say them out loud.

At other times, the teacher in me came more to the fore. For instance, my week day persona fully understood the importance of Willingham’s explanation of the distinction between given information and new information, and the way that meaning is built across sentences that assume a certain level of reader knowledge. Whilst this is essentially a recasting of E.D. Hirsch’s contention that reading is more about teaching background knowledge than pushing redundant comprehension strategies, it was useful to see the point expressed here in a very clear and concise way. I am sure many readers will find it incredibly helpful to see the problem of comprehension as boiling down to the distance between ‘stuff you have already been told in the text’ and ‘stuff you haven’t’ yet learned about which the text relies upon to make its meaning.

This is a good book with a laudable aim. But there is a problem, or rather a cruel irony – one that Willingham himself recognises and that anyone with even a basic understanding of issues in education will hone in on. The irony is, of course, that the parents who will buy Raising Kids Who Read are not really the ones who need to read it. If you are going to go to the trouble of buying a book about helping your child to improve their reading, you are likely to be the type of parent who already reads regularly to your children, encourages them through library visits and talks to them in a rich and engaging way that models effective speech and builds their vocabulary. Most parents I know already limit their children’s online activity and provide them with the kinds of experience that develop the background knowledge required to be a successful reader.

As much as I enjoyed Raising Kids Who Read – and believe me I really did – I couldn’t shake this thought out of my mind. If we acknowledge that parents play a pivotal role in the development of their children’s reading, whether directly or indirectly, how do we ensure that all parents are suitably equipped to do so? How do we ensure that the excellent ideas and approaches in this book get to where there are really needed? Reading this book will make me a slightly better teacher; it will definitely make me a much better, more aware father. The trouble is I already knew the importance of building a positive reading environment at home, as do all of the people I know who also have children.

If Willingham is right that attitudes towards reading are extremely important and that these are rooted in our early emotional responses, our job as parents is to do what we can to ensure that we foster the right kind of environment that creates the right kind of emotional response. Helping our children see themselves as readers is vital: it is a virtuous circle that starts with the ability to read well and leads to an enjoyment of reading which in turn increases the attitude and means that we read more. This is the Matthew Effect by another name. I just hope that those that read this book can find a way to close the gap between the word and rich and the word poor – between those that enjoy reading and are good at it and those that don’t and cant’.

I’ve taken some good ideas from Raising Kids Who Read, but (touch wood) my children are not likely to be the ones that struggle most to read.

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6 thoughts on “Raising Kids Who Read – a review

    • Thanks for your comment, Chris.

      I agree that teachers, particularly in early years, should follow the most effective pedagogical methods. I suppose this is a different argument entirely: to what extent should teachers be accountable for ensuring that all students learn to read properly. This would require a second, much longer post!

      Thanks again,

      Phil

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful (and positive 🙂 ) review.
    Several people have raised the issue you point out…the people you and I might most wish to read this book are unlikely to do so. I raised this point with my publisher before I ever wrote it. Does this book really have an audience? Here was my thinking that led me to press ahead
    1) As noted at the outset of the book, most parents like the idea of their children reading in their leisure time. Now *saying,* when queried, that you want your children to read is obviously different than keeping it in the forefront of your mind so that you’ll actually do something about it. Still, my thought was that there are enough parents out there who like the idea, are willing to put at least a little time and energy into it, but whose ideas on what to do are limited.
    2) When it comes to teachers, I expect most of what I suggest, whether for classrooms or homes, is old stuff to those with some experience. But it might not be for novices, so I thought the book might interest them. And for experienced teachers, I thought some small %age will be new to them.
    3) And on the issue of the parents who aren’t doing much to raise readers or who are open to the idea, but don’t know where to get started, I thought this might be a book teachers could recommend. I know of two schools that have bought copies for all of their parents. Naturally I think this is fabulous idea. 🙂
    Thanks for your comments Phil, I really appreciate them.

  2. Hi Daniel

    Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. I appreciate the feedback and further elaborations.

    I agree with your points and think that your book will help parents and teachers to improve the way that the children in their care learn to read and think and feel about themselves as readers. It is a fair point to suggest that what some people think and actually do can be two very different things – again your book will help some parents to make more practical steps to match their intentions.

    I like the idea of schools buying copies of your book for their parents, though alas budgets for many will be prohibitive. It occurred to me whilst reading your book that I should try and set up an evening with the parents of one of our feeder primary schools. I think it would be a good idea to provide an overview of some of the theory elements, along with an outline of some practical guidance that draws upon your ideas. It would probably be useful to have a series of follow up sessions where teachers could support parents along the way. Obviously, copies of your book could be made available as well.

    Thanks again

    Phil

  3. I believe in providing information for parents about the complex English alphabetic code and the Systematic Synthetic Phonics Teaching Principles. I suggest that these are ‘public domain’ entitlements. To this end, I provide many free resources including the Alphabetic Code Charts for various audiences and purposes, and the Simple View of Reading diagram – suggesting that parents should be aware that reading can be generally described as two main processes – thus, rationalising to parents the value of the mechanics of phonics decoding and the value of talking with their children generally, and talking with them about books and the content of books – and teaching their children knowledge and understanding of the world to underpin the reading process. I worry about anyone who promotes learning words as global wholes as if it is an alternative to teaching phonics.

    • Hi Debbie. Thanks for your comment, which I agree with and greatly appreciate. Funnily enough, I have used some of your resources to help support my eldest daughter with her reading. All the best.

      Phil

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