In the US, having a truly well-rounded education is declining in modern times. There is a growing gap between the knowledge and skills our high schools outfit students with and what colleges require.
In turn, colleges are also struggling to prepare graduates adequately for entering the workforce. Some might see this as a call for the specialization of training and study even earlier in life, but that’s not the answer. More than ever, kids need to learn a variety of subjects. STEM, American and world history, English and a foreign language, along with extra-curricular painting, violin classes soccer games: the balance of all these lessons can improve outcomes. But the potential of a well-rounded education is tied to one crucial skill: reading. In today’s world, our children must develop literacy to succeed. And parents play a vital role in making that happen.
An issue of systemic decline
Parents sometimes take reading for granted. Sure, we know that it’s important, but we might underestimate the need for reading instruction to come from our end. After all, that’s what schools are for.
However, there’s a problem with foisting so much responsibility in this essential aspect of learning and development onto teachers and the education system. Various metrics indicate that education in the US has been falling behind compared to other countries. The latest available OECD data show that the US ranks 10th among member countries in college completion. While this is above average, it was a far cry from our previous top rank in the world back in 1995.
The US spends more on tertiary education than any other OECD country besides Luxembourg, yet our teachers have some of the lowest relative earnings. Compared to other countries, our overworked, under-compensated teachers cannot devote the same focus towards follow-up with students or refining their curriculum or subject matter approach. On average, the number of young adult Americans pursuing a tertiary degree has decreased by about 8% over the past decade. Enrollment in early childhood education is 66% at best, compared to 77-86% of 3-5 year-olds in the rest of the OECD. Our education system has problems that will take time to fix. By then, your child might have endured years of sub-par instruction. They may already be in the workforce instead of pursuing higher education.
Reading as a solution
While our educators are aware of these issues, we can’t really wait for those changes to take effect because the results will take time. Parents do have an indispensable tool at their disposal: the ability to help their children acquire the most important tool for lifelong learning. Studies show that literacy is consistently one of the most reliable predictors of academic outcomes. Early readers tend to excel. Those who enter school with reading struggles are overwhelmingly likely to experience difficulties in the fourth and beyond. As President Obama once said, this effect happens because reading is the gateway to all other knowledge. Comprehension fuels and is fueled by the acquisition of well-rounded background knowledge and experiences. For a child, reading proficiency equates to learning proficiency. Any deficiencies in this area can quickly lead to frustration and a loss of motivation, further widening the gap between the reading-‘rich’ and reading-‘poor’ children.
How to make a difference
How do parents help their children become better readers? Can it really be as simple as spending more time reading stories to them? Or filling the home environment with more books? Studies have actually shown that simply being more involved does help. Reading activities such as bedtime stories can easily improve their ability to decode text through phonemic awareness. Naturally, the availability of reading materials, and witnessing the parent engaged in the act of reading, will also encourage children to read more. The amount of time matters, but so does the manner of your participation. Parents can do more to facilitate a child’s literacy development by discussing pictures, individual words, and the story’s overall meaning. They can engage their children further by asking questions about the story that aren’t answerable by a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Parents can also bring skilled instructors on board to assist in early childhood reading. From the ages 3-5, you can improve outcomes with a trusted and motivated teacher who has been trained in scientifically-based reading instruction.
Finally, remember to listen. Have your child do a recap of a story to check for comprehension. Perceive how they talk about books, which characters or subjects they seem to enjoy most. Build on that familiarity with their interests, and you can continue to expose them to more advanced reading materials and further develop their skills.