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Parents learn how to turn kids into confident readers

By Connie Langland on Mar 21, 2014 11:53 AM
Photo: Harvey Finkle
Ebony Wilkie, left, helps her son Jakai Rhoades read a book about spaceships while his brother Karim Pressley looks on. Wilkie has received training on how children learn to read.

On a March afternoon, 8-year-old Jakai Rhoades and his mother, Ebony Wilkie, began tackling his homework. 

“What does this word look like?” Wilkie asked her son, a 3rd grader at nearby Blaine Elementary School. “It’s a compound word—two words together. Do you see?”

“Spaceship,” he answered, correctly.

“Rumble … rumble … ROOAAARRRR,” read Jakai. “The rocket goes up into …” He stumbled on the next word. But his mom was at the ready, pointing upwards again and again, offering Jakai a really big hint.

He tried again, reading, “The rocket goes up into … space!” 
Yes! Jakai was pleased, and so was Wilkie.

In this household in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood, learning to read is a joint venture.

For Jakai, the effort means extra time spent delving into storybooks – as much as an hour in the afternoon after school and 15 minutes at bedtime. 

And Wilkie has put in extra effort too. Last summer and again this winter, she attended parent workshops at Blaine to acquire some of the same skills that teachers use in the classroom. She learned the basics of how children learn to read – as well as some of the stumbling blocks.

“Some kids read, but they don’t understand what they’ve read. So we’ve worked on helping him comprehend what he’s reading,” Wilkie said.

“Jakai went from not reading to now reading on a 2nd-grade level. He’s made great progress,” his mother said.

Training the trainers

Enlisting parents as reading coaches is the linchpin innovation of a remedial reading initiative called the Springboard Collaborative. Springboard, created by Alejandro Gac-Artigas, has run summer reading programs in charter schools the past three years and expanded to include four District schools last summer. 

“Parents are the greatest natural resource in education,” Gac-Artigas said, “and what’s crazy is that this resource is almost entirely untapped in high-poverty communities.” 

This winter, Springboard ran a pilot program at Blaine from February into April to train teachers to work with the families of struggling readers. In all, the pilot involved five teachers, 35 students and their families. 

In the pilot, teachers wrote up an action plan for each child and reviewed the plan and goals with the parent. Every second week, the teachers led hour-long workshops for the parents. In the alternate week, teachers got training in communicating and coaching the families. As in the summer program, Springboard offered books and supplies to the families as incentives. 

Parental involvement is wholly embraced by educators, but parents are seldom enlisted in the task of teaching literacy beyond the time-honored adage: Read to your kids. 

Springboard asks much more by teaching parents how to build the reading, vocabulary, and comprehension skills of their children outside of the traditional school day. The program also holds parents accountable during the duration of the program with at-home assignments and attendance requirements. Last summer, parents at four District schools averaged 93 percent attendance at Springboard’s weekly workshops.

Springboard boasts of dramatic reading gains and big ambitions: to narrow and even close the achievement gap for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Research on the subject would appear to bolster Springboard’s approach. A 2006 review of the research by the National Institute for Literacy looked at family literacy interventions from kindergarten to 3rd grade and concluded that having parents teach specific literacy skills was two times more effective than listening to the child read, and six times more effective than encouraging parents to read to their children.

Efforts pay off

Wilkie is certain her efforts have had a big impact on Jakai’s reading skills. The books on the homework table were at the 2nd- and 3rd-grade level – far beyond what he could handle a year ago. And Jakai gets encouragement from his older brother, Karim Pressley, 10, a strong reader from an early age.

The Wilkie family has been reading nonstop since last summer, including the stretch after the summer program ended and before this school year started. Friends of the boys knocking at the door on this warm March afternoon were no match for their mom’s insistence that homework come first and leisure time later.

Jakai had not one but four storybooks to read that afternoon: Rockets and Spaceships, rated at a 2.9 level (or end of 2nd grade); Martin’s Big Words, rated 2.5; The Meanest Thing to Say by Bill Cosby, rated 2.2; and Jamaica’s Find, with a 3.2 rating. 

That kind of mix, running easier to harder, makes sense to Jakai’s mother. Books that are easier to read reinforce skills; ones with more new, unknown words challenge him to figure out the word from the context of the story. 

“Before the program, I was helping Jakai by reading books he enjoyed. But he couldn’t pronounce the words. With Springboard, they helped him with pronunciation, and so did I,” Wilkie said. 

She also helped him learn words he didn’t know by putting them in a context he was familiar with, offering this example: “The word dirty – I would say go clean your ‘blank’ room, and he got it – your dirty room. That worked for him.” 

This at-home effort has had an extra payoff. 

“It was also worth my while because I got to learn more about my child. And I had a chance to interact with his teacher. Anything that helps my child learn, I’m all for it,” Wilkie said. 

Karen Shanowski, a project manager with the Center for Schools and Communities in Camp Hill, Pa., said schools increasingly are looking at ways to engage families in their children’s learning. What is clear, she said, is that “family engagement is not an add-on; it’s an integral part of the learning process. And we’re seeing schools looking at new ways to connect with families.” 

Such initiatives, she said, have evolved out of recognition that “parents are their children’s most influential teachers.”

Shileste Overton-Morris, a senior manager at the center, noted that out-of-school initiatives can engage parents in creative ways beyond “the parent-teacher conference or the PTA meeting” that is typical of many schools. What’s key, said Overton-Morris, is “communicating that message—that parents are teachers no matter where they are in the system, whether it’s home-school, charter or public. Parents are the primary teachers … and it’s very important that schools should be looking to engage parents in meaningful ways to ensure that the student succeeds in life.”

Books and more books

Like Wilkie, Enjoli Johnson attended Springboard workshops at Blaine last summer and again during the pilot to support the reading efforts of her three sons, Anthony Cindell, 11, in 5th grade, Zahmaar Brown, 7, in 1st grade, and Joseph Brown, 5, in kindergarten. 

“First off, when they come to me with a book, I never turn them down,” said Johnson.

Teachers send home books, and friends stop by with more books. Johnson said that Joseph has had a harder time learning to read than his older brothers, and what she learned in the workshops has helped her work with her son. Plus, “he’s more encouraged to learn because he sees his older brothers reading.”

Johnson recalled that she grew up reading with her mother. 
“She would fall asleep; I wouldn’t stop reading,” Johnson laughed. “I’m definitely a cheerleader for reading. I’m good in math, but I’m famous for reading.” 


To read more about the Springboard approach, visit the website

Connie Langland is a freelance writer on education issues.

This article will appear in the Notebook's forthcoming print edition focusing on using school time wisely. It's due out next week.

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Comments (26)

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on March 21, 2014 3:34 pm
You know I am going to chime in on this one and give both Alejandro and Connie a pat on the back Anything which gets children of all ages to read authentic stuff I am going to give high praise to. We should share many of the great reading programs we have going on throughout the district, and the great things reading teachers of all types and in all places do. However, I do want to clear up some misconceptions about the term "reading level" which are prevalent and recurring. We use terms like "grade level" in our conversations and we should have a basic understanding of what those concepts mean and do not mean. In every grade, there is a wide range of reading ability. There is no such thing as a 2.2 grade level or a 2.9 reading level, etc. As used in this article, it is a score on a "readability formula" and that is all it is. Readability formulas are no more than approximations which usually only measure the number of syllables in words and the number of words in sentences. They do not take into account the difficulty of the concepts in the selection. Only a teacher can do that. Readability formulas are never exact measures and sometimes can be way off. Especially at the higher elementary school levels and beyond. The best judge of reading level is always -- "The Teacher." For a primer on how they work which looks at several readability formulas, I suggest that you begin here:
Submitted by Keith Newman (not verified) on March 22, 2014 6:25 am
Congratulations. This is exactly what the city needs. The SRC would be wise to invest and expand in this program, and abandon all the non-sensible experiments they routinely engage in.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on March 22, 2014 9:25 am
You are absolutely right! Imagine what could be done if the district expanded "authentic reading programs." The SRC approves millions for contracts to private entities which never do anything good for children while, at the same time, starving them of "research based" programs such as this one which actually does help children grow intellectually and improves their reading ability. Imagine what could be done for children if the SRC, instead of wasting the $10 Million it spends on the ridiculous Pearson contracts for "drill and kill" test prep BS, would just spend that money on services to children provided by certified reading teachers. Hmmmmm -- Just Imagine....
Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on March 22, 2014 9:39 am
Nice reply. Except the word "imagine". Somebody ruined that word for me for life!!!!
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on March 22, 2014 9:09 am
That was an allusion in duplicity! You must be a Great reader! Can really make those inferences well! You would get an A++ in my reading class. Which of course, this is -- my reading class!
Submitted by Education Grad ... on March 22, 2014 12:04 pm
This article makes clear that parents and caregivers who encourage reading help to build a love of reading in their children. The experience of a parent reading with a child isn't just about reading, but about bonding over books. It is a loving experience. I have fond memories of reading with my own parents. Does quality instruction at school and parents who encourage reading at home automatically mean that a child will be a great reader? The answer is "Not necessarily." Some children have underlying disabilities, such as a Specific Learning Disability or Intellectual Disability, which make learning to read a long and deliberate process. But having support and reinforcement for reading in the home does help even these most struggling readers make progress whereas a lack of parental support makes learning to read for students with disabilities happen at a slower pace. Are there great readers who come from families in which parents never read to children? Of course. Some children are inherently very bright and will do well academically because of innate ability. However, if a gifted child is never read to at home, imagine how much better he or she would do if reading was emphasized more in the home?
Submitted by Keith Newman (not verified) on March 22, 2014 1:21 pm
Even with disabilities, research has proven that parents reading to their children enables the child to be ready and willing to benefit from an educational experience.
Submitted by Education Grad ... on March 22, 2014 6:35 pm
Keith, I completely agree with you, and it's why I said in my previous comment that " But having support and reinforcement for reading in the home does help even these most struggling readers make progress whereas a lack of parental support makes learning to read for students with disabilities happen at a slower pace." EGS
Submitted by Lisa Haver on March 22, 2014 5:59 pm
Wait a minute. "Teachers are trained in the Springboard curriculum, which emphasizes a balanced literacy approach, a combination of word study, reading aloud, shared reading and guided reading, plus a writing project. At the weekly workshops, teachers train caregivers in the basics of instruction, using PowerPoint and printed materials, with an emphasis on how to prompt the child without word-for-word involvement." Are these the same teachers Mark Gleason and Paul Kihn want to force out of Blaine? The district invests money for this program and trains the teachers, who then work with the parents and students, Learning improves, as do relationships between the teachers and the parents of their students. Now the district and PSP (OK, maybe they are no longer separate entities) says that things are so bad at Blaine that the teachers have to go. The principal, who earlier said that it was the dedication of the teachers "both personally and professionally" which accounted for the success of the school, now says that the teachers--the ones who insist on using paper and pencil--are the reason the school has not done better. Could Dr. Hite or Mr. Kihn please explain?
Submitted by Education Grad ... on March 22, 2014 7:19 pm
Lisa, I have some of the same thoughts that you do. The reality is that many teachers in the SDP have to use paper and pencil because there is not money for more up-to-date technology. Many teachers, myself included, still use chalkboards. Yes, some teachers in my school do have interactive whiteboards, but not everyone. And interactive whiteboards have their issues. What happens when the bulb goes out? Who ends up paying for the bulb? Some principals might cover the cost, but in many schools, the cost will fall on the teacher. And using an interactive whiteboard requires using a computer. What happens if your computer breaks, as my District-issued laptop has? Another issue is that in many buildings, there aren't very many outlets in the classrooms. Technology has its place. I love having my computers because I can use them as a learning center and an incentive for good behavior. But relying on technology can be more trouble than its worth sometimes. More importantly, the jury is still out on whether blended learning and other computer-reliant approaches are more effective than paper and pencil methods. Also, there are concerns about the amount of screen time that children are receiving. It's fair to ask if we should be focusing more on teaching children to interact well with each other than having them interact with a computer.
Submitted by K.R. Luebbert on March 22, 2014 7:39 pm
Lisa and EGS, We must be psychically connected (or more likely we just have common sense), but I thought the exact same thing! So, 1.5 million from the School dictatorship makes a principal turn on the staff and say they are dinosaurs who "use paper and pencil" and therefore cannot educate children! Very sad. This after the staff made a lot of extra effort to help struggling readers in the school! EGS's points about tech are right on! Right now all the 5 year old lap-tops in my school are slowly, one-by-one breaking down--so if we dare use paper and pencil will we need to be replaced? And, children do need social skills training and strategies to interact healthfully and productively with each other more than they need more screen time. One could argue that many children from both high and low SES groups need "face time" way more than they need screen time!
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on March 22, 2014 8:19 pm
You two along with Lisa are connected together with common sense. Computers can not teach reading. Only teachers can. I am sure there are many many people who think they are going to sit kids down at a computer and the students are going to shoot right up ten levels just like Jack and the Beanstalk. That only happens in fantasyland. That is not how cognitive growth works. That is not how the brain works. Reading is an "ability" like playing baseball is an ability. When have you ever seen a kid jump up ten levels in a month of playing baseball -- never. Computers are, at best, tools in the hands of teachers. Teachinq is a craft. The best teachers are artists and coaches. They teach kids to read for relevant facts, make their own inferences, draw conclusions, analyze text and make higher order cognitions. Computers can not do that and no programer can program a computer to do Socratic questioning or "probing questions", or to create leading questions as the moment arises to lead students to make appropriate generalizations. Teaching is a relationship between people -- teacher and student(s). The best teachers create chemistry with their students. You can't teach reading through multiple choice questions. There are uses for multiple choice questions, but they do not teach. They are for practice. They, like computers and workbooks, are only tools of the craft. You need a teacher who can think on her feet. Reading is a cognitive process -- a thinking process.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 23, 2014 8:51 am
The Springboard "curriculum" is just a reinvention of the SDP balanced literacy wheel. There's not a thing ingenious about it at all. I worked the program last summer as I stated before I doubt the fidelity of their results. The curriculum "creator" is a current SDP teacher. The SDP is wasting money paying Springboard for their services it's a crock.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 23, 2014 8:49 am
Springboard needs to present follow up data on the summer program participants to determine if the miraculous gains reached during the summer are even authentic. For the students that jumped 2 & 3 levels what are their current reading levels. My problem with Springboard is that they do not and refuse to present longitudinal data on the students. I think that Springboard knows if they actually researched and presented that data then the "gains" will be what they are statistically improbable and highly imaginary. Springboard makes good press & founders flock to fund the program but the reality is the program is a farce.
Submitted by Lisa Haver on March 23, 2014 2:55 pm
How many programs and consultants is the district spending money on these days? Why is the district investing its money in three brand new high schools when they cannot fund the basic necessities in the ones we already have? Is there any effort to stop the unjustified force transfer of the teachers at Blaine and Kelley? The SRC and Green have again reiterated their position that they are not obligated to answer questions put to them by the public. Does anyone know the answers to any of these questions?
Submitted by Annonym. (not verified) on March 23, 2014 2:33 pm
Good questions - as usual. The District is funding 6 new high schools - 3 from last year all funded by Phila. School Dictatorship (Workshop, Hill Freeman/International HS, SLA 2). The irony of closing schools while opening new schools was raised. The difference is the closed schools are neighborhood high schools (Caroll, Douglass, Univ City, Germantown, etc.)
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on March 24, 2014 9:40 am
Just for the record: In the interests of truth and honesty in all off this, can we just look who is behind the Springboard Collaborative? I guess the "Springboard Collaborative" is just another front group of those profiteers who seek to turn public schools into private profits. I thought I would never see the day when my beloved "profession of education" would come to this -- just so much dishonesty everywhere we look.
Submitted by Annonym. (not verified) on March 24, 2014 11:15 am
Thanks for sharing the link. Yes, more of the same old same old of the right wing on education. As others have pointed out, Springboard is just implementing Guided Reading and including parents. That should be done by the School District. Why pay an outside company?
Submitted by Annonym. (not verified) on March 23, 2014 2:17 pm
In 2011, the District said high schools should have 1000 - 1200 students - "District: We can create "personalized" high schools with 1,000 students" (Noteboo, April 19,2011). This was used to justify the closing and consolidating of neighborhood high schools (Bok to Southern, Germantown to Roxborough and MLK, closing Kensington schools, etc.) Guess someone changed their mind...
Submitted by Alejandro Gac-Artigas (not verified) on March 23, 2014 2:03 pm
Feel free to check out this infographic sharing Springboard's first longitudinal analysis. We are committed to tracking students' literacy trajectories over time. You can get to know our team here: This includes our Chief Programming Officer, who oversees curriculum development.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on March 23, 2014 5:42 pm
Hi Alejandro! Glad to see you join the conversation. You know that I am one of your biggest supporters. I also love to discuss the issues of the teaching of reading, its growth and its measurement. As I may have told you, I once "coordinated" a high school diagnostic-prescriptive reading program with as many as 10 colleague reading specialists who had masters degrees in the Psychology of Reading. We taught reading, diagnosed reading disabilities, assessed its growth and debated incessantly just about every aspect of reading ability. I did that for 20 years. Then as an administrator, I discussed data with teachers for 14 more years. I also ran many summer programs for elementary aged kids. I read your graphs and appreciate your work. They do show you had positive effects. But may I please make one point when we discuss pre and post tests. This is important to understand: Grade level equivalents are not reading levels. They are the bell curve statistically broken down into intervals. They do not correlate with stages of reading growth or levels of growth. They are scores on a test. The tests are not exact measurements at all, and are sometimes varied approximations. The International Reading Association, more than a decade ago, recommended that grade level equivalents not be used because so many educators do not understand that and misinterpret their results. The IRA also recommended that test makers stop using grade level equivalents because they are only the bell curve. Dale Chall, nearly 30 years ago, wrote an excellent article explaining how reading grows in stages. You will hear elementary teachers talking about what I call, "the click." That is when beginning readers jump into the second grade level wherein they move to another stage of development. That stage is what I call the "basic reading stage" where children, and even ESOL students, learn to read materials with two and normally spoken three syllable words. That stage encompasses both the 2nd and third grade levels. If you give students three different diagnostic tests, three days in a row, you will often get 3 different scores. I suggest you study Piaget. He is the best cognitive scientist I have ever read. He explains how cognitive ability grows in stages. Some students, because of many factors, progress through stages of development more rapidly than others. Since you are so into this, may I urge you to get a masters degree in reading diagnosis and maybe even a doctorate. The diagnosis of reading ability is a complicated science. With all of the talk about reading tests and what they mean and do not mean, it would do us well to have life long students of reading assessment as our leaders. Keep up the good work.
Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on March 24, 2014 3:10 pm
Rich--Yes, anything which includes Nowak among its members, moves to the back of the line in my eyes. What a GUY !!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 24, 2014 6:39 pm
Rich, I was beginning to like what you had to say, despite your seeming analysis that the teacher knows best and no other analysis is useful. That is, until you quoted "Dale Chall.". There is no person so named. The readability index to which you ever is the "Dale-Chall" index created by Edgar Dale and Jeanne Chall.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on March 24, 2014 7:11 pm
You are right. Sorry for the dyslexic moment. I stand corrected. It was through reading an article by Jeanne Chall where I first read about reading developing in stages. Both readability formulas and diagnostic assessments were designed so that a teacher can ascertain a student's instructional reading level and instructional needs. The goal is to match students with reading materials at their instructional level. Informal diagnosis is the most accurate reading assessment. Only a teacher or diagnostician can do that. Do you know what an "informal reading inventory" is, commonly known as an IRI? I did not say that no other assessment is useful. What I said was standardized reading tests are not exact measurements, they are, at best, approximations. So are all readability formulas, at best, approximations. Reading ability is also affected by many factors, including interest, motivation, ability to attend and concentrate, and of course, background of experience. As students move upwards in grade, they develop an "instructional range" of levels at which they benefit from instruction. Every student has a frustration level, and once they attain a degree of capacity, they have an independent reading level. Every student also has a "hearing capacity." At every grade level there is a wide range of ability levels, and that range widens as students progress up through high school. My most productive years of my professional life, and my most satisfying, as I look back, was when I taught reading. That is my first love, and like all first loves -- it never goes away.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 24, 2014 9:47 pm
I am intimately familiar with IRIs. I use them daily. They are a terrific instrument for diagnosis. They are not, however, very good for large scale testing. IRIs require 1-1 attention. As you surely know, that is not easy to come by in large, public schools. Standardized tests are valuable because they are, in fact, standardized. IRIs are not. I will give you an example. I once worked with a student who performed horribly on a series of IRI passages. I met with the Reading Specialist assigned to the student. She told me he "always does beautifully when I administer IRIs." We were using the same test. What she also told me was "he has a hard time getting the answer the first time, but when I probe, he is able to obtain the right answer." Well, I shared with her, the instructions say 'no probing.' There is the reason that a standardized, norm referenced test has value. IRI answers can also be interpreted different ways by different testers. One may score it correct, while another may not. That problem is eliminated with multiple choice tests
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on March 24, 2014 10:23 pm
I enjoy your comments and would like to discuss your points in depth, but right now the school district is falling apart around us and I am trying to read the SRC's Supreme Court motion for a declaratory judgment on the issue of whether they can impose contract terms. However, I will make 3 quick points: First, norm referenced tests do have value, I agree. The arbitrary classifications used today have very little diagnostic benefit because the four classifications are arbitrary cutoffs. But the reality is that they are always approximations, and sometimes inaccurate. Second, if the instructions say "no probing," I would have to take issue with the instructions. In, my time, I never saw such instructions, and the purpose of the IRI is to probe and make judgments. It is very easy to match students with appropriate materials, because the best IRI's are made from the actual materials used in instruction. If you have any doubts about which level to begin instruction, it is better to start off low and work upward. It gives kids a sense of confidence rather than a sense of difficulty. The whole purpose is to find a student's appropriate level of challenge commensurate with ability. That takes judgment. Reading is anability that must be coached. It is not a collection of isolated skills. As to multiple choice questions, they have their problems, too.

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