A Structure for Parent Involvement
The four first-grade teachers at Mayfield, Ohio’s Lander Elementary School were keenly aware of six-year-olds’ need for structure. Each year, they spent plenty of time up front teaching their new students the daily schedule, classroom routines, and behavior expectations. Their balanced literacy program was also structured with a set time for reading, writing, and oral language; a combination of whole group, small group, and individual instruction; and just the right amount of explicit teacher instruction and independent student work. Things ran smoothly for the well-planned program, except for one thing — parent involvement.
For years, the first-grade team had requested that their students practice reading at home with parent support. Students were required to keep a nightly reading log, and parents were asked to sign the log. “It was pretty random,” teacher Barb Tarka admits. A few students read quality books every night. For most students, however, the time they spent reading and the quality of books they read were hit-and-miss. What haunted the teachers most were those students who owned few books and did not have a library card. “These were the kids who needed extra reading time most, and the homework was just one more thing that prevented it from happening,” Barb shares.
The Fast-Start Program
One day, Barb was looking through her Scholastic Book Club monthly order form and saw a teacher resource for grades K–2 titled Fast Start for Early Readers: A Research-Based, Send- Home Literacy Program With 60 Reproducible Poems and Activities That Ensures Reading Success for Every Child (Padak & Rasinski, 2005). “This sounded like an approach that would be much more focused than what we were doing. It hit me! Maybe our parents need structure, too!” Barb says, laughing. “I ordered it with my bonus points.”
When the book arrived, Barb liked what she saw. The program is structured so that children take home one or two poems a week, including classic nursery rhymes, simple and engaging poems, and poems that can be sung to familiar tunes. “You can never have too much poetry!” Barb proclaims. Families spend 10 minutes per night with the Fast Start routine: (1) Read to your child; (2) Read with your child (choral reading); (3) Listen to your child read to you. Family Pages are also part of the nightly routine — the pages direct them to play with words from the poems: locate rhyming words; “stretch” out a word; play Word Concentration, Go Fish, or Word Bingo; listen for long or short vowels; find compound words, and so on.
Barb shared the program with the other first-grade teachers, Concetta DiGeronimo, Carol Ianiro, and Mary Hartnett. The team agreed this program sounded like it would add the needed structure for parent involvement in children’s literacy development.
“When we introduce it at the beginning, we demonstrate in the classroom exactly what we expect children and parents to do at home,” Barb explains. The teachers put poems on a transparency, and every morning for the first week, the classes read the poems over and over, with the teachers modeling and explicitly discussing fluency. After the first week, parents receive a letter explaining the program, and then it belongs to them and their children.
On Mondays, each student takes home a poem or rhyme copied from Fast Start, along with the activities designed for the poem. This becomes their Monday through Thursday reading homework. At the beginning of the year, it takes students about 20 minutes to complete. As the year progresses, the time commitment is 10 to 15 minutes per evening.
The teachers tell parents that if it takes longer than that, they want to know. Above all, they want the nightly reading to be pleasurable for parent and child.
Each child has a three-ring binder poetry notebook where weekly poems are saved. In addition, the notebooks have sections for word sorts, jokes and riddles, vocabulary, and other miscellaneous reading activities. As a class, the students frequently take out their notebooks and reread the poems. Barb observes, “Often, when they have free time, they go back and reread their favorites.”
The teachers modified the reading log that comes with the program to better meet their specific needs. Parents use the log to check off activities their children complete. The activities might include working with words and letters, playing with sounds, or beginning to read. The form also includes a space for parents and students to list any other reading they have done. At the beginning of the year, the teachers check the reading log daily, not to assign a grade but rather to get information about which students might need additional teacher attention. As the year progresses, they check logs weekly.
Besides creating the customized reading log, the first-grade teachers have done a number of other things to make the program work well in their setting. For example, they have sequenced the poems and nursery rhymes to match the seasons and to get progressively more difficult as the year goes on.
The teachers also brought in the building’s teacher of gifted and talented, Rae Malenda. Rae provided a resource book to be used with accelerated readers, A.C.T. 1: Affective Cognitive Thinking: Thinking Strategies for the Gifted (Blymire, Brunner, Jones & Knauer, 1982). The teachers use most of the same poems and nursery rhymes with the accelerated readers, but take activities from Rae’s book that are more developmentally appropriate.
When the beginning readers are working on rhyming sounds, the accelerated readers may be brainstorming what they could do with a broken Humpty Dumpty, speculating why Mother Hubbard’s cupboard was bare, or discussing problems a cow might have in outer space.
The regular first-grade reading program at Lander Elementary is based on the five components of reading as identified by the National Reading Panel (2000): phonemic awareness, phonics, comprehension, vocabulary, and fluency. Every day, instruction deals with one of the components, not to the exclusion of the others, but to assure balance through focused instruction. “Fluency Friday,” for instance, always includes poems from past Fast Start work. Students do choral reading or Readers Theater for their own class or for other classes. Barb says, “The students really love it — especially Fluency Friday. It’s exciting to see children so enthused about reading. It’s very powerful.”
Evidence of Success
To measure the effectiveness of parental involvement through Fast Start, Barb gave her students the 3-Minute Reading Assessment (Rasinski & Padak, 2004) in January and again in May. In just four months, 17 of 19 students showed growth in word accuracy/decoding, with improvement as high as 25 percent. Eight students improved 10 percent or more. All but two students showed positive gains in fluency (expression and volume, phrasing, smoothness, and pace) as measured by a multidimensional fluency scale.
The four teachers also sent home a parent survey about Fast Start. Forty-three surveys were returned, a strong return rate of over 50 percent. The majority of parents reported that their children enjoy the nightly routine. About three of every four parents indicated that some of the poems were new and some were familiar to their child. Twenty-one percent said the poems were new to their child, a fact that might be explained in part by the high population of English language learners in the district. Most parents felt the activities matched their child’s reading growth. Parent comments included:
“I like this program. My older two boys did not have this. I like the structure and simplicity.”
“We have fun singing the poems out loud.”
“He slowly reads more and more with less of my help.”
“Some [of the poems] were challenging at first, but by end of the week, they became easier.”
Fluency has been and to some extent continues to be a neglected goal of the school reading curriculum (Allington, 1983; Rasinski & Zutell, 1996). Much emphasis is placed on comprehension, and that is good. However, unless students have some degree of reading fluency, comprehension strategy instruction may not have the desired impact on student reading performance and achievement (Willingham, 2006). Most parents are eager to help their young readers. Whether you use a commercial program such as Fast Start or design fluency homework of your own, the potential payoff is great.
- How do you explain the concept of fluency to your beginning readers and their parents?
- What poems do you currently use in class that could be targeted for nightly fluency practice?
- Role-play a conversation with a parent in which you explain your fluency homework program.
- List some of the literacy and non-literacy benefits of learning nursery rhymes.
- Many teachers claim that today’s children do not learn nursery rhymes as children once did. Do you agree? If so, how do you explain that change?
- How would you deal with a situation where the parent does not help his or her child with the nightly fluency practice, thus putting the child at a disadvantage?
This article is excerpted from The Fluent Reader in Action: PreK–4 by Timothy V. Rasinksi, Gay Fawcett, Kristin Lems, and Robert T. Ackland.