My educational work as a tutor brings me into contact with parents. These are parents with children who struggle, and literacy learning is a challenge. I am entrusted to intervene and re-chart their child’s literacy development. Parents also wonder about their role in intervening. What can they do to support their child’s literacy development?
Parents often express a concern that homework creates tension. They often ask me, “How can I help my child and still remain their mom or dad, and not be an adversary or drill instructor?”
They are looking for a simple solution to a complex problem. I suggest deliberate talk—slowing down the daily pace of life, creating a slice of life for honest conversation. Somewhere in my suggestion of talk is the unspoken idea that with talk there is a listener. I envision sitting down, face-to-face, peering at each other, and listening to each other’s thoughts. Car conversations alone won’t work. Yes, this may be pie in the sky, but lofty goals are worth striving toward. We all need a forum in which to express ourselves, tell stories, recount discoveries, ask questions, and think aloud.
How does talk connect with literacy development?
Literacy learning for some children is challenging because their schema for story structures is not fully developed, even kids who have been read to since birth, including my youngest. Other children struggle because they have a hard time recounting information, recalling important information, and providing specific details. Talk as homework meets children’s needs, developing literacy schema as well as letting parents still be parents and not enforcers.
The tried-and-true “Tell me about your day” does not always generate conversation. Parents report children mumble trite responses and turn away, and silence echoes throughout the house as their child moves on, escaping. I know the feeling; their children are my tutoring kids. These behaviors surface during initial tutoring sessions. I use wait time. My sons have learned to understand what I mean when I say, “I’m waiting”: I will patiently wait for a real response. This tool has taken years of experience and many challenging kids to develop. I try to nurture patient parents.
Parents do not have the time, training, or interaction with dozens of obstinate students. Realizing that questions are an easy, quick-fix solution, I make a few suggestions. These are questions children are familiar with, questions I routinely ask, and questions that help me understand the child.
“What went well today?” may be a question I overuse, but I want to focus on the positive aspects of a struggling child’s life. This question prompts children to dig deep, asking themselves, “What did go well?” Implied in that question is “Why did it go well?” and of course who was involved, where it happened, and why. I usually probe by asking these additional questions to continue the conversation. I truly want to learn about the child and his or her perception of each day. My questions build an internal frame for children to include information that helps a listener understand.
Another question is “What did you see or hear today that grabbed your attention?” Again the child has to think back, scanning the events of their day. “Hmm, what did I see/hear? What did grab my attention? Where was I? Why did it grab my attention? How do I slice this up to tell the story?” Here are some more questions to use as “homework” to spark conversations between children and parents:
- What challenged you today? How did you react to today’s challenges?
- What put a smile on your face?
- What would you change about your day?
- How was today like any other day?
- What made today different from a typical day?
- How did you help someone today?
- What song would help you describe your day?
Coaching parents to support their child’s storytelling changes the demeanor of homework relationships. Helping parents understand the importance of details and sequence is important in helping them scaffold their child’s mental framework for recounting. It seems simple, but it is effective if parents listen and are patient.
So, ask yourself about the purpose of your homework. Talk is a first step. Without a solid foundation in talk, writing a thoughtful retelling that reflects a child’s understanding of a text is hard. Why not make homework a social activity that kids want to do and parents won’t dread?