Building bridges between home and school: empowering parents and improving readingFebruary 2016
Fulbright Scholar and Northcote College teacher DAVID TAYLOR’s research in New Zealand and the United States found that initiatives to encourage better parental involvement in students’ reading not only resulted in improved reading habits, but also had significant additional benefits.
There is a substantial body of research that explores this idea and the concept is summed up well by Professor Viviane Robinson (2011) of The University of Auckland when she says, “Although the worlds of school and home may differ greatly, students will thrive if there are enough bridges between them to make the crossing a walk into familiar rather than foreign territory”. In Aotearoa New Zealand we have experienced a time of rapid change in education and for many families the education system may be a very unfamiliar place, compared with what they experienced themselves. By explicitly helping parents to become involved in the education process, schools now have the opportunity to build some of those bridges that students need.
Bespoke, collaborative and sustained
With this in mind we ran an intervention focused on improving recreational reading habits for a group of year 9 students in a decile 7 Auckland secondary school.
The theoretical model being tested was that parental involvement initiatives need to be bespoke, collaborative and sustained. They must be bespoke because every family is different, with different time demands, resources, educational experience and relationships. This means that what will work in one family cannot be relied on to work for another. As such, it is important to provide a range of different strategies for parents to try and work with them to choose one suitable to their particular circumstances.
This is why collaboration is important: schools and teachers need to work alongside the parents in a properly collaborative fashion to help families choose strategies that have a realistic chance of making a difference in their circumstances.
Finally, the intervention must be sustained. It might just be an email, a phone call or a text message every few weeks but ongoing support is crucial if families are to successfully integrate new routines into their lives and maintain motivation during challenging times.
The New Zealand findings
In the Auckland iteration, families undertook a diverse range of strategies to try and promote recreational reading. These included set reading times, family discussion times, reading in a second language of the household, and using online catalogues to find suitable books. There was a high degree of success for families in reaching the goals they set for themselves and there were other significant outcomes as well. Families reported improved relationships between caregivers and teenagers as a result of their reading focus and there were positive benefits recorded for siblings who were not directly part of the intervention. From an administration point of view, although there was some effort required to set up the intervention in the first instance, once it was established it took very little time to keep it running – an important consideration for any new school initiative.
The US findings
In the US context the work has focused on two families with struggling readers. The students both attended the same large secondary school situated in a small Midwestern town. This provided an opportunity to see how the intervention might work for reluctant, struggling readers. Both cases showed positive results in relation to increasing the amount of recreational reading being done and in one case this was accompanied by a sharp increase in the student’s reading level.
Although helping reluctant readers to read more is challenging, it is clear that a teacher’s chances of trying to achieve this are greatly improved if parents are participating and if there is regular contact between teacher and parent.
There are no magic solutions in education but the results from the research in these two different contexts suggest that whatever a school’s goals – reading, maths, interpersonal skills, healthy living – having parents as active participants in trying to achieve those goals will greatly enhance the chance of success. A further advantage of this approach is that it is inexpensive and, once established, requires minimal resourcing, which makes it realistic for all schools, regardless of circumstances, to seriously consider.
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