No silver bullets in education – but Reading Together is close!

A time-tested programme of working with parents to stimulate their kids’ reading has teachers The Read has contacted being enthusiastic to the point of being evangelical.

So what makes Reading Together (it has a trademark) so special? It is a programme of only four workshops of an hour and a quarter each; the first three run weekly with a break before the fourth workshop is held in the seventh week. One of the sessions is usually held in the local community library.

The workshops are facilitated by a school for groups of up to 15 parents. While most schools run the workshops out of school hours, some run the sessions during school time, fitting in with parents dropping off or collecting children.


IMAGE: Family reading together on the Reading Together programme.

Liz Horgan, principal of St Joseph’s Primary in Otahuhu, whose pupils are 90 per cent Pacifica, attends each Reading Together programme which is taken by the school’s deputy and assistant principals; this she found has given the programme significance in the eyes of parents.

Often pupils are very good 'decoders' of print, but lack understanding and comprehension skills, one of the issues  Reading Together tries to address. Encouraging parents to discuss the story and pictures helps with understanding. St Joseph’s students often come from homes where reading is not an established part of family life.

In the first session with parents, teachers ‘act out’ the behaviours of kids, and then the not-so-helpful responses of parents, so the atmosphere is non-threatening and fun right from the start.

Teachers explain in a clear way how difficult reading can be for some children, and give easy ideas and tips which parents can use to help new readers.

For the second meeting, the children join their parents, and working together they try the new techniques. By this time, says Liz, parents are also discussing among themselves what works for them and what doesn’t.

She quoted the summation of her colleague Laurie Thew, principal of Manurewa Central Primary on Reading Together: “There are no silver bullets in education but this comes very close.”


IMAGE: Reading Together out loud.

Community librarians are also enthusiastic. Kay Hall of the Rotorua District Library says “Whenever we are invited, we go,” of schools in their area running the Reading Programme. In fact, a librarian goes to the first and the final sessions, and often attends for the whole four sessions. “The programme is very, very good and we thoroughly support it.

“We’ve observed how it improves not only the children involved, but with the dynamics of the whole family – the effect on the parents is empowering,” Kay notes.

The Reading Together Programme was developed by Jeanne Biddulph following her PhD research in the early eighties. It has been used with amazing success ever since. Now the Ministry of Education is rolling it out through all decile 1-3 schools in the country. Teachers praise the way it turns negatives into positives for the parents involved.

Manurewa Central Primary’s Laurie Thew is another evangelist for Reading Together. “We’ve found it outstanding. It not only helps with reading, but this intervention also improves the rest of a child’s schooling. The relationships between homes and school improve, and parents are grateful for the support.”


IMAGE: More happy readers.

How effective is Reading Together?
The Ministry of Education’s John Good, National Manager of the Reading Together Project, says they see a one year acceleration of reading skills in children over just seven weeks. What’s more, that rubs off on to other siblings in the family who also make gains in literacy and in other learning areas.

Manurewa Central videoed interviews with some of the parents who have done the Reading Together course at the school. “It took the worry out (of homework) and made it fun,” said one parent.

“I’m more educated, have skills including listening skills and more patience and it is exciting for me now to help the kids,” one mother says. “It has brought us closer together, and using the cues provided in the programme prevents me getting stressed!”

A grandmother talked of her grandchild’s delight at being taken to the library. “He asks to go there all the time now. I found the library scary, but I’m really getting in there and looking at books for myself while he chooses his.”

“Books have now become part of our home,” says another mother. “We went to the program because of our boys, but their older sister had always had difficulty reading. Then, after seeing us working with the boys, she one day picked up James and the Giant Peach and started to read it aloud!”

One thing that comes up repeatedly is how empowered parents feel, that they are secure in the feeling they are not expected to teach, but to encourage reading, learning and fun.

Ask Laurie Thew if there’s a downside to using the programme, and he can find only one: three teachers take the programme, and for them it is long work days for the nights they run Reading Together. Laurie is always one of the teachers involved.
The upside: “We see instant changes – over and above what you would usually expect. We do it because it works.”

Laurie also makes sure everyone of importance who crosses his path knows about Reading Together. Labour front bench MP Nanaia Mahuta called on Manurewa Central last week, and it is certain she left with a copy of the video showing parent’s reactions!

How booksellers can support Reading Together
Booksellers, you can support Reading Together initiatives in your community by listening to the needs and wants of parents, and matching topics the kids are interested in with books that will hold their attention.

Sheila Sinclair, owner of The Children’s Bookshop in Christchurch and Auckland’s Dorothy Butler Children’s Bookshop says there are lots of books for beginners that will hold the interest of newly fledged readers.

“There’s plenty to whet their appetite for reading books for pleasure. It used to be awfully ‘pink’ in that area, but now there is much more for boys, like Zac Power (24 hours to save the world... and tidy his room). As a bookseller, it is lovely to work with parents to choose books their children will enjoy reading.”

Article written by Jillian Ewart, writer for The Read.