Parents: Your Kids Can’t Read. It’s Time to Get Angry—and Act

In her Peabody award-nominated podcast Sold a Story, journalist Emily Hanford documents the stories of children struggling with literacy. In one example, Charlie’s mother sits with him during virtual school and is surprised to learn that he can’t read. The reason? His school’s use of disproven teaching methods that encourage kids to use tactics like looking at pictures to guess at words rather than learning to sound them out.

The shocking truth is that there may be as many as 2.5 million Charlies out there struggling to read in fourth grade alone. And it’s likely that most of those children’s parents have no idea.

For every three American parents who think their child is on track with reading before high school, two of those parents are probably wrong. In Chicago, 91 percent of parents think their kids read at grade level, but just 22 percent actually do. In Washington, DC, 83 percent of parents think their child is on track, while only 31 percent of students read on grade level. In Boston, it’s 85 percent of parents, compared to 30 percent of kids.

When it comes to ensuring children learn how to read, parents can’t act quickly enough. Students who are unable to read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school. And disruptions to learning brought on by the pandemic have caused even more students to fall behind than before.

This is our moment to ensure every child in this country knows how to read so they can reach their full potential.

The good news is that educators, researchers, and advocates have been working for decades to promote instruction grounded in what is known as “science of reading”—the evidence behind how the brain learns to read. The problem is that too few parents understand their child needs help, and too few school systems are using curriculum based on the science of reading.


But parents can do something about this. First and foremost, talk to your child’s teacher and take steps to better understand your child’s reading level. The Go Beyond Grades parent guide from Learning Heroes offers questions to help parents find information beyond a child’s report card, along with tips for supporting good reading habits at home.

If a child needs immediate help, there are free resources in English and Spanish and lists of summer programs based on where you live. You can also ask whether your child’s school is using evidence-based literacy instruction.

This might be intimidating for some parents, but a new documentary produced by LeVar Burton, “The Right to Read”, shows how families and educators are working to improve how reading is taught, with that very question at the center. The film helps parents understand whether a school is teaching literacy based on the science of reading, and what to do if it’s not.

With the right information in hand, parents can partner with educators and influence school board members and district and state leaders, all of whom have roles to play in improving reading instruction on a larger scale. Teaching materials grounded in the science of reading are widely available, and examples of this work being done across the country prove that it’s possible. States like Mississippi, which adopted policies promoting evidence-based reading instruction the earliest, are leading the nation in recovering COVID-related learning loss and advancing student literacy.

There is nothing more natural than the instinct to act when our kids need help. The problem is that, too often, we don’t know what we don’t know.

Illiteracy is a prison too many American kids live in. The time to change that is now.

Jocelyn Pickford is a senior advisor to Learning Heroes and author of the Curriculum A-B-C blog for the Collaborative for Student Success.

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