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  • Writer's pictureJulia Brady

Backseat Learners

Can my child be kicked out of his advanced reading class based on declining test scores? That’s a thought that entered my mind as I reviewed recent standardized test results the other day, showing a modest decline in reading scores two semesters in a row. While I was raised by a mother who paved the way for future Tiger Moms, I like to think of myself as less fixated on grades and other external measures of achievement. Except that my son’s declining scores mirror his indifference to reading, as opposed to his great interest in his iPhone.

According to a November article in Education Week the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test measuring reading proficiency among 4th and 8th graders, “Reading scores in both grades declined significantly across states, races, and income levels, in public and private schools.” Suspicion is cast on screen time as use of devices has grown in and out of the classroom. Yes, greater competition with screen time is a new reality, but like other distractions, it can be countered with some effort and creativity. As a parent, I could point my finger at the intrusive iPad, or explore what I could do to help my child find learning more enjoyable.

My younger son’s journey to reading was not a smooth one. He’s a very perceptive child, makes friends easily and could grasp challenging concepts at an early age. However, reading did not come naturally to him, and as the younger sibling he did not get the amount of 1:1 reading time with mom and dad that his older brother had. Not to mention his brother John dove headfirst into reading, seeing it as a puzzle to be solved. At age four my oldest would spend our commutes to the onsite daycare at my work asking what street sign we had just passed, and then how to spell it. It wasn’t long before he was sounding out words and became a fluent reader by Kindergarten.

When Will started first grade, he still had a far greater interest in numbers than books. We worked with him on his early readers and read him chapter books that would capture his attention. According to the literacy company Listenwise, “Research shows that if you are not a good listener, you won’t be a good reader.” The website cites studies correlating listening instruction to increases in reading fluency and comprehension. Listenwise Founder and CEO Monica Brady-Myerov spent a career in public radio prior to founding her educational start-up. What initially started as an interest in creating a future full of public radio listeners, the link between reading and literacy was undeniable.

Monica’s recognition of the role listening plays in literacy began when her daughter Samantha struggled to read. By third grade she was not meeting proficiency standards and there was no clear diagnosis. Monica said, “It helped me understand that so many factors go into reading. I started to connect that she understood what she heard on the radio as we always listened to NPR in the car, and she got the concepts in the stories.” Monica first piloted Listenwise in Samantha’s classroom, bringing in radio news stories and testing the assumption that more kids than just her daughter could benefit from auditory learning. “They can get more content and background knowledge through listening. And reading proficiency is foundational to success in nearly any subject,” says Monica. “You read a math problem wrong, you’ll get the answer wrong.”

For Will, his early reading struggles vanished by third grade when he tested into the advanced language arts class. With this accomplishment came a great deal more homework, something he was not thrilled about. Before long, Will was slipping behind in classwork, and his dad and I struggled to keep from going into all-out nag mode. We tried different homework tracking tools and more structure to the day, but homework time continued to be a battle.

Until I found Charlie. Increasingly concerned about Will’s homework habits, I considered a tutor but realized it was motivation, not ability, that was holding him back. I thought of successful professionals in need of performance help who turn to executive coaches or mentors and decided to find the equivalent for Will. I advertised on Nextdoor for a middle school boy with an interest in sports, school and service and quickly heard from a handful of earnest parents.

It was Charlie’s mom I followed up with first, and the fit could not have been more perfect. Positioning this to Will wasn’t too difficult as I had found a “homework helper” with similar interests and shared experiences. The boys met twice a week for an hour at the library after school, and in addition to a money earning opportunity for Will’s 8th grade helper, Charlie’s learning valuable mentoring skills. With Charlie now in high school the boys’ time together is more limited, but their fondness for one another is genuine, and Will’s study habits have undoubtedly improved.

While my son still prefers listening to books than to reading them, it’s a preference I have come to understand. And with every book we read together there are new plots to discuss, characters to dissect and adventures to go on. Together.

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