In this article, Kevin Feldman, Ed.D., addresses the question: How can parents help their older kids who struggle with reading improve literacy skills?

As a parent of a 12-year-old who’s behaving very much like a teenager, I can personally relate. I started my teaching career working with junior high school kids who had emotional and behavioral reading difficulties. Parents can help in all kinds of ways.

I think one fundamental way that parents help is by being vigilant in their encouragement. We’re the ones who really hold out that vision for kids of a future that is different from today. Young people really live moment by moment; the weekend is just about as far into the future as they can project themselves. We, as parents, have to have this long-term picture in mind. So one area is to just really be encouraging all the time.

Now, specifically about literacy, I think one of the ways that we can be encouraging is to really work hard at finding age-appropriate, but also level-appropriate, books and materials that our kids can read. The good news here is there are more and more materials being published all the time for older kids, meaning fourth grade and above, who have literacy challenges. So there are a number of publishers, Scholastic, Don Johnston, National Geographic, a number of folks were putting out both expository or informational material — stuff about volcanoes, skateboarding, skiing, as well as storybooks or narratives, novels that are very appropriate for young people.

I think one of the things we have to be sensitive to, as parents, is that reading grade-level material can be enormously frustrating. And while we have to work with our young people in regard to their academic assignments, we also have to be clear that they have to practice [reading by using] materials that they can actually read pretty well. That’s how we get better at anything.

Parents also need to maintain active involvement with schools. Now that’s an obvious one, but sometimes our tendency is to be either too trusting or too adversarial. And I’m really recommending sort of a middle ground, where we’re informed and really advocates for our kids, but we’re not approaching it from an adversarial point of view. And where we assume that we all want what is best for kids. But we also really follow up and make sure that the reading class has those age-appropriate reading materials and actual research-based curriculum materials for direct instruction in place.

To sum up, the main thing that parents can do is really twofold: First is to be active, encouraging, and involved. The second thing is [building] that real partnership with the schools to make sure that our kids are getting what they need.

What about technology in that respect? Is there any role that it can play for parents who are helping their kids improve reading?

I’m sort of a reluctant convert to the potential of technology, being inherently skeptical, and understanding that we live in a culture that is often seduced by the new. If it’s new, [we think] it has to be better. Given that, I think that there are a lot of things that technology can do.

Certainly there’s some wonderful assistive technology. And websites like CAST, specialize as a clearinghouse for assistive technology in conjunction with Harvard University, which links to all kinds of other excellent assistive technology out there that can help kids. For example, what they call e-readers. When they do research on the Internet with an e-reader, they can have any website, the text or material, actually read out loud to them using an e-reader. And there are similar sorts of things that are relatively inexpensive and are pretty useful and effective.

There’s also a burgeoning [educational] software market. So there are not only books on tape, but books on CD-ROM’s with additional textual and graphic information. There are actual reading programs that have CD-ROM support. Now, there’s also a lot of stuff out there promising the moon that could be very expensive and that doesn’t necessarily have strong, empirical evidence [of effectiveness] behind it. So I’m always skeptical about these things; if they promise the moon and they cost a lot, watch out.