Magic Beans for Families Raising Readers To Do Well in School

I thought this was an ed tech blog, what’s up?

While technology is my main gig right now, being a teacher is in my blood–and I’m a dedicated parent. While this post is a bit out of the ordinary for my blog, I felt I needed to write it as a teacher and a mom of 2 young boys…
What if someone gave you a handful of magic bean to help you grow your child’s success in school and later life by increasing their ability to read? I say ‘magic’ because magic is associated with getting something you want without a lot of work. What if those ‘magic beans’ were actions that didn’t require advanced degrees or intense efforts? What if they were backed by research that showed they were effective across the world? Would you do them? Would any loving parent/guardian commit to them? I think so. I found out about them via two articles on how to do just that:

  • T. Friedman’s NY Times piece, “How about better parents?” discussing the results of the 2009 PISA report, “PISA 2009 Results: Overcoming Social Background: Equity in Learning and Outcomes (Vol. II)”.
  • and

  • The easy to digest overview of the PISA test findings in “What can parents do to help their children succeed in school?”.


  • What is PISA?

    PISA is an organization that tests students (age 15) globally and ranks countries on their performance. PISA has been doing this since 2000, but in their 2009 testing PISA also collected data from the students’ parents/guardians regarding what they did with their children at home. When PISA looked into parent/guardian activities and student achievement, they found that regardless of how much money or social status a student’s family had, students scored better in reading if parents/guardians were doing a few key simple things.

    What Counts Most In the First & Early School Years?

    PISA research determined the trifecta for student reading achievement to be:

  • Reading with children in the first year of school–regularly and often
  • Talking with children about what they did in their day
  • Telling stories to children
  • Not having an advanced degree, doing handstands, or spending hours tutoring–plain old reading, talking and telling stories. Sounds simple, no?

    One of the most important activities that parents/guardians could do with their children that made the most impact on their later achievement was when parents/guardians read to children in their first year of primary school–regularly and often. On average, simply reading regularly to a child during that first year in school made ‘well over’ 1/2 year’s difference in achievement (on average 25 points different on PISA test). [I would hazard a guess that families didn’t suddenly start reading often and regularly in that first year–but likely would have been doing it for some time.] Now people might say, rich and educated people would be the ones to really benefit from that, but when compared in similar socio-economic brackets, parents/guardians reading to students regularly and often in the first year of school accounted for a 14 point difference in PISA test scores when the students were 15! When that was combined with talking to children and discussing their day with them, as well as telling stories with them, the impact was amplified.

    What Counts Most in the Teen Years?
    The research said that when parents/guardians did these 5 things with their children, they made a significant impact on their reading test scores:

  • Discussing social or political issues regularly
  • Discussing books, movies or TV programs
  • Discussing how well children are doing at school
  • Eating meals together
  • Spending time just talking together
  • Of these, PISA found the activity with the greatest impact was when parents/guardians discussed social or political issues with their children weekly or daily. In these families, students scored 28 points higher on average–well over 1/2 year’s worth of achievement.


    What Can You Do About It?
    Here are a few ideas I can think of…
    Get to the Kids Before Official School Starts:

  • Work with local preschools, daycares, playgroups, community centres, etc to send out flyers encouraging reading–giving book suggestions, etc. Flyer might even have a full story on it.
  • Create postcards with storytelling games and prompts.
  • Over the summer, a school could create a package–activites or ideas for preschool/daycare/community support programs to hand out weekly or bi-weekly. They could also be posted on website.
  • Early School Years:

  • At beginning of each year, school administration & teachers should make a statement introducing their plan for encouraging parent/guardian support through simple, low impact means. For example, something like, “This year/semester, you’ll be receiving prompts and activities that you can do with your children at home. These types of simple activities have been proven to improve reading–even in high school–and improve their test scores–and have been shown to work around the world. Look for them in ….[name deliver means]”
  • Encourage every teacher to send home an “Ask your child about…” with a list of 3 things or more regularly (weekly–at beginning of week). It could be things students are doing in class, something good they did that day, etc. Determine if technology is appropriate for disseminating this type of information or whether it will reinforce socio-economic stratification.
  • Encourage teachers to regularly send prompts for storytelling–biographical, fictional–home for famiiles. Teacher can prepare the students to “Ask your parent/guardian about…” and have each student share one interesting detail the following day.
  • Where students do not have a reliable adult presence at home, think of starting a ‘breakfast club” or ‘snack club’ where a teacher or volunteer cleared by the school offers to do these things with students over some food at regularly scheduled times.
  • Teen Years:

  • At beginning of each year, school administration & teachers should make a statement introducing their plan for encouraging parent/guardian support through simple, low impact means. For example, something like, “This year/semester, you’ll be receiving prompts and activities that you can do with your children at home. These types of simple activities have been proven to improve reading–even in high school–and improve their test scores–and have been shown to work around the world. Look for them in ….[name deliver means]”
  • Teachers can send home prompts re. social or political discussions related to materials students are reading. Reading “Romeo and Juliet”? Why not have students ask their parents/guardians, “Do you know any families that ever feuded? Why do you think that happens?
  • Survey the student body re. movies, books, and films that are popular. Provide some critical thinking questions that parents/guardians could ask kids–without having to really know the item. For example, “I heard “Twilight” was about vampires. Is it just about vampires killing people”?Or, “I saw a promo for Glee, do the students in that show act like real high school kids?” Or, “Do you think I would like that book you read? Why/why not?”
  • Suggest families ask students, “What was the best thing that happened to you at school today?What made it good?” and “What was your biggest challenge at school today? Why do you think that was?
  • Send home an “Eating Together” commitment sheet. Ask families to commit as best as possible to eat at least 3 meals a week together (pick your number). Provide some type of tally or recording sheet.
  • Where students do not have a reliable adult presence at home, think of starting a ‘breakfast club” or ‘snack club’ where a teacher or volunteer cleared by the school offers to do these things with students over some food at regularly scheduled times.
  • What other things are you doing–or could do–to encourage families to plant a few magic reading beans of their own?

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