Top 12 Family-Friendly, Evidence-Based Reading Strategies

Want to Boost Literacy? Try These 12 Evidence-Based Reading Strategies For Families

Discover evidence-based reading strategies made accessible for families by reading our blog post.

By Maren Madalyn, contributing writer

When you hear the phrase ‘effective strategies for student reading’ — what’s the first image that pops into your head?

Perhaps you picture story time with kids piled onto the class carpet in an elementary school classroom, followed by individual silent reading time. Maybe you envision an MTSS interventionist providing direct instruction to a small group of children, using flashcards to help them practice sounding out letter combinations. You may also imagine something more casual, like a family gathered on the couch to read a book together after mealtime.

Now think of evidence-based reading strategies. Does your mental image change at all? 

For some educators, terms like “evidence-based” can be confusing. What exactly is the difference between ‘evidence-based instruction’ and ‘research-based practices’? Where do ‘science-based strategies’ come into play? Are these descriptors interchangeable? Into which categories must effective reading instruction fall?

Each term is important to understand as each offers different implications for building foundational skills in reading for individual students as well as entire classrooms. 

Let’s unpack the meaning of these terms and explore why evidence-based programs like ParentPowered set up students for literacy success through family engagement.

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What are evidence-based reading strategies? How do they differ from research-based or science-based ones?

According to the Dyslexia Institute, educators can categorize literacy instructional practices like the ones cited above as follows:

  • Science-based reading strategies mean that parts of a program or instructional practice are based in science.
  • Research-based reading strategies indicate that parts of a program or instructional practice are based on practices demonstrated as effective through research.
  • Evidence-based reading strategies refer to entire programs or instructional methodologies demonstrated through research as effective for student learning.

This last categorization involves rigorous, empirical assessment of a programs’ effects on students and their reading achievement. While empirical studies are the gold standard for research on effective classroom instruction, they can be expensive and time-consuming to implement. Therefore it isn’t uncommon to see various literacy programs or interventions instead blend practices that fall into the first two buckets.

Yet, as the Dyslexia Institute explains, “Evidence-based is PREFERRED over research-based.” 

And when it comes to literacy, this matters. Science- and research-based strategies vary in effectiveness to help students learn how to read. Evidence-based reading strategies are those that have been tested with both intervention and control groups for their effects on students.

So, what do evidence-based, effective interventions and practices look like for student literacy? Before we can answer this question, we need to understand what research says about literacy development more broadly.

What research says about reading development

In 2000, the National Reading Panel published a pivotal summary of empirical studies across linguistics, neuroscience, cognitive science, education, and psychology. The authors distilled insights from this swathe of scientific literature on reading into five major components. Each of the following ultimately form the basis of literacy development:

  1. Phonological awareness
  2. Phonics
  3. Fluency
  4. Vocabulary
  5. Comprehension

What’s important to understand about this body of knowledge (also known as the science of reading) is that all of these components interact with one another in complex ways that result in the ability to read. Therefore, it’s important for schools to help students build skills across all of them, not just focusing on any one of them.

What’s important to understand about this body of knowledge (also known as the science of reading) is that all of these components interact with one another in complex ways that result in the ability to read. Therefore, it’s important for schools to help students build skills across all of them, not just focusing on any one of them.

For more information about what empirical research tells us about literacy, read this article unpacking the latest reading research insights

For the most part, many evidence-based reading strategies focus on a teacher working in the classroom setting with students — which is great and important for a student’s literacy journey. Evidence-based instruction is extremely helpful for teaching reading. Educators want to use the latest and greatest understandings from research to ensure every child has a chance to become a strong reader, from students with dyslexia to multilingual students or English language learners who are new to the U.S. 

But classroom-based strategies do not paint the full picture of how kids can learn how to read. In fact, one of the best methods for reading development might not even happen in a school building! 

If you’re at all familiar with ParentPowered, you’ve probably guessed which strategy I’m talking about… 

Why families matter in literacy

Parents, aunts and uncles, siblings, caregivers of all kinds are fantastic allies to educators when it comes to cultivating students’ foundational reading skills. In fact, when families are active partners with schools in student learning, the entire school community benefits.

Family engagement unlocks improvements in academic achievement beyond literacy, including gains in math and reading test scores. Family-school partnerships also bring benefits like higher attendance rates, improved teacher satisfaction, and better mental wellbeing for kids and adults. Educators can embrace the impact and the importance of family engagement in education to improve student literacy.

The good news is that families don’t need a master’s degree in education to apply elements of evidence-based reading strategies right at home, either. They just need ParentPowered!

One thing to remember is that ParentPowered is both a research- and evidence-based family engagement program. As we explored earlier, this distinction is important!

The evidence-based approach behind ParentPowered has been empirically shown to increase family engagement with their children’s learning and improve child learning by 2 to 3 months over the course of a school year. Further, ParentPowered programs and educational resources are steeped in the latest research on family engagement for children as young as birth and (coming soon!) up to students in grades 9-12.

Let’s take a closer look!

Learn more about ParentPowered's high school family engagement curriculum!

Phonological awareness strategies

From the moment children are born, they are already learning foundational skills that contribute to reading success later in their lives. One of the early reading skills that kids build involves recognizing and using sounds in oral language — also known as phonological awareness.

Because spoken language is tightly connected with reading capability, phonological awareness is important for the littlest learners to practice often. Phonological awareness is also a crucial skill for students with dyslexia, who benefit from multisensory teaching strategies to bolster this capability (Narimani et al, 2015). For bilingual students or students learning another language, they also tend to be more successful if they have higher phonological awareness of sounds in BOTH languages.

Families are well positioned to help students build their phonological awareness. Here are a couple of our favorite ParentPowered tips for caregivers of young children and students in grade 1: 

  • Infant (Age 0-1): Babies LOVE socializing with you! You can help them practice early language skills by imitating the sounds they make. This is a great activity after feeding time. 
  • PreK: Practice rhyming with your child as you help them get dressed each day. Rhyming helps kids hear sounds in words and discover how words can share the same endings.
  • Early Elementary (Grade 1): Playing with letters and sounds in words helps kids understand how words work. Try word play during mealtime. Ask your child, “What if you replaced the B in ‘bake’ with T? Or L?” How many new words can they make?

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Phonics strategies

Phonics builds on the foundations laid by phonological awareness (and a subsection of that skill called phonemic awareness). It’s all about learning the relationships between written letters and the sounds they make when spoken aloud. 

When kids learn to speak a language, they seem to do so naturally, even indirectly — absorbing sounds and words from the world around them. However, scientific literature on reading shows time and again that children build literacy skills differently. Educators teaching reading skills to children make the biggest impact when they apply explicit and systematic instruction.

This is especially true for phonics. Children must be taught the relationship between phonemes (sounds of spoken language) and graphemes (written letters and spellings that make those sounds), rather than be expected to learn them on their own (Ehri, 2020). 

There are multiple examples of such direct, systematic, and explicit instruction, like the Orton-Gillingham method. Typically educators use them to support students with dyslexia or who otherwise struggle to read. However, similar evidence-based interventions have been shown to positively impact student reading performance even for children without specific diagnoses.

While many educators may associate phonics specifically with the science of reading, it’s important to remember that all five components of literacy are critical for students to practice. Phonics instruction alone does not guarantee a stronger reader!

Take a look at these easy-to-do family phonics activities for young children — both of which are anchored in evidence-based reading strategies:

  • PreK: Children learn to recognize words they see every day — even before they begin reading. While running errands, you can point out common words, like ‘STOP’ on a stop sign. Try helping your child name each letter and say the sounds (S-T-O-P).
  • Early Elementary (Grade 1): Kids often spell new words based on how they sound. It’s ok if they don’t spell them correctly all the time — they’re still building their learning! As your child gets dressed, try asking, “How do you think you spell the word ‘pants’?” Help them practice sounding out the word as they say each letter.

Fluency & decoding strategies

As students blend their reading background knowledge and skills, they learn how to decode — breaking down unfamiliar words into their recognizable letter combinations. Ideally, students get faster with decoding as they use and are exposed to more new words. This skillset is called fluency in reading.

When readers are able to smoothly and quickly decode, it allows their brains to concentrate on the meaning of words and the overall sentence, paragraph, or book. Fluency can greatly affect students in grades 6 through 12, as school work during adolescence often requires reading challenging materials independently. For students who struggle with reading fluency, they may face additional challenges such as impaired executive function (Cutting et al, 2009).

Parents and caregivers can support students with improving their fluency skills in concert with kids’ growing vocabulary (more on this in a moment). Try offering these activities to families of elementary-aged students or pre-teens to build these foundational reading skills:

Your Voice Makes A Story Special! | ParentPowered Workshops
  • Kindergarten: It’s great fun to give your child a chance to show off their growing literacy skills! At home, you can ask your child to hunt for words they recognize. When they find one, invite them to say it aloud — and give lots of high-fives!
  • Early Elementary (Grade 1): While your child is reading, it’s helpful to ask them to pause and check that what they just read makes sense. As you listen to your child read out loud, when they read a word incorrectly, you can say, “Hmm, let’s check. Did that make sense?” You can also help them sound out the word again until it DOES make sense!
  • Middle School (Grade 6-8): Have your adolescent read their writing aloud to you. This helps them catch hard-to-spot mistakes and hear how their writing flows as a whole. There’s no need to comment, either! Simply ask afterward, “Did you notice anything to edit?”

Vocabulary development strategies

As alluded to earlier, children are constantly learning new words. Between ages 4 and 6 alone, kids acquire an average of 70 new words (and their meanings) per month! This growth contributes not only to reading abilities but also to oral and broader linguistic comprehension.

Many classroom practices in early childhood programs and elementary schools focus on word exposure. Instructors teaching reading may use activities like reading books out loud to the class or independent silent reading. 

But the learning doesn’t stop once students finish elementary school or even high school. In fact, a person continues to build their vocabulary — the words they know and accurately use in communication — well into their mid-60s and beyond (Kavé, 2022). 

Strong vocabulary development unlocks amazing opportunities and is essential for older students preparing to enter the postsecondary world. Whether it’s applying to colleges or career planning for high school students, the more nimbly teens can wield more words, the better positioned they are. 

“Observe” with the Big Fancy Word Lady | ParentPowered Workshops

Here again, empirical literature on reading shows that the most effective strategies to expand younger students’ word acquisition involve direct instruction (Biemiller, 2011). Below are some of our favorite ways for families with students in kindergarten or elementary school to support their expanding word knowledge:

  • PreK & Kindergarten: Pick out a new word to use each day, such as a word to describe your child’s shirt like “colorful.” Encourage them to hunt for other things that are “colorful” and practice using this new word!
  • Early Elementary (Grade 1): The more exposure kids have to real-world examples of new words, the better those words stick in their minds. Before bedtime, try introducing your child to a new word, such as “cozy.” Ask them to show you a cozy place in their room or in pictures from books!
  • Late Elementary (Grade 5): When a suffix is added at the end of a word, it changes the word’s meaning. During mealtime, you can take turns with your child and family members coming up with words that end in -FUL (such as ‘helpful’, ‘delightful’, etc). Can everyone use one -FUL word before the end of the meal?

Comprehension strategies

Students learn to understand written words for meaning and context, just as they do with spoken language. In this way, reading comprehension is a crescendo of sorts that leans on all the foundational reading skills we’ve explored thus far. 

Better fluency means a student concentrates less on recognizing and pronouncing words correctly and more on their meaning. Phonological awareness and phonics both contribute to better decoding skills in reading which impacts fluency. A wider vocabulary means students can access and recognize more words, which help refine their understanding of a text. The more students learn or read about a subject, the more their background knowledge grows, and the deeper they can explore new texts on similar topics, boosting their comprehension.

Here again, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to teaching students how to extract the meaning of content they read. Rather, the most successful readers often apply multiple comprehension strategies while reading to understand information (Gilakjani, 2016). 

Young Latin American granddaughter sharing a chair with her grandmother and looking at a picture book together.

Families can tap into evidence-based reading strategies that build comprehension without extra tools or background knowledge about literacy development. Reading skill development can happen anytime, anywhere!

Below are a few of our favorite ParentPowered activities perfect for caregivers to help students build comprehension skills:

  • Toddler (Age 1-2): Did you know that games are not only great fun for toddlers, but also build their listening and comprehension skills? You can play a silly directions game with them before bedtime — such as asking, “Can you tickle teddy bear’s ears?” or “Can you wiggle his foot?” 
  • Late Elementary (Grade 4-5): As kids read longer books with more detail, you can ask them questions that help them check their own understanding of the texts. You can try questions like “What are you reading right now?” and “Tell me about the story so far.” Bedtime is a great opportunity for this Q&A!
  • High School (Grade 9-12): Teens often have what they need to solve a problem, like deciphering a complicated text. You can support their problem-solving skills by helping them think through a solution. When your teen approaches you with a problem, listen to their share. Then repeat back what you heard and ask, “Did I get it right?” Then follow up with guiding questions.

Give families fun, evidence-based reading strategies through ParentPowered

This list is just a fraction of the many opportunities available to both educators and caregivers to cultivate foundational skills for successful reading (and writing too)! 

Unfortunately, even in this digital era, few family engagement platforms provide families with literacy activities that:

  • Are doable for busy families;
  • Stem from research-based practices;
  • Have empirical evidence of effectively boosting student literacy;
  • And “grow up” alongside students (even into adolescence).

Well, there is one such program!

Join an upcoming info session to discover how ParentPowered ignites student literacy, from birth through high school.

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About the author

Maren Madalyn has worked at the intersection of K12 education and technology for over a decade, serving in roles ranging from counseling to customer success to product management. She blends this expertise with fluid writing and strategic problem-solving to help education organizations create thoughtful long-form content that empowers educators.

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