Programs, policies for improving reading skills

August 07, 1998|By Edward M. Kennedy

READING is fundamental to learning in all subjects at all ages in all schools. The ability to read well is the gateway to opportunity and success throughout life. Children who fail to acquire basic reading skills early in life are at a disadvantage throughout their education and later careers. They are more likely to drop out of school and more likely to be unemployed. The problem is massive. An estimated 40 percent of fourth-grade students have trouble with the most basic reading skills, and 70 percent of them do not achieve the proficient level defined by national standards.

Many communities are helping adults acquire the reading skills they failed to develop as schoolchildren. Many, if not all, of such reading difficulties could have been prevented by more effective childhood instruction.

Important goals

Clearly, governments at every level must do more to ensure that all children learn to read well so that they will have a greater chance for success in life.

Good ideas are coming from local programs. Under the Reach Out and Read program, initiated by a team of physicians and early childhood educators at Boston City Hospital in 1989, pediatricians are encouraged to prescribe reading as part of regular medical checkups. The goal is to see that every child leaves the doctor's office in good health -- and with a good book.

Nationally, Reach Out and Read is producing significant results. Some 4,500 health-care providers in 46 states have been trained to help nearly 1 million children and their families improve their reading skills. Parents who participate in Reach Out and Read are eight times more likely to read to their children than parents who do not.

We must also make sure that teachers have the proper training and adequate resources to teach children to read well.

In Massachusetts, Lesley College professors help train several hundred teachers in reading instruction through Reading Recovery. Under the program, first-grade students receive daily, one-on-one assistance from trained teachers. Some 87 percent of children who complete the program are academically as competent as most students not enrolled in the program.

To create needed opportunities for children to practice reading outside the classroom, schools are working with community groups to recruit and train volunteer tutors. In Massachusetts, 59 colleges have signed onto President Clinton's "America Reads Challenge" and pay college students through the federal work-study program to work as tutors for children in the local community.

Each week in Washington, for the past school year, I spent an hour at Brent Elementary School reading with a second-grade student named Jasmine as part of a program called Everybody Wins. It's one of the most satisfying things I do because the results are so clear. Experts tell us that one hour of reading like this a week can have a significant impact on a child's attitude toward reading and learning, and I see it happening first hand with Jasmine. Such programs give children a priceless opportunity to improve their reading, and give adults a chance to make a difference in a child's life and future.

The Reading Excellence Act, a major piece of legislation now moving through Congress, is designed to give national priority to childhood literacy. Chances are good it will be signed by Mr. Clinton before Congress adjourns in the fall.

Training teachers

The goal of the federal legislation is to improve training to ensure that teachers are well-prepared to help children acquire the reading skills they need by the end of the third grade. The bill also supports efforts by community organizations to improve adult literacy, so that parents can do more to encourage reading at home, especially in the preschool years. In addition, the bill will assist state and local efforts to recruit and train tutors to work with children outside the classroom, to give them the extra attention they need to develop the best possible reading skills.

If the Reading Excellence Act lives up to its name, it may well become the most important legislation approved by Congress this year.

N Edward M. Kennedy is the senior senator from Massachusetts.

Pub Date: 8/07/98

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