Schools teaching parents to help their kids read : Moms and dads learn --better ways to aid children at home

November 22, 1999|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

Decades of research confirm centuries of common sense: Parental involvement in children's education usually means better reading skills.

But more and more educators in Maryland and across the country are beginning to realize that most parents -- educated or not, rich or poor- don't know very much about helping their children learn to read.

So, as improving the nation's dismal record in teach-ing reading has taken on a greater sense of public urgency in recent years, schools are turning to teaching parents how to teach their children.

The efforts are directed at parents such as Denise Clark of the Forest Park neighborhood in northwest Baltimore. Clark used to read to her 6-year-old son every night. But a recent workshop at his school, Calvin Rodwell Elementary, encouraged her to try something different this fall.

"I make him read the books to me now," says Clark of her son, first-grader Michael Logan. "He liked it more when I did all of the reading to him, but when I started telling him that it was his turn to read, he started learning a lot more."

That was an easy change. But for par-ents, simple things might be the most important when it, comes to reading to -- and with -- their children.

"No one is going to say that parents being involved is harmful," says Anne T. Henderson, a Washington-based consultant affiliated with New York University's Institute for Education and Social Policy. "But if parents are doing the right things with their children, they can have a much more significant impact."

To build parent involvement and teach them lessons about reading, Calvin Rodwell, Curtis Bay and a number of other city elementary schools participate in the 100 Book Challenge, a program that awards prizes to children for every 100 books completed.

At many of these schools, parents -- who often participate in reading workshops -- are encouraged to stay for the first 30 minutes every morning to read in the classroom, sharing hooks with their children or other pupils.

"When we have parents in the classroom reading to the kids, it impresses on all of them just how important reading is," says Pamela Caple, a fifth-grade teacher at Curtis Bay.

Most schools are just beginning to find ways to teach parents effective ways to work with their children. One big obstacle, early childhood experts say, is the role of television and computers as baby-sitter for so many families.

"The rule of thumb is that parents should be spending 30 minutes per day on reading, but many families aren't doing that because life has changed from how it was 20 or 30 years ago," says Rolf Grafwallner, section chief of early learning for the Maryland State Department of Education. "The influx of television and computer games is replacing time that should be spent reading."

Guidance and advice

Limited parental involvement is often considered typical of families living in poverty, with the parents dismissed as uneducated or unconcerned. But surveys repeatedly find that almost all parents -- regardless of income or education -- want to do whatever they can to help their children succeed. And while low-income parents might face different challenges in helping their children read, well-off families often have just as many questions and problems.

"All schools need to be finding ways to include parents and help them understand their role," says Joyce L. Epstein, director of the Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships at the Johns Hopkins University. "All kids are ready to learn, and all families are ready to help, but many parents just need guidance and advice."

Consider a two-hour evening class offered last month at Western Maryland College by William Balant, a retired Montgomery County' reading expert who specializes in teaching parents how to work with their children on reading.

"More than half were college graduates who weren't sure what to do," Balant says. "Schools are constantly telling parents how to help their children, but they're not showing them how."

Karen Hennessy and her husband, James, have been reading to their 2-year-old son Sean almost from the day he was born. But the Ellicott City couple still weren't sure they were doing all the right things.

"Just reading stories isn't enough," says Hennessy, a nurse practitioner who took Balant's course. "I learned about asking questions in a certain way, talking about the book before I even start reading, ways to build comprehension skills."

For some parents with poor literacy skills, helping children learn to read can be more difficult.

"Kids have to see someone in the house reading, and if their parents can't read, we try to encourage a grandparent or a neighbor or a brother or sister to read after school," says Mary Minter, the principal at Curtis Bay Elementary.

Together with the neighborhood middle school, Curtis Bay Elementary is offering high school equivalency classes for parents.

"The better the education of the parents, the better their children will do in school," Minter says.

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