Making parents better teachers

Books: As more parents try to help their children learn to read, schools have begun helping parents learn to teach.

April 26, 2001|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

MUTUAL - Phyllis Keefe is no ordinary reader. Curled up on the couch beside her 6-year-old daughter, she cracks open a children's book and launches into a dramatic monologue that transforms "Bravo, Amelia Bedelia!" into a one-act play.

She laughs, mimics voices, makes sweeping gestures. Yet the story doesn't unfold seamlessly. Every few pages, she stops to point out an illustration or to ask Meghan a question or two.

For Keefe, who wants to make sure her little girl shares her love of the written word, it's a small but significant change in reading style - something she learned after going back to school.

Every other Wednesday night, she and Meghan participate in a reading workshop at the elementary school in this suburbanized stretch of rural southern Calvert County. Mutual Elementary is one of 24 schools in the state trying out a new program to teach parents there's more to reading than a bedtime story.

"I used to read straight through books," says Keefe, 39, who studied early childhood education in college but credits Mutual Elementary for showing her new techniques. "Now, I stop midway and ask Meghan about the main character and what she thinks is going on. I never thought of doing that."

Parents may be critical to their children's education, but as more and more educators in Maryland and across the country have begun to realize, even the most motivated of them can be uncertain about what to do. Most parents, regardless of education or income, know little about helping their children learn to read.

So, as the nation's schools struggle to improve reading scores that have remained dismally stagnant for nearly a decade, they're increasingly turning to teaching not just children but also parents.

Maryland's Department of Education has hired staffers to assist local schools in building parent involvement, especially in prekindergarten through third grade, the key time for learning literacy. The state also runs several federally funded programs that provide everything from reading tutoring to parent skills classes for families living in poverty. And Baltimore City and Baltimore and Calvert counties send instructors, carrying daily lesson packets, to low-income homes to help prepare 3- and 4-year-olds for school.

Most state and local efforts are concentrated on encouraging greater school participation among parents with limited education and incomes. But surveys have repeatedly shown that all parents want their children to succeed - and while a single mother with a minimum-wage job might face additional challenges, a well-off professional often can have just as many questions about how to teach a child to read.

Recognizing that schools can't ignore the role of parents, state education officials created the Family Reading Plan two years ago. The program, which has won national recognition and is being eyed for expansion, is under way in a school in each of Maryland's 24 jurisdictions.

Maryland Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick calls it "a great beginning." But Grasmick also says that "we have to be bolder." The state has to find new ways to give parents guidance, she says, on "how important it is to learn to read and what appropriate ways are to approach it with young children."

Schools participating in the state program differ greatly. Half are like Allegany County's South Penn Elementary, with large numbers of poor children. Others, like Calvert's Mutual Elementary, are mostly middle class. Test scores range from above average to among the lowest in the state.

"It's a great, nonthreatening way to begin a dialogue between the school and home," says Maria Schaeffer, who runs the program at the state Education Department. "A lot of the schools will bring parents in and model reading activities; some have local restaurants that donate meals. It's a family affair."

The state provides training and technical expertise but no additional money. Most of the schools use free materials available on the U.S. Education Department's Web site. Principals and teachers volunteer their time to review family reading assignments, bring in storytellers and run evening workshops.

Each school has its approach. In Cumberland, South Penn Elementary sends children home with folders full of reading activity materials printed off the Internet. Near Aberdeen Proving Ground, Edgewood Elementary invites families to pasta dinners, puppet shows and literacy training. In Annapolis, Rolling Knolls Elementary lets children choose a book each week and do a project with their parents.

But the mission is the same: to teach parents reading activities, demonstrate what happens in the classroom and explain how to build literacy skills from kindergarten through third grade.

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