There's a new twist in the state's effort to promote reading at home: computer links that deliver worksheets and other materials to families via the Internet, rather than relying on children to tote them home in their backpacks.
The School-Home Links program - which aims to teach parents how to read to children, expose families to computer technology and nudge standardized test scores higher - made its debut in September on the State Department of Education's Web site. It can be found by clicking the yellow icon at the top right of the screen at www.msde.state.md.us.
"We do know we are in a transition stage in society and not every family uses the new technology, but we also know that the Internet is the wave of future," said Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. "Now is the time to make the leap."
State officials believe the Internet provides a way to distribute reading packets quickly and inexpensively to families throughout the state, and officials say the program might encourage parents without home computers to seek access to the technology through other sources, such as public libraries.
The School-Home Links program is an offshoot of the state's Family Reading Plan, a federally inspired initiative that has provided reading resources to families for three years. The plan gives parents information about the importance of reading to their children, and suggests methods to use, such as setting specific times for reading.
The idea is that family participation increases a child's success at school.
"All families recognize the importance of reading," Grasmick said. "But sometimes they need help in setting priorities, giving attention to the proper areas, understanding what are appropriate materials to be reading at home. Through this link, we can help."
At first, materials were sent home from school with children. About a year ago, the state started offering a Family Reading Plan on the Web. And in September, the state's site was expanded to include the School-Home Links, providing a wealth of information and materials to parents.
Parents can download reading kits - each roughly 100 pages - for children in kindergarten through third grade.
The kits detail the state's goals for each grade level. Using the guidelines, parents can evaluate a child's progress and download worksheets that focus on a particular skill.
The lessons are designed to be completed by the adult and the child. The first instruction to the parent is to seat the child on his or her lap and begin to read.
"The child may not understand the whole book, but the connection of sitting in a lap and turning pages ... it all is an important part of child development," said Sarah Hall, who helps oversee the program for the Division of Student and School Services.
The kits focus on reading fundamentals. Parents learn how to teach youngsters to identify parts of a book, how to handle books and how to define the roles of author and illustrator.
Subsequent activities reinforce classroom lessons. For example, kindergartners sound out words from their worksheets, and first-graders practice punctuation and capitalization.
Other lessons focus on nuance. Third-grade pupils learn to read aloud sentences such as, "Hurry up! We'll be late for the train!" and to read with expression - a skill best learned when someone is listening.
The School-Home Links can be used to supplement after-school reading activities, and some schools incorporate the program into the curriculum.
"Parents come to me and say, `How can I help?'" said Will McKenna, principal of Baltimore's Waverly Elementary School, which joined the program in November. "Then they see these hints, like `Point to the word as you read, from left to right,' and it is almost like an `Aha!' to them."
Waverly, which has struggled to raise reading scores, has made the worksheets mandatory for pupils in kindergarten through third grade.
At Waverly, where the majority of pupils are from low-income households, personal computers and library trips often aren't options. Each week, volunteers print the School-Home Links work- sheets, and children carry them home the traditional way: in folders they keep for school correspondence. They return the completed worksheets, with a parent's signature, every day.
Next year, McKenna said, the school will design a similar program for fourth- and fifth-graders.
Audrey Jackson, 69, a volunteer at Waverly, said she missed out on much of her children's school years - from helping with homework to bonding over a bedtime story - because she returned to school when her kids were young and worked long hours as an emergency nursing technician.
"I couldn't help my kids as much as I wanted," she said. "I know better now."
She devotes time each day to reading to her great-granddaughters - Dajanique, 7, and Chantionne, 5 - both of whom attend Waverly. Although she does not have a home computer, she gets the printouts and requires her great-granddaughters to finish their School-Home Links assignments each day. "Children need this kind of stuff - their minds need to keep busy," she said.
It is not known how many schools or parents are using the new Web site, Hall said, but the number of hits it receives is growing steadily. Backup plans are in place for people who don't have Internet access, she emphasized.
Despite the cumbersome arrangements some parents make to use the program, it has received enthusiastic responses.
Lydia Johnson, whose two children attend Waverly, said that although the assignments add to her children's workload, they're worth the effort.
"This is just a stepping stone for our kids to succeed," she said.