Parents Learn to Read to the Children to Help the Children Read

Times Staff Writer

Several years ago, Patricia Edwards sat down with five parents from a low-income parish in Louisiana and asked them to read a book to their children.

The first parent had a difficult time pronouncing the words, a second asked plaintively what she should do, a third spanked her child for moving around on her lap, and a fourth read the book so quickly her daughter barely had time to look at the pictures.

Further study convinced the Michigan State University reading specialist that many parents today cannot easily follow the frequent advice from teachers to read to their children as a key means of boosting school success.

Parents as Partners

As a result, Edwards, one of the most prominent black reading experts, devised her Parents as Partners in Reading program, in which parents are taught specific techniques on how to sit with their children, hold the book, ask questions about the content, modulate their voices and watch for reactions.

Edwards spoke Wednesday at the opening day program for South Bay Union district teachers in Imperial Beach. Teachers in the 12-school elementary district have experimented with literature-based reading programs, computer-assisted skills training, lending libraries and new parent involvement efforts, all to improve reading achievement among their predominantly nonwhite student population.

Educators throughout the county, state and nation have been wringing their hands over generally lackluster reading scores among schoolchildren, especially among black and Latino students. During the past month, trustees of both the San Diego Unified School District and the Sweetwater high school district in South Bay have been critical of results from standardized reading tests, with responsibility being variously placed on teachers, parents or socioeconomic factors beyond their control.

Although the South Bay Union district has some of the highest scores in the county, its administrators invited Edwards as a way of stimulating more advances.

"Books should be treated as family jewels . . . and we know that, if a child cannot obtain meaning from (the printed word) in school, there are going to be all kinds of problems," Edwards told more than 100 teachers on Wednesday. "And then the blame goes back and forth between the school and parent . . . the white teacher will say the parent doesn't help out and the (minority) parent will accuse (the teacher) of not caring for the child."

'Not Cultural Artifacts'

Although parents have definite responsibilities for making their child literate before beginning school, those families at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale need more than general admonitions from educators to do so successfully, she said.

"You have to understand that books are not cultural artifacts in every house, and reading is not natural in every house," Edwards said. So, by just telling parents to read to their children, the school can often confuse a mother or father, especially when they may never have been read to as a child themselves, or when they don't have books themselves, she said.

Edwards' program lays out for parents, step by step, what teachers mean when they ask them to read to children. In addition, it builds upon community support--from ministers to barkeepers, depending on the environment--to persuade parents of the importance of daily reading and to participate in the training.

As one of Edwards's early acolytes in Louisiana told her: "You can find out anything you want in a book."

The program, first tried in Donaldsonville, La. and Springfield, Ill., begins with what Edwards calls "body management," showing how a parent can put the child on his lap, or lie alongside their child. Then she models how to hold the book, how to let the child turn the pages, how to vary the voice in reading, when to stop and ask questions and share ideas. The parents next read to each other and finally try their new skills out on their children with books provided by the program.

"I'm like the coach of a team, in knowing what books to stress and when," Edwards said. "And, for parents, it's never too late to get involved; no parent is ever too poor or too busy . . . and many of these parents have to (get ideas on how to) talk more to their babies, since so many kids otherwise are coming to school without communication skills."

Excited About Reading

Parents in the program have told Edwards that their children, as well as they themselves, have become more excited about reading.

Edwards said her program, which will be made available commercially to school districts by a private company, could be tied into existing adult literacy programs, since many parents at first have little confidence in their ability to read to children. And she said that educators, by building self-esteem for parents into reading, can also give them more confidence in working with the school on other education-related matters.

"Instead of asking whose fault it is if a child doesn't learn, let's try cooperation among teachers, students, parents, the community and administrators," Edwards suggested.

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