"Pencils down. Eyes on me. M-m-m-m-mouse. Where do you hear that m-m-m-m sound? At the beginning of the work or at the end? M-m-m-mouse. Look at me. M-m-m-mouse."
Arm raised, fingers stabbing the air, Susan Smith-McEachern almost shouts to hold the attention of the tiny faces clustered around her.
"Look at my lips. M-m-m-monkey. At the end or the beginning?"
"The beginning," several small voices answer in chorus.
"Now Ha-m-m-m. Ha-m-m-m. Beginning or end?"
That is the sound of first-graders being taught to read, using a new research-based, field-tested program designed to deal with the dismaying fact that some 40% of American schoolchildren do not learn to read satisfactorily.
Yet even the best systems and well-trained teachers may not be enough for many children if another crucial component is missing: the active help of parents.
Both classroom teachers and academic experts warn that the growing national effort to strengthen reading skills could fall short for many young students unless fathers, mothers and other family members take part.
In the words of one veteran kindergarten and first-grade teacher, regardless of what is done in class, "some of them just won't get it. You need a parent [or] someone" helping at home.
So important are parents considered that some grade-school principals now require teachers to make contact with each parent every month; one principal assigns special "principal's homework" that requires a parent's signature.
The first step for parents, leading experts say, is recognizing that most children will not learn to read automatically, the way they learned to talk. A small number of children seem to teach themselves to read without formal instruction. But for the majority, however, it is a skill that must be learned--like swimming or riding a bike.
Nor is the problem confined to the poor, to minorities or to those for whom English is a second language. Reading problems cut across social, economic and ethnic lines. So does the importance of parental involvement.
Inadequate reading skills are depressingly common among all kinds of children, and financially secure families in which both parents work may be almost as hard pressed as the poor to get deeply involved in their children's education.
In California, for example, the 1994 National Assessment of Educational Progress--considered among the most reliable yardsticks of achievement--found that 71% of African American and 81% of Latino fourth-grade students were reading below the level necessary to do satisfactory work in school. But the same study also found that 44% of white fourth-graders were reading at an unsatisfactory level, as were 23% of Asian Americans.
In addition, almost half the white fourth-graders reading below basic levels were from families in which the parents had graduated from college.
"All parents have to start early," says G. Reid Lyon, director of a massive federal reading research program at the National Institute of Child and Human Development, a division of the National Institutes of Health. "Learning to read the English language is not as easy as conventional wisdom would suggest."
As educational reformers and political leaders focus ever-greater attention on instruction in the most basic of all learning skills, what should parents be doing?
Perhaps surprisingly, the answer--and the problem--is much the same, whether the school serves disadvantaged urban youngsters, as Smith-McEachern's does, or whether it draws from relatively affluent suburbs. As much as possible, teachers and academic experts say, parents need to:
* Understand how the not-so-simple process of learning to read actually works.
* Help preschool children acquire both positive attitudes and specific knowledge that will make the learning process faster and easier when they enter school.
* Support and supplement what is being taught in school. This means working with young and beginning readers on their homework, but it also means making reading a valued part of their lives by exposing them to the richest possible variety of stories, poems, word games and other printed material.
* Act quickly if a child seems to be having problems. Visit the teacher; seek prompt assistance rather than waiting to see whether the child "outgrows" the problem.
Mastery of reading at an early age is critical, experts say. Children learn reading more easily when they are young. Moreover, unless reading becomes a fairly easy, automatic process in the early grades, schoolwork becomes torment in the higher grades, and many kids turn away from education entirely.
"It's a cliche but true that for the first years of school you learn to read and after that you read to learn," one specialist says.
And the growing importance of technology and computers has made reading more important, not less. In today's world, far more than in earlier periods when good jobs were widely available for less skilled workers, failure to thrive in school casts an almost-inescapable shadow over adult life.
"If you do not learn to read and you live in America, you do not make it in life," Lyon says.
* For more about improving children's reading skills, go to The Times' Web site: http://www.la times.com/readingby9.