Parenting Pearls: Parents play important role in children’s reading

By: Dr. Mae Sakharov
   In 1997, Congress requested the director of the National Institute of Child Health and the secretary of the Department of Education establish a national panel on reading.
   The stated objective was to make a thorough study of the research and effectiveness of different ways of teaching children to read. The makeup of the panel was varied and included professors of education, teachers, administrators and parents. They were given two years to write two reports and create a video to be entitled, "Teaching Children to Read." (See the National Reading Panel Web site for complete documentation and more information.)
   The thought some consensus would finally be reached on how to teach children to read was very exciting. My own experiences in this field began 30 years ago in a public school in California where I was a student teacher. At that time the method in vogue was called "language experience," loosely based on the British "open classroom" techniques.
   Children wrote little books based on their own lives and then read them back to the teacher. The readers we used were likewise built upon common childhood experiences.
   My little student struggled and struggled with a book called "The Loose Tooth." He just couldn’t commit the words to memory. I became frustrated sitting with him and, sad to say, this child left my tutelage no better off than when we began working together.
   Over the next several years, I earned a reading credential, although the credential actually had more to do with being aware of what publishers provided than with acquiring techniques that would help children read. It wasn’t until I attended Columbia University Teachers College where I met and worked under Professor Joanna Williams, a member of the National Reading Panel, that things began to come together.
   Professor Williams was engaged in a long-term research project on early signs of learning disabilities. Some of the tests were conducted at Albert Einstein Hospital where I was working. It was at that time I began to study Orton Gillingham multi-sensory techniques in which the child is systematically taught to decode the 41 phonemes of the English language in order to form syllables and words.
   Over the years, I added to my knowledge by attending workshops as a member of the International Dyslexia Society and The Learning Disabilities Association of America. I also had the opportunity of training prospective teachers in methods for individualized reading instruction as well as developing curriculum itself.
   Since then, much has been learned about how to teach reading. Excellent programs such as the Wilson Language System, the Lindamood Bell materials, Reading Recovery and numerous other programs are readily available. However, it is still true many children do not learn to read and suffer the dire consequences for many years.
   This fall I had the privilege of teaching a small group of kindergarten children to read and was able to apply the methods I had been using in individual settings for years. Parents were totally involved with what was going on in the classroom and often used the same or similar materials at home to reinforce learning.
   My little students were eager and receptive and picked up information at such a rapid rate they are entering first grade not only a year or more above grade level in reading, but also, more importantly, enthusiastic and overjoyed at their success.
   I share these personal insights because they coincide with the findings of the National Panel on Reading. The panel noted the important role parents and early childhood educators play in providing children with experiences that encourage reading development. They also stressed the need for early intervention for children who are at risk of failure.
   Ultimately, the panel found that a successful reading program has three vital components — phonemic awareness, phonics and guided reading.
   Phonemic awareness means teaching children how to manipulate sounds that help them learn to read. This can be done in many different ways and at many different grade levels. It would be most beneficial for reading teachers of young students to have accurate and rapid knowledge of phonemes.
   Phonics is different than phonemic awareness. Unlike phonemic awareness, phonics goes beyond mere sound manipulation and stresses the correspondence between sounds and, in particular, how to use this relational understanding when reading and spelling.
   A successful phonics program is sequential and not random and utilizes books that have a controlled text, such as "Get Ready, Get Set, Read," published by Barron’s. The panel found phonics was very beneficial when taught to children from kindergarten through sixth grade.
   The third and very important part of any reading program is how children are encouraged to comprehend and become fluent readers. Comprehension does not stand alone but also includes the development of vocabulary. The process, one that is both interactive and active, involves the reader and the instructor in a joint effort as they discuss and seek meaning from a text. It is important to use a variety of teaching techniques such as question and answer, summarizing, searching for meaning and the incorporation of technology.
   In light of all this information, why is it then so many children have a difficult time learning to read? The answer most probably is because so many programs and situations lack consistency. Rather than a disciplined focus that leads to mastery, programs generally focus on entertaining the child or on redundantly doing worksheet after worksheet.
   But the information on teaching children to read successfully is available. It is time to put it to use so all children will benefit.