In our increasingly complex world, the mastery of reading has never been more important. Yet reading scores continue to drop. Here's what you, as parents, need to know about reading and basic education — and what you can do in your role as "teacher" in the home.
Johnny can't read! Who's to blame? The controversy rages unabated. The colleges and universities say that high schools are at fault because they are graduating too many students who have to take remedial English before they can begin college-level work. The high schools tell us that if a student had a poor foundation in the basics, it's 100 late to repeat what he should have learned in elementary school. The elementary schools blame phonics, or the absence of phonics, or too much TV watching at home, or children's lax reading habits. Meanwhile SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) scores continue to drop. and the children of America appear to be gelling a lower quality of preparation for life than the generation just before them did. The children in question are your children. You want to see them succeed in life. You want them to have the best education possible. But there's Increasing confusion over why and how to teach Johnny (and Susie) to read. In this article we are going to basically ignore the "how" controversy and address ourselves to a few basic questions and facts that deal with the "why." In doing so. we will give a number of basic reasons for being educated in the first place, show why parents need to be concerned and deeply involved in their own children's education, tell in what ways Mom and Dad can help, and finally show what books and other reading material can best contribute to children's needs and training.
A Printing-press Education
Perhaps you were asking. "Why is reading such a controversy in the first place?" The answer is because our society is based on and functions on written communication. and certain levels of success are dependent on skills that are gained largely from the printed page. Learning to read provides the greatest single key for unlocking life-long educational opportunities. It unlocks the doors to information and knowledge available beyond one's immediate environment. It can provide the tools to function in a paper society. It improves communication skills. stimulates thinking. creates an endless source for ideas, facts, and helpful information. It can mean increased earning power, stability, and financial security. It can contribute to one's personal well-being and peace of mind, and can make a difference between success or failure as a person.
There is no greater challenge for concerned parents than the teaching and preparation of their own flesh and blood for a rich and rewarding life. And one of the greatest rewards is to see the definite gifts and qualities in their children one day being used to benefit others, while at the same time seeing the "benefactor" receiving the due rewards of a happy, fulfilling, and productive life as well. There are countless benefits in the formal classroom instruction, but the parent is still the most influential force in shaping a child's education. The parent is the day-in, day-out teacher from a child's infancy to when he or she leaves home as a young adult. The awesome importance of this responsibility must not be underestimated. And how does a parent teach? Generally, in two broad categories: by example and by direct aid.
By parental example, we simply mean the way one lives. The parent is the model for his youngsters. Have you seen the cancer ad against smoking in which a lovable little boy is accompanying his father on a walk? He is imitating his stride, stopping to look at whatever his handsome Dad examines, and flopping down for a rest just the way his father does, carefully patterning his behavior after the adult model he is studying. There is pride, affection, and respect fort his father evident in every move and expression. Then the father pulls out a cigarette and lights up, inhaling deeply. Sure enough, the little boy picks up a twig and lights up, inhaling deeply. Sure enough, the little boy repeats each gesture in pantomime. He is learning to smoke, because his wonderful Dad does; it "must be" the thing to do when you grow up. Your children copy you. Until they get into school or among other families, you are the only model they have. This fact is discussed by a professor of developmental psychology, Jerome Kagan, in an article on child development: "Lower-class parents may exhort their children to work hard for good grades in school, but the children do not perceive their parents as persons who publicly engage in or express a value in intellectual mastery themselves. As a result, the children cannot view mastery of intellectual skills as a way of being similar to their parents." Your children want to be like you, so the best help you can give them is the example of healthy intellectual curiosity and balanced everyday living. Dad and Mom hug and kiss at various times of the day, and children learn that marriage is happy. Parents discuss calmly and warmly their finances and big family decisions such as major purchases and vacations, and children learn that husbands and wives are partners and that decision making can be as pleasant as it is important. If you grumble about routine tasks, children decide work is unpleasant instead of satisfying. If they hear you make snide, cutting remarks about neighbors and friends, they learn gossip and "the put-down." If they see you planning to cheat on your income tax or hear you boasting of a shady deal you pulled, children learn to be dishonest. If children see you reading and discussing magazines and newspapers, they learn to be aware of the world outside the home. They see that reading can be fun and stimulating, as well as useful. If the dinner table is the scene of a free interchange of ideas and problems, a source of mutual help for all members, they learn to communicate, to ask for help on their own problems. For if we solve problems along the way and answer important questions as they occur, there's far less chance of what some people call "the generation gap." So examine your life and behavior to see if your example is what you want to impress on your child's mind. If it doesn't honestly measure up, then begin to modify it. And then remember that we're all human. Even when we're really trying to do our best, we're not perfect. So if you've made a great big blunder that your children witnessed or are aware of, don't be afraid to admit it. Tell them that through haste, thoughtlessness, or mistaken judgment, you goofed: and let it be a learning situation for them. Explain that you want to try to save them from some of the same errors, if you can. Children love and respect you more, not less, for honesty. It's hypocrisy that turns them air. When they can see the obvious and wonder why adults won't admit it, that's when we lose stature in their eyes.
The second way that parents teach is by direct aid. Tutoring or helping with difficult pans of homework is the first thing that comes to mind. At times a simpler explanation of a concept in math, a few more examples in English grammar, or helping them review their study sheet for a history test may be all that's needed to help them over a rough spot. Perhaps a really weak area will require prolonged tutoring until they've caught up. May be you'll find out that they didn't catch something in class and were too shy to ask, afraid they'd be downgraded by their classmates. This problem was brought to my attention a few years ago by an incident in one of my classes. I had asked the usual. "Are there any questions before we go on to the next part?" One boy whom I knew to be a particularly bright student raised his hand and said, "Yes. would you please repeat just that last part again?" I did, trying to make it even simpler and clearer. As I was talking. I noticed a couple of students taking further notes. The bright boy came up to me after class and said quietly. "I really understood it the first time, Mrs. French, but I know Billy didn't. and he's afraid the kids'll laugh at him if he lets on he didn't get it." The bright ones are secure in their knowledge and reputation. But the average or slow ones don't have the same freedom to inquire, because, unless they're unusually tough-minded, they are reluctant to face the ridicule from their peers. If your child is afraid to ask in class, as a loving parent you'll want to fill the gap. Then maybe you can also bolster his courage a bit. Tell him there's nothing wrong with asking questions and that it's how we all learn. Do as much as you can to bolster him at home. Encourage questions when he's with you. And never say, "That's a dumb question." If he doesn't know and wants to know, that's not dumb. That's bright. He should be congratulated for his intellectual curiosity and then given the answer. If you don't know the answer, tell him so: "I don't know the answer to that, but it sure is a good question." Tell him what kind of book the answer can be found in, and if you have it on the shelf, go and look it up together. Once you've taught him how to find information, he can do it himself the next time. To put this kind of confidence and information into a child's mind is giving him power as an adult.
Helping Your Johnny or Susie to Read Better
If your child is behind his grade level in reading, you can now put both your example and direct-aid approach to work helping him regain the lost ground. The help is based on the principle: Take him back to his present reading level, and let him enjoy success at that level before trying to move ahead. The defeating thing for a child is to fail at material that is too hard for him, when he knows his class is succeeding at it. He thinks it's hopeless and simply stops trying. So your strategy is this. If he is in the 6th or 8th grade, but his reading comprehension is really some grades back, say, the 4th or 5th grade level, then go to the children's section of your public library and ask the librarian for an assortment of books that your child will enjoy in subject matter. Ask for books at a level or two below where you think he is, at the level, and perhaps one or two above. Then read with him a little while each evening, beginning with the easiest level. Relax and read. You read aloud, and let the child sit by you and just follow silently with his eyes. When he sees he can read it all and that it's an interesting story. he'll continue right on. Don't blame or exhort him to do better, or push or demand. Let him read his fill of interesting, exciting stories at the level in which he can comprehend all the vocabulary. Be ready to answer any questions or discuss it, if need be, and have a dictionary handy. When your children taste success at that level, they'll be motivated to read other good stories at the next level. It may keep you busy going back to the library for awhile; but the process should only take a certain definite time, for they'll sooner or later be up to the proper level, and your tutoring help can resume a more normal pace. And remember, every minute you spend helping your child to read is a worthwhile investment in his future.
Mental Growth and Development Through Reading
How does reading contribute to your child's character development, well-being, and education? The topic has filled many books, and a few basic principles should be mentioned. Most adults tend to think of reading only as recreational. We use it to gel our minds off our problems, as an escape from the pressures of everyday living, or as a refreshing change of pace, as any recreational activity is. But reading plays a far more important role in children's lives, especially during their younger, more impressionable years. Through reading well-chosen books, your children will be learning and improving language skills. Story content will be acquainting them with life in all its aspects. Reading will teach them history and introduce them to the people of other lands and cultures. The illustrations will, without their even knowing it, create in them an awareness of color, line, mass, form, and composition. Your children will learn of architecture, costumes, scenery, and customs of other times and places. As you read to them a variety of books with pictures, they will also become aware that each artist's style is different. This not only develops their own personal tastes — for some they will like better than others — but it also shows them that although everybody is different, there's still room for all. Thus begins tolerance and acceptance of others. Equally important is the fact that reading the right kinds of books is useful in character training and vocational guidance. Maybe you're a bricklayer, doctor, or personnel manager. But your child wants to be a teacher, architect, or storekeeper. The parent as model no longer applies for vocational training, so books can help supply the missing image. In Children and Books, May Hill Arbuthnot and Zena Sutherland, state that your "child's needs are at first intensely and narrowly personal, but, as he matures, they should broaden and become more widely socialized Struggling to satisfy his needs, the child is forever seeking to maintain the precarious balance between personal happiness and social approval, and that is no easy task." Growing children also have seven emotional needs that need to he met as they develop into adults. Good books can help supply all of these vital emotional needs: 1. The need for physical security (books in which the theme strongly involves food, shelter, and clothing). 2. The need to love and be loved (family, pets, friends). 3. The need to belong. (This involves the child's growth from 'experiences which are "merely egocentric extensions of the child's self-love," to the awareness of family, neighborhood, and the community at large — ibid., p. II.) 4. The need to know. (Books satisfy a child's insatiable curiosity.) 5. The need to achieve. (The compelling need for competence begins with the infant's struggles to grasp and move and "grows into the complex physical or intellectual performances of the expert man or woman athlete, mathematician, musician, or scientist" — ibid., p. 13.) 6. The need for change. (Almost any book will fill the need for play, liberation, fun, variety, laughter, and even inspiration.) 7. The need for beauty and order (aesthetic satisfaction of varying kinds and degrees, including pictures). Some books will answer several of these needs at once. For instance, Alcott's Little Women will deal most strongly with family life, including the need for physical security, to love and be loved, but will also relate to "change" by showing life in another century. Biographies and autobiographies will acquaint the child with how notable women and men met life's problems and handled its challenges. Why teach Johnny to read? Why encourage him to explore the rich treasure house of the printed word? Because if we don't, we're robbing him of one of the greatest opportunities available for life-long education and success. For if Johnny can't read as a child, he will be severely handicapped as an adult.
Page 14 of the magazine (click PDF icon above) list "THE ENRICHING WORLD OF A GOOD BOOK" which supplies a list of good books to read.