Parental Warning: This Innocent-Sounding Book May Be Hazardous to Your Hopes. In case you were looking to the schools to instill a love of reading in your child, look again. The schools deal with the mechanics of reading, namely, associating the correct phonetic sounds with appropriate letter patterns. In fact, most children learn their phonics reasonably well, although many encounter difficulty with the higher-level skills of comprehension and reading for meaning.
The critical issue, though, is not whether our children can read, but whether they want to read. Research tells us that outside of school, American children in the middle grades read for pleasure about five minutes each day, compared with almost four hours watching TV. They spend five minutes just switching channels. So guess whose job it is to arrange a marriage between your children and books? Mom and Dad, go to the head of the class.
You might greet this news with anger ("Why me? What are schools for, anyway?"), arrogance ("Big deal! Reading's a cinch.") or anxiety ("But I'm not certified to teach reading!"). You're justified in feeling that schools should be doing more to foster lifelong interests in reading and less to serve a tyranny of achievement testing. Your indignation deserves to be heard by your child's teacher, principal and your school board.
You know-it-all parents might give yourselves a little test. Question 1: You're in a library or bookstore. Your daughter or son gives you that plaintive look and asks, "Which books should I get?" What do you say? Question 2: In reading with your child, is it better to correct mistakes or tolerate them?
The answers, you'll be glad to know, are contained in "Taking Books to Heart," an informative and well-written guidebook for parents by Paul Copperman, president of the Institute for Reading Development, a private center in San Francisco. Copperman takes you by the hand through his "Family Reading Program," explaining, grade by grade, how schools teach reading and how your efforts at home can support and--in some cases--immunize against classroom instruction. He also provides a kind of Consumer Reports for children's books, recommending more than 250 titles, geared to ages 2 through 9, for you and your child to read.
During the preschool years, parents are urged to read aloud to their children at least three times a week. Readings from picture books, fairy tales and alphabet or counting books should emphasize an appreciation for language, word play, story line and characters rather than early mastery of phonics. Better your child should chuckle at Dr. Seuss' "If I Ran the Zoo" ("I'll hunt in the Jungles of Hippo-no-Hungus / and bring back a flock of wild Bippo-no-Bungus") than stare at flash cards with "pp" and "ng" words. While you're not looking, Dr. Seuss, Ogden Nash or Lewis Carroll might just lead your child to a love of poetry, too.
For school-age children, Copperman recommends a regular Family Reading Hour, minimally half an hour three times a week. During the early grades, reading aloud to children and reading together ("choral reading") continue as the main activities, culminating in later years with sessions when parents and children read independently and share what they've read.
Children's literature has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years, and there is much for the child in all of us to enjoy. You'll become reacquainted with some childhood friends--remember Curious George, Huckleberry Finn, Charlotte and her web? You'll meet up with other delightfully offbeat and eccentric characters, such as Incognito Mosquito, Private Insective; a giant terrorist potato, and Twickham Tweer, an odd gentleman:
who ate uncommon meals,
who often peeled bananas
and then only ate the peel,
who emptied jars of marmalade
and ate only the jars,
and only ate the wrappers
off of chocolate candy bars.
Parents who doubt their credentials to teach reading will be comforted by Copperman's main message: You can become a good teacher by being a better parent. He comes from the Leo Buscaglia School of Pedagogy, where hugs and praise convey more to a child about reading than lectures and threats. "Avoid duplicating the child's in-school experience," writes Copperman. " . . . You should feel no need to drill him in word recognition, or engage him in either procedural ('Can you break it into syllables?') or performance ('C'mon, you know that word!') challenges . . . If he can be made to delight in books, he will eventually master the skills necessary to further his desire to read."