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A Reading Program That's Flexible--and Free


It's here--summertime!

That word brings great joy and relief to school-age children everywhere. But for parents, it may bring panic and a giant question: How can you keep the kids' brains from turning to sludge between now and fall semester? There are plenty of summer camp programs, art workshops and other educational options around town, but for parents seeking a more flexible and inexpensive learning plan, homemade summer reading programs can't be beat.

In fact, your child's program can be completely free if you make use of public libraries.

A reading program will help your child improve reading skills and vocabulary and develop new interests, and make him or her better-rounded by summer's end.

Here is my plan.

Your child will read at least one book from each of eight general areas that are crucial for a well-rounded mind. After completing each book and answering some questions about it, he or she gets a reward and moves on to the next one.

The eight categories are:

* Biography.

* Science, which is multifaceted and can include ecology, biology or Jurassic dinosaurs.

* Foreign countries, especially those mentioned often in the news.

* Adventure, including animal stories, war tales and science fiction.

* The arts.

* History, ideally books that focus on the causes and effects of events that changed the world.

* Human relations, a term I have adopted for books that help make kids more tolerant of their peers. These books should feature characters with backgrounds different from your child's.

* Pure pleasure, which includes anything your child enjoys.

There are too many excellent titles to list here, so ask a librarian or bookseller for suggestions.

Look each book over to make sure that it is the right type and that it is at your child's reading level.

Set a firm time limit, usually a week, for completing the book. And rather than letting the child choose which kind of book to read when, make it random, to sustain his or her interest.

The biggest problem for most parents who put their children on reading programs is determining if the child has read and understood a book that the parent hasn't read.

No problem--just interview the child for about 10 minutes and ask some revealing questions.

Skim the book beforehand, and don't tell the child what kinds of questions you will ask.

For a biography, you might ask, "How was the person trained or educated to reach his or her goals? Name a couple of traits or achievements you would like to imitate."

Science books can generally be covered with, "Tell me about the five most interesting or surprising things you learned. What was the hardest concept to understand?"

To check on reading about foreign lands, ask, "What would you like to see if you could visit the country? What customs do the citizens have that we don't?"

Adventure stories usually can be approached with questions such as, "Describe the most exciting scene. Give me an example of the character's courage."

Arts differ widely, but you should be able to use some form of questions such as, "Explain the origin of tap dancing. Describe the training and skills needed to be an opera star."

Historical events will, of course, differ in their causes and effects, but you should be able to manage with questions such as, "Name and describe the key players in the event you read about. How would the world (or our lives) be different today if the event had never happened?"

For human relations books, use prompts such as, "How is the character's background or life different from yours? What are the advantages and disadvantages of the character's situation?"

To check up on fun books, try, "Describe your favorite scene. Would you suggest the book to friends? Why or why not?"

Remember to give a reward after each book is read. Of course, all kids like receiving cash, but I suggest exercise: tossing a football, a hike or a morning of boogie-boarding.

Whatever the reward, always follow up with a hug and a sincere compliment about having the best kid in town.

Mary Laine Yarber teaches English at Santa Monica High School.

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