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A Parent Can Sometimes Be Their Child's Best Reading Tutor

April 06, 1998

Q: My first-grader is so behind in reading that she can hardly begin to tackle classroom assignments. Otherwise, she's a good student and keeps up with the rest of the class. I've met with the teacher, the school psychologist and the reading specialist, and while everyone agrees that she's way behind, the reading specialist says she has too heavy a load of students to take on my daughter and has to concentrate on the kids in higher grades who are still having reading trouble. I don't know how to help my daughter; I'm no expert, and as I also have a full-time job, have limited time to work with her. What can I do?

A: Contrary to what you may think, the reading specialist is not obligated to help your child with her remedial reading problems if the teacher is overloaded with students. School budget constraints have limited the number of reading specialists in every district, educators say. In some cases, teachers choose to help older students who fall further and further behind their peers each year.

But Ash Bishop, the coordinator of the reading education program at Cal State Fullerton, said first-graders should be a priority because of their young age.

"You want to prevent problems early, especially in the first grade," he said, before bad habits develop and students lose interest in reading or school.

As a parent, you have the right to request help for your child.

"You've got to be assertive, demanding and fight for your daughter," said Ann Belles, a Huntington Beach resident and parent of 10 adopted or foster boys from ages 2 to 20, all with severe handicaps.

Ask for an individual student plan to assess the skills of students with special needs, Belles said. That plan--agreed upon by parents and school officials--will determine what kinds of additional help, if any, your child could use.

If the assessment determines that she is not a candidate for special education classes but still needs help, ask her classroom teacher to help you talk to the reading specialist. If that fails, ask the school principal for guidance, Bishop and Belles say.

Even though you are working full time, educators say there are several things you can do to help bring your daughter's reading up to grade level.

"The parent can't go in and say--or even imply--'I'm too busy,' " Bishop said. "The parental aspect is just as important as the school's if you want to help the child."

The most obvious, but important, tip is to read to your child every night, without fail. Either books or poetry will do, but be sure that the material is appropriate for your child's abilities.

"If it has more than one line of text, it's too much. The child won't get it," said Marilyn Beauchemin, a former reading specialist who is now a fifth-grade teacher at Laguna Beach's El Moro School.

During the readings, try to keep your daughter engaged in the book by asking her questions and making comments to show how the book's "plot" relates to her life. If it is a picture book with just one or two words per illustrated page, reinforce the relationship between the word's meaning and the corresponding picture.

Flash cards and alphabet books also can improve a first-grader's reading skills, Bishop said.

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