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Reading By 9

Bilingual Outreach

November 22, 1998

California's reading crisis will ease substantially when educators and politicians figure out how to turn children who speak little or no English into competent readers of the language. A debate continues over the best approach, although Proposition 227 has largely banned traditional bilingual education, which emphasizes teaching a child to read first in his or her primary language. There is no debate, however, over the best time to introduce a child to books. The answer is: as early as possible.

That introduction is taking place for some Spanish-speaking children at public libraries as more branches reach out to Latino children and their parents with storytelling in dual languages and other bilingual programs, according to Times staff writer Hugo Martin, whose story appears today on the Reading Page in the Metro section.

The outreach is important because 81% of Latino fourth-grade students read below the level necessary to do satisfactory school work, according to the 1994 National Assessment of Education. They are not alone. Nearly two out of three third-graders in California do not read at grade level. These dismal statistics prompted this newspaper to launch Reading by 9, a crusade to encourage all children to learn to read in English by age 9 or the completion of third grade. This ability will increase their chances of success in school, at work and in life.

Exposure to books should start with babies. "Begin at the Beginning With Books," a bilingual program administered by the Los Angeles County Public Library, targets pregnant women at eight public and nonprofit health clinics. Staff members from six library branches promote reading and teach parenting and preliteracy skills. After the babies are born, the mothers and their infants are invited to "reunion" meetings held at libraries for story time, introducing the infants to the sounds of reading aloud. The babies leave the program at age 1 with a book of their own--for many, the first book in the home.

More than 2,000 mothers participated last year, at a cost of about $20,000. A major expansion, funded perhaps by the new cigarette tax, would help more mothers and babies.

Preschool children can get similar help through a partnership among nine branches of the Los Angeles (City) Public Library and 18 preschools. During monthly visits to the preschool, librarians read to children--primarily in English, even though most children are limited-English. Some translation is provided if needed. The librarians also teach parents how to help children develop preliteracy skills and help families get library cards. Preschools taking part in the program bring their children to the library at least three times a year. At the culmination, kids are given a book they can keep.

More than 1,100 children participate in this program, "Libraries and Preschools," which is funded by the volunteer Library Adult Reading Program Literacy Council through memberships, small grants and donations. It costs about $2,000 per branch. Again, an expansion of this proven program funded from the tobacco tax or other sources would make a difference for more preschoolers.

Latino children who start school with low English skills are often at risk for reading difficulties. They don't have to fail, especially if they are taught early to love books.

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