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Getting Ready to Read

Reading / The First Skill / One in a series.

October 11, 1998

Learning to read begins in infancy. Babies bathed in words learn to distinguish the sounds that make up language. Infants, toddlers and preschoolers learn to love reading almost by osmosis if they are regularly read to by parents. From gumming a book to turning the pages and pretending to read, very young children learn essential pre-literacy skills at home long before they start first grade.

But what if parents don't or can't read to their children? Their sons and daughters can still learn these important lessons from other adults, including trained day-care providers. That is the successful premise of Books Aloud, an innovative Philadelphia program profiled today in our continuing series, "Reading: The First Skill."

When kids fall behind on reading readiness skills before they start school, they often experience difficulties they may never fully overcome. Because reading competently by the end of the third grade is a reliable predictor of lifelong success or failure, The Times' goal is that children be able to read in English at grade level by age 9, whether they grow up surrounded by books in a language-rich home or with illiterate parents in homes with no books.

A bookless home discourages reading ability; 60% of kindergartners in neighborhoods where children did poorly in school did not possess a single book, according to a 1986 study. Better-prepared children had been read to for at least 1,000 hours by committed parents.

Books Aloud has poured first-rate books into day-care centers that serve low-income families and neighborhoods in a five-county area that includes Philadelphia. Storybooks, counting books, rhyming books, alphabet books, classic books and high-quality hardback books, a total of five per child, have been given to day-care centers, along with furniture to display books.

As part of the program, the day-care providers have been trained to read aloud, to develop children's pre-reading skills and to make books a central element of every-day activity. Preschool should be more than play.

Many day-care teachers had to overcome their reluctance to allow children to handle and, in some case, tear up the new books. Book repair kits were provided to mend ripped pages and broken spines. Children were allowed to take books home. The result: Preschoolers learned how to hold books, turn pages, look at the words from left to right and from top to bottom.

Books Aloud also gave 50,000 books to public libraries, and it trained staff members as preschool specialists.

Reading performance for first-graders who were in the Books Aloud program while in day care has exceeded that of a control group on vocabulary and pre-reading skills such as recognizing letters, according to a study by Susan Neuman, an education professor at Temple University. Additional research is needed to determine whether the encouraging results are long-lasting.

Of course, preparing children to do well in school and life should not be left to day-care teachers or baby-sitters. Parents need to prime their children, starting in infancy, to learn to read. Those who don't know what preliteracy skills their children should master between birth and age 4 should seek help from teachers, successful parents, pediatricians, librarians, books or references.

Parents also need to raise their expectations of their children and schools. But no matter what help is offered, not every family will succeed. In California, barely one in three third-graders reads at grade level, and the roots of reading difficulties, though complicated, begin for many in infancy.

The role of the caregiver in reading can be major. Most children, long before they start school, spend substantial time with caregivers. Books Aloud thus is targeting adults who, year after year, can influence large numbers of youngsters by reading aloud daily and teaching pre-reading skills. This is an idea worth trying in California.

Children who are talked to and read to are getting ready to read. They are developing a foundation on which early reading competence can be built. That foundation is essential if California's profound reading failure is to be reversed.

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