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Mom, Read Me a Story

By teaching parents how to bring books to life, a national project hopes to improve literacy in disadvantaged communities.

March 07, 2000|RENEE TAWA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Not so long ago and not so far away, in a Mexican village with streets of cobblestone, the girl would sneak out of school. What could this girl tell her teachers? That she was running home to frijoles?

The girl's grandmother sold tortillas to buy beans so the family could eat. The girl was the daughter of field workers and one of six kids. She had to stir the beans, add water, make sure they didn't burn. One day, the girl tripped and fell and . . .

The girl in this parable--don't forget that the heroine always rises--was Maria Izquierdo's mother. When 39-year-old Izquierdo grew up in San Mateo Texcalyacac, families had no money for books. Instead, the rich oral histories of her parents and grandparents became her bedtime stories.

While such a storytelling heritage is precious, education experts say, it can undermine a basic tenet of early literacy--that parents must read to their children.

Now, in Los Angeles, Izquierdo, who works in the garment district ironing clothes for minimum wage, is building a new storytelling tradition with her children, Marco Canales, 6, and Guadalupe Canales, 5. Under the auspices of a huge federal research project on literacy, Izquierdo has learned to read to her kids.

"I am living now in their time," the petite, soft-spoken Izquierdo says through a translator. A time in which storybooks have a place alongside the ancestral lore. One night, in their two-bedroom apartment, Izquierdo cradles what she calls the family library in two hands, as if she were holding a hope chest--two upright cardboard file boxes, the kind used to store magazines, filled with a dozen or so storybooks in English or Spanish.

Says Guadalupe, in English, with a dazzling grin: "I like it when Mommy is reading. I hear it beautiful."

This is what bounces the hearts of USC researchers, who are part of a national team studying early reading across the country. USC's group hopes to learn how to build a culture of literacy in disadvantaged communities while respecting storytelling traditions, says David B. Yaden Jr., an associate professor of learning and instruction. Yaden's team has targeted Spanish-speaking preschoolers and their immigrant parents in high-poverty inner-city areas.

The idea started as a simple one: Get books to families and help them read. And along the way, researchers found, the books exerted a magic on families beyond what they ever dreamed.

Reaching Kids at a Young Age

USC's project is one of 33 coordinated by CIERA, the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement, based at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The aim of CIERA--funded by a five-year, $17-million grant from the U.S. Department of Education--is to figure out how to solve reading problems before students finish third grade and to get answers to policymakers and others who can make a difference.

The families working with USC are clients of Para Los Ninos, a nonprofit social services agency on skid row in downtown Los Angeles that serves a population of mostly single mothers and their children.

In January 1998, USC researchers started a book loan program and literacy workshops at Para Los Ninos. They found that most of the 4-year-olds lacked even the most basic reading tools--the children did not know which direction to flip pages nor how to follow print. Nor did they grasp the difference between words and letters, and words and pictures. Part of the confusion, researchers surmised, comes from parents who cannot read well. The parents may open a book in the middle, for instance, point to a picture and then make up a story.

At the workshops, researchers show parents how to point out the title on the cover, turn the pages and track printed words on a page with their fingers. They encourage parents to put drama into their voices and ask children questions about the stories as they go along.

The researchers didn't want families to feel pushed into reading and writing English (out of sensitivity to the political turmoil stemming from the forced end of bilingual education in California). So at one workshop, the team helped some parents, in Spanish, write down songs, poems and stories from their home countries that had been passed down through the generations in oral form only. For instance, one by one, parents recited a nursery rhyme, "La Planchadora," about a funny mouse that irons, a story that resonates with many mothers who work in the garment district. The material was compiled in handmade books, copies of which are available at Para Los Ninos for families to check out.

USC's team knew that these parents tended to shy away from public libraries, so the researchers bought 800 books in English and Spanish, including fairy tales, ABC readers and stories about farm animals.

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