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Working on the First R in the First Years

July 30, 2002|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you're wondering whether it pays to read aloud to preschoolers, listen to this: "I'm A-S-H-L-E-Y and I'm 4. One, two, three, four."

That's how Ashley Davis introduced herself at a recent Tuesday morning story time where she and her grandmother, Rose Torigian, are regulars. They go to the read-to-me hour at the Borders bookstore in Northridge, where 30 or more kids and grown-ups crowd the children's department. There are thousands of other programs like it in stores, libraries and day-care centers around the country.

Encouraging family members to read to toddlers, babies and even unborn infants has turned into a national cause in recent years. Everyone from doctors to celebrities is pushing the idea with favorite projects and national ad campaigns. A new government report suggests those efforts might be making a difference. The annual survey on America's children issued this month by the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics shows that 58% of preschoolers 5 and younger are being read to on a regular basis by grown-ups in the family. That is 5 percentage points higher than in 1993. The survey is based on household interviews and represents a cross-section of economic, ethnic and education levels.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 06, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 10 inches; 375 words Type of Material: Correction
Literacy expert--A story in the July 30 issue of Southern California Living about reading to children misspelled the name of one children's literacy expert. The correct spelling is Jim Trelease. He is the author of "The Read-Aloud Handbook."
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"It seems so obvious that you should read to your children," Gina Eckstein-Green, mother of Gibson, said at story hour in Northridge. "Gibby" is a 2-year-old who already has his own library card and burns through three books a night with his mother.

What is obvious to some parents, however, is sometimes news to others. Overworked parents and those who barely speak English or are short on reading skills of their own are much more likely to send their kindergarteners off to school with little experience with books, experts say.

Some reading experts, although encouraged by the findings in the new government report, say it is more optimistic than other published studies on children's literacy. Even if more children are being read to, nationwide reading scores for primary school-age children have not improved significantly in the last decade. For example, California's youngest students have made strides in the last three years but remain far behind national averages on standard tests.

Jim Tralease, a Massachusetts-based author and lecturer on reading, is among those who say their experience in the field suggests there is a long way to go. His latest project is to push for an ad campaign about the harsh effects of failing to help children learn.

"Like the smoking campaign that gave us death-bed confessionals," he says. "Learn-to-read ads have to get mean, down and dirty. If your child can't read he'll fail in school, he's more likely to drop out, he'll probably end up in jail."

Tralease travels the country drilling parents and teachers on how to make words and stories a priority for their children. Fewer trips to the video store, more time in the public library would help, he says. But the basic problem is harder to fix. As a rule, children's literacy levels reflect their parents' income brackets. "The number of words that a 4-year-old knows varies tremendously from one economic group to another," says Tralease, adding that studies show that children from wealthy families are likely to have more than three times the vocabulary of children from low-income families.

To close the gap, Tralease advises that parents who aren't able to give their children everything to read to them about everything. That, or listen to books on tape with their children. Either way, he urges, "bring the book home and turn the pages with your child. If there aren't any books in the house it's kind of hard for a kid to learn how to read."

If more toddlers are getting exposure to new words and stories at an early age, Tralease gives credit to an army of experts and volunteers bent on improving standards. Everyone from First Lady Laura Bush to Hollywood producer Rob Reiner with his celebrity friends, Jamie Lee Curtis and Maria Shriver, promote reading programs. Pediatricians are starting to assess the learning abilities of toddlers as part of wellness care and to hand out free children's books in the waiting room.

"I believe all these programs together are having an effect," says Suzanne Flint, director of Reach Out and Read, a national program with 110 doctors offices involved in California. "The range of different approaches allows fewer people to fall through the cracks."

Progress may be slower than some advocates wish, but it is radically different from earlier decades. In the 1920s, Flint says, parents were warned against teaching their toddlers to read at all. "The idea was to respect the limits of 'neural ripening' and hold back until the child is at least 6. That, or risk causing brain damage."

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