As she watched her 3-year-old daughter, Gisell, enthusiastically study the page and count the number of monkeys jumping on the bed -- "uno, dos, tres, cuatro" -- Roxana Perez could hardly believe this was the same girl who once frowned at the sight of books.
"She was such a shy girl," Roxana said through an interpreter. "Now she's much more confident. My husband has even noticed the change in her language."
Later, Gisell playfully pointed to her head when Roxana and Lorena Garcia asked what happens to monkeys who fall off the bed.
Garcia visits the Perez family's Santa Ana apartment twice a week as part of a six-month program, reading children's books and teaching motor-skill development through toys.
The 30-minute sessions are the heart of an outreach program, HABLA (Home-based Activities Building Language Acquisition), that serves about 250 families -- nearly all immigrants from Mexico -- with children ages 2 to 4. The brainchild of UC Irvine cognitive scientist Virginia Mann, HABLA helps impoverished Latino parents who often don't know how to build their young children's language skills.
The 4-year-old program recently received $15,000 from the 2004 Times Holiday Campaign, which raises money for nonprofit groups that assist disadvantaged children and youths in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties.
Roxana and Maurilio Perez are typical of parents served by HABLA -- they make less than $17,000 a year, have less than nine years of schooling and speak Spanish almost exclusively.
"Many of these parents don't see the value in talking to their children and having their children talk back," Mann said. "But we know through research that a lot of the early teaching happens because of the parents."
Instructors such as Garcia encourage relaxed conversation between parent and child through reading and play. The goals are to increase the child's vocabulary and help in preparation for kindergarten.
"We're trying to build the concepts in Spanish in hopes that they'll translate that to English when they enter school," Mann said.
Mann and other child development experts said research had indicated that young children who build a foundation of skills in their native language picked up a second language more quickly.
HOW TO GIVE
The annual Holiday Campaign is part of the Los Angeles Times Family Fund, a fund of the McCormick Tribune Foundation. Donations to the campaign to help disadvantaged children and youths should be sent to L.A. Times Holiday Campaign, File 56986, Los Angeles CA 90074-6986. Do not send cash.
Credit card donations can be made at latimes.com/holidaycampaign. Information: (800) LA-Times, Ext. 75771.