Teaching parents -- as well as children -- to read

By , Mary Conroy, a lecturer in learning skills at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has had nine years of teaching experience at the elementary through adult levels.

Have you ever heard someone remark, ''Education begins at home''? If so, the speaker was probably discussing the importance of the early years in children's learning. It's likely that he then gave tips on teaching reading or campaigned for better day-care facilities. Chances are good that he gave little attention to the child's most important teachers - his parents. Yet literate parents are precisely what is needed to provide quality childhood education.

Unfortunately, too many of today's parents lack basic literacy skills. One out of five American adults does not read or write well enough to cope with the most minimal demands of daily life. Nearly 30 percent of the population is estimated to be functionally incompetent at managing the family budget. Vast numbers of American adults cannot address a letter so that it will reach its destination. Illiteracy affects even greater numbers of minorities, including blacks and Hispanics.

Traditionally, we have attacked the problem of illiteracy through preventive programs for elementary and preschool children. The ounce-of-prevention position resulted in a myriad of programs to develop vocabulary, counting, and word attack skills. Montessori schools, Head Start, and Sesame Street are just a few of the approaches used to prevent illiteracy.

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Regrettably, these approaches haven't always worked: Illiteracy is a problem even among their ''graduates.'' Our literacy campaigns have been too limited. We taught the children for a few hours a day but neglected to teach the persons with whom they would spend the rest of their day - their parents. This is much like exposing a plant to sunlight for an hour or two, then hiding it in a dark closet.

Just as we can wipe out an hour or two of sunlight by putting plants in the dark, so too we can wipe out reading programs by keeping children in literacy-poor environments. On the other hand, by trying to reach parents first, or by reaching parents and children at once, we may get more lasting results.

Literate parents can serve a dual role: They can directly teach their children to read, and they can provide a home environment that encourages reading. When there are books, magazines, and newspapers in a home, children become interested in reading. Children imitate their parents; thus parents who read at home are likely to have children who read. Children who read at home become more fluent readers because they simply practice reading more than those who only read at school.

But these are not the only reasons for reaching adults before children. When we teach adults to read, the country reaps the ''payback'' benefits more quickly. Literate adults can immediately begin to show returns on the investment.

For instance, in 1980, 464 students in Wisconsin's adult basic education programs were removed from the welfare rolls. This saved the state $1.5 million in welfare and medicaid payments.

Additionally, 1,055 students obtained new or better jobs as a result of their adult basic education classes. Their projected annual income was $7,351,240. Much of that income will be returned to the community as these literate adults purchase goods and services and pay taxes. Counting income taxes alone, these students pay back the cost of their education to the community within a maximum of three years.

During those three years, these newly literate adults also serve as literate models for their children. They encourage reading by their example, and provide a home environment for their children that supports reading.

Currently, however, federal programs reach less than 5 percent of the 56 million adults who need functional literacy training. Funding for even these meager efforts is being cut severely. These cuts are a return to our backward approach to literacy training: We will ignore our ''backward'' adults and overemphasize training youth. This retreat from the war against adult illiteracy will have a domino effect: By allowing adult illiteracy to grow we are putting our children in the dark.

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