MAINE — 'Why isn't my child reading?" is a lament I often hear when I first meet the parents of my incoming fifth-graders. By the time they reach me, parents have listened to all the tips recommended by teachers in earlier grades and are quick to tell me the strategies they have tried.
Here's a sampling: "We read to our son every night when he was little"; "We have bookcases full of books around the house"; "We set aside reading time each evening for our kids, with absolutely no TV"; "I let my daughter read whatever interests her - magazines, newspapers, comic books, even 'Goosebumps'!"; and "I take him to the library every week."
When parents finish listing the efforts they have made without success, they often look at me accusingly, as though all the advice from educators is a hoax. In the earlier years of my career, I would return their stare with equal consternation. Why weren't these strategies working?
These days I answer their questions with some queries of my own. "How often do your kids see you reading?" "What are you doing during that time you set aside each night for your kids to read?"
Without being contentious, I try to impress upon parents the importance of setting an example. The best home library in the world is worthless if parents aren't readers themselves. I ask them to remember the early literacy behavior of their children: writing grocery lists (like mom), writing notes about their whereabouts (like older siblings), wanting to read aloud (like dad from the newspaper), even when they can't read yet.
Children take their cues from adults and emulate behaviors that are valued. Many parents assure me they read daily, but not until they're in bed. It's good to know they practice what they preach, but sleeping children don't see reading parents, and they should. Parents are usually receptive to my gentle probing. I've come to call my response the "Vegetables at Dinner" theory. As with getting children to eat broccoli at meals, parents need to be visible when they're enjoying a book.
This past year I took my theory one step further: I invited parents - via a newsletter - to join my class's discussion groups. The idea was motivated by two goals. I wanted moms and dads to see how savvy their children were when talking about books. And I wanted to connect parents and their children through the experience of reading common books.
The response was fantastic. Requests for books began immediately. From then on, at least one guest joined our circle, and we often had to bring in extra chairs to accommodate parents who participated. Parents whose schedules did not allow them to join us during the school day read our books anyway and sent in notes with their thoughts, or more important, discussed the stories with their children at home. It was rewarding to hearing a student begin a sentence with, "Well, my dad and I talked about...." or "My mom picked this out and I thought it was a good prediction...."
Concerned parents work hard to support at home the learning their children do at school. It's important that educators remember that a genuine collaboration between the home and school is a two-way street.
* Suzanne Stroble Kaback is on maternity leave from the Holbrook School, a middle school in Holden, Maine.