Parents, schools help develop reading skills in children

''You should look for strengths in your kids instead of weaknesses,'' says Pat Koppman, a teacher, parent, reading consultant, and lecturer from San Diego, Calif. She also is on the nine-member board of the International Reading Association, a 65,000-member organization dedicated to promoting literacy.

Ms. Koppman, the frizzy-haired daughter of a Kentucky preacher, visits approximately 300 school districts each year to lecture before parents and teachers on the value of reading. She tells this tale of strengths and weaknesses in Seattle, Wash.:

''I told a group of parents to go home and look at their kids - this is easier to do when they're asleep - and think of all the strengths each one has. A couple came up to me afterward and said, 'We have three sons and can think of the strengths of two of them, but nothing about the third.' ''

After some probing, she got the father to admit that the third son was ''the oldest and the best looking. I said, Stop right there. Have you seen Robert Redford lately? No one's asked him what reading group he's in, right? Good looks are quite an asset.''

To Ms. Koppman, however, being an avid reader is the strength - and the goal - parents should support in their children.

Doing something as simple as talking to the child while you prepare dinner is a firm step toward that goal, she says. ''You'd be surprised at the number of parents who don't even talk with their kids, let alone read to them.''

Asked if she thinks such communication is more difficult in two-career or single-parent families, she states abruptly that ''the 'poor working mother' syndrome is a cop-out. If you have time to go to the hairdresser or get your house cleaned before your mother-in-law arrives, you have time to spend 10 minutes a day reading to your kids. In the working world, family is the first responsibility we cut out,'' she says plainly.

She doesn't advise the other extreme - having the parent substitute as teacher. ''The most important 'homework' to be done outside school is practicing the skills that children learn at school,'' she says, advising teachers not to send home any work the child hasn't yet learned to do. ''Pretty soon, the kid and his parents are screaming at each other because he doesn't understand how to do it. And the next thing you know, the parent is blaming the teacher for not teaching his kid.''

With Ginn & Co. (a textbook publisher), Ms. Koppman has designed a series of ''home activity papers'' that reinforce lessons already learned in school and let parents encourage their children's success. To practice their understanding of cause and effect, for example, fifth-graders are introduced to an ''if/then'' game. The child says, ''If something happens (if cats ate spinach),'' and the parent responds, ''Then something else takes place (then cats would be as strong as Popeye).'' Suggested readings also go home with each activity paper.

More than words or games is expected from the parent, Ms. Koppman says. Parents are models for their children - for good or bad - and need to show their love for reading by example. ''Read novels, correspondence, newspapers, magazines, and instructions in such things as recipes, patterns, and manuals,'' she advises. ''Read together the directions for video games. Make recipes together.''

She also wants parents to model an attitude of respect toward the schools, saying that poor behavior in school often starts in homes where the education process is held in a negative or trivial light.

''Look at the place the teacher held in the community 100 years ago,'' she says, ''and then look at the rank she's given today. We are losing our professionalism,'' says the former Title I teacher in San Diego's public schools.

In exchange, Ms. Koppman believes that teachers are taking on tasks far beyond their role. ''Our society has given up parenting to the schools,'' she says, ''but my motto for 1983 is 'Draw the line. We are not parents; we are teachers.' ''

With teachers instructing and parents supporting, a child can learn to build from one success to another and become a good reader, she believes - going from strength to strength.

Here are the steps Ms. Koppman recommends for actively involved parents to support reading at home:

* Spend time - build time into personal schedules to talk to children. Read to, talk to, and listen to each child. Dwell on strengths, not weaknesses.

* Make a place at home for children to do homework - the kitchen table is fine. Make sure TV, video games, and other distractions do not occur during homework time. Be available when the child does homework - parent support is important and needed. Do not make homework a dreaded activity.

* Limit TV.

* Support the school's education program. Treat schooling as important. Teach respect for teachers.

* The more knowledge a child has, the more successful he or she is likely to be in learning to read. Any expansion of the child's experience helps. Zoos, museums, shopping malls, grocery stores, cooking, cleaning, starting a collection (stamps, coins, seashells, rocks) are excellent ways to give the child new interests.

* If the child is reluctant to read aloud at home, try to find another activity that includes reading, such as a game or puzzle you both can do. Praise all successes and minimize errors in reading.

* If the child skips words or stumbles over a particular word, tell him what it is and move on. Remember, he's reading for meaning, not pronunciation. You might make a list of problem words as he reads and review them later.

* Suggested readings for parents:

''A Parents Guide to Children's Reading,'' by Nancy Larrick. (New York: Bantam Books.)

''How to Help Your Child Start School,'' by B. Ryan. (New York: Putnam.)

''The Read-Aloud Handbook,'' by J. Trelease. (New York: Penguin.)

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