The crusade to get children to read. They'll learn to do it if they learn to like it

KIDS who won't read, don't read, and can't read, plus all who can -- they're the targets for Nicholas P. Criscuolo. For 29 years, this reading specialist and supervisor has worked to get young people to read, and a little more. He wants them to like reading.

Dr. Criscuolo has always believed in bringing parents into the reading picture. They're needed, he says, not just for problem cases, but for top readers, too. With shouts of ``school's out'' resounding around the neighborhoods, now is the time for parents to inch into their children's reading program. There's all summer to build a working relationship.

In broad terms, Criscuolo explains that kids who ``won't'' read are those who probably can read but have built a mental block, putting books on a par with centipedes and succotash. Avoidance at all cost. The ``don'ts'' can be highly capable readers, but their calendars are generally jammed with sports, rock, TV, and such.

The ``can't'' group simply hasn't yet learned the ways of reading. It's these youngsters who pulled Criscuolo into the reading field. ``When I was teaching,'' he says, ``I had some fourth-graders who couldn't read. Not a word.'' That was back in 1957; since then, he's been on a reading crusade.

``Parents should be the reinforcers, the nurturers,'' says the former teacher, who has been supervisor of reading for New Haven Schools for 18 years; has had more than 550 articles printed in educational publications; has designed workshops for parents, showing them how to foster learning in their offspring; has spoken on reading in 23 states; and formerly served on the board of directors for the International Reading Association.

With these credentials to back him up, Criscuolo maintains that the classroom can't do it all. That's why he looks to parents. ``They're the ones who can help make reading fun. They can make it a game,'' he says, explaining that once children view reading as drudgery, their progress limps instead of races.

Criscuolo has compiled a book packed with activities that he shares with New Haven parents. All the at-home activities are tied to reading skills and beribboned with playfulness. A few:

While supper is simmering, let the beginning reader use cooked or uncooked strands of spaghetti to form letters on the kitchen table.

Here's one that does double duty; it reinforces a child's alphabetizing and also gets a chore done. Make a list of everything in a room. Then ask the child to help with the dusting, item by item in alphabetical order.

Write words or simple sentences on balloons with a marker. Blow them up, have the youngster retrace the letters to darken the print, read the words together, then send them aloft to find another reader.

Criscuolo is at the helm of a reading program for about 18,000 young people, ranging from kindergartners to high school seniors, in 31 New Haven schools. Time with him was not an interview but a spin. People popped in to ask about this and people popped in to ask about that, and would he please take this phone call right now? Criscuolo has a knack for shifting conversational gears without losing the thread of what's being said. More often than not, he trots rather than walks around the office, and every ounce of him goes into putting his ideas across. Eyes, hands, arms, shoulders, all ``speak'' in cadence with his conversation.

Now a biography buff, Criscuolo grew up on a diet of mysteries, Dr. Doolittle, and his mom's ``A-1'' homemade ravioli in a New Haven household where library cards were prize possessions. So it's understandable that he makes a strong case for family trips to the library.

``Surround children with so many books that they'll stumble over them,'' Criscuolo advises. If books are as uncommon as bootjacks in the family living room, then children will grow up thinking of them as oddities rather than everyday commodities.

For sure, he contends, books on the shelves should do more than accent the sofa fabric. They need to be read often and regularly. Criscuolo suggests setting aside time after supper, maybe only 15 minutes, when everyone in the family reads a book, magazine, or newspaper, silently and solo. Preschoolers can ``read'' their picture books with the promise of being ``read to'' before bedtime.

This after-dinner routine is when the ``won't'' and ``can't'' readers might balk. So, says Criscuolo, find out what the children's interests really are, and help them pursue those topics in print. If a young person likes frontier adventure, feed him that, and forget the fantasy for the moment. ``It's amazing,'' says the unmarried educator, ``just how many parents don't really know what their children like.'' Madonna and the ``Refrigerator'' and those cops in Miami, yes. But beyond those.

For parents who are in the dark on this score, Criscuolo has a remedy. At supper some night -- hopefully the television is off then, he says -- pass out questionnaires asking such things as ``Who's your favorite TV star? If you could be anyone you want, who would that be? Who in the movies has the goopiest hairdo? Who's the best sports player today? Why? If you could buy a ticket to anywhere, where would you go?'' Everyone takes part, including Dad. And for those who can't write, another family member lends a hand. When answers are shared, parents get a good-sized peek into their children's likes and priorities. Then they can pair readers' tastes with short stories, books, or magazine articles on those topics.

At this point, the ``won't'' and ``can't'' readers shouldn't have to face a fat book. ``Thin is in,'' Criscuolo advises. And watch the reading levels. If a 10-year-old is bumbling along on a second-grade level, let him. This is after-supper fun, not school. According to Criscuolo, nurturing and pushing aren't synonymous. ``If a youngster is on an eighth-grade level, don't give him Tolstoy'' to prod him to higher heights so parents can beam with pride. This tactic can send a good reader down the ``won't'' road.

Criscuolo also says that ``it's up to parents to monitor their children's reading material, to show them what's worthwhile and what's not. Their TV, too.''

In his view, ``television isn't all bad. But it's not all good, either.'' Teaching kids how to use the on-off button and the channel switch is at the crux of it all. Parents ``must develop their kids' discriminating talents, both in books and TV,'' Criscuolo says. If parents are tube addicts, chances are their kids will be, too. The proverbial monkey-see, monkey-do pattern is never more true than where TV is concerned. Criscuolo would rather have kids see their parents reading than tubing.

Criscuolo's constant admonition is not to let children be ``glued to the tube.'' According to him, it's no excuse to say, ``But they don't like to read books.'' He'll tell you there are plenty of other things parents and kids can read together: recipes, directions for assembling a toy, plays, road maps, comics, headlines, riddles, jokes, magazines, movie reviews, advertisements, menus, road signs, historical markers, letters, greeting cards, street signs, tax returns, employment forms, bank statements, marquees, billboards. And, you can be sure, Criscuolo could go on and on.

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