WHEN Paul Copperman published his best-selling ``The Great Literary Hoax'' in 1978 - a full-scale critique of the declining American educational establishment - the title became a catch-phrase that angered many but helped others coalesce forces to halt the decline. The ``hoax'' said Copperman, a reading scholar and entrepreneur, was the deception placed on students and their parents by a system that inflated grades but kept skills, assignments, and standards down. The system, he said, had become undermined by team teaching, open-space schools, open and nongraded classes, teaching machines, and the abandonment of reading textbooks in many elementary schools. Though even critics saw the conclusions as well-documented, many felt the book was high on problem, low on solution.
Now Copperman is back with more ready remedies in what has become the second-phase of his now 20-year crusade to improve the literacy of America. Appointed in 1983 by President Reagan to the National Council on Educational Research, president for 17 years of his own San Francisco-based Institute of Reading Development (IRD), Copperman has assimilated additional years of research into ``Taking Books to Heart: How to Develop a Love of Reading in Your Child (Addison Wesley, Reading, Mass.). And he has started a national, reading education franchise campaign he expects will establish hundreds of reading schools like his own in 300 US cities by 1990.
Of the book, Copperman says: ``American educators have given children the freedom not to learn,'' To remedy the affliction outside the schools, says Copperman, ``it isn't enough just to say, `read to your children.' Parents need to know what the schools are teaching and what they're failing to provide. They need to know what reading skills are typical of each group. And they need a step-by-step plan to guide their children's reading development from the beginning stage of pre-reading through the advanced stage of fluency, good comprehension, and enjoyment.''
``Taking Books to Heart'' tries to be the step-by-step program Copperman says parents need to learn family reading programs. Its three parts discuss why one should read aloud in the first place, giving short descriptions of 100 of the best books for preschoolers; how schools teach reading, including why Copperman feels they do a thorough job of teaching kids to read words, but a poor job of instilling a love of reading or more advanced skills of comprehension; and what constitutes a good family reading regimen designed to help sustain a child's interest through the ``sometimes tedious, skill-building early years of elementary school.''
``It is a sensible, practical program, beautifully laid out and clearly explained,'' says Richard Anderson, director of the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois. ``As I read the book, I kept saying to myself, `Yes!' `Good!' `That's Right!' I know that the Family Reading Program is consistent with the best available research and professional judgment in American education today.''
The key element in Copperman's program is the ``Family Reading Hour.'' Copperman has produced evidence that the average middle-grade child reads books for pleasure no more than four or five minutes a day outside school. That needs to be changed drastically with the help of one ally, preferably two: the parents. Generally, that means helping each child structure a day that includes time set aside for reading for pleasure - and in a radically different format from the tedium of formal instruction at school, where the focus is reading for information.
In the preschool years, says Copperman, the child associates the pleasure of being read to aloud with an expression of attention, care, and love from the parents. The child ``will come to associate books and reading with the feelings of love and security.'' If the proper books are chosen - ones in which the main character triumphs and overcomes adversity through honesty, courage, fairness, faith, and love, according to Copperman - the child will also feel love emanating from the books and stories themselves: alphabet and counting books, picture books, poetry, even more complex tales and novels.
Over time, and many sessions of being read to aloud, discussing words, plots, characters, settings, and pictures, the child's interest, attention span, and eagerness for the printed word grow. The parent's role, never that of a teacher, becomes more one of helping the child structure his day away from competing pursuits such as television and idle play.
The key word, says Copperman, is pleasure. ``Pleasure reading is profound because an absorbed reader transforms information into experience - experiencing elements of geography, history, science etc. as relating to himself in important ways rarely found in classrooms or textbook treatments.'' ``Pleasure reading is self-directed learning, creating and nurturing the child's own, innate motivations for the things he is eager to learn and experience.'' ``Pleasure readers tend to gravitate toward more sophisticated materials with more complex ideas, vocabulary, and sentence structures.''
According to Chester E. Finn Jr., assistant US secretary of education for research and improvement, ``No one knows this subject matter better than Paul Copperman or writes about it with greater clarity and insight. His advice to parents is well worth the sizable investment in time and attention that it asks, for the dividends will be huge.'' Finn adds: ``Hurry. The children are waiting.''