Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Tailoring the Reading to the Child

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Tailoring the Reading to the Child

Article excerpt

Forget celebrities in funny hats reading to kids on the evening news or principals kissing pigs. The crusade to solve America's reading crisis is getting serious.

More than 20 states recently passed new literacy laws, tacking on often-neglected funds to improve training for teachers and tutors. Thousands of communities are starting or expanding local literacy programs.

In addition, national-service volunteers and college students tutored more than 2.2 million children last year. Washington is extending its own literacy efforts to include families and day-care providers, as well as K-12 teachers. Some $260 million in new federal support for literacy training will be distributed next month - targeted to programs based on sound research, not just good intentions.

After decades of bouncing between supposedly cure-all reading methods, lots of kids are still not learning the most basic skill of all. And new testing programs at both the national and state level are making that failure harder to hide.

In the highest-poverty public schools, more than 2 in 3 fourth- graders can't read, according to the 1998 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). By the 12th grade, 23 percent of students are still reading poorly.

But recently, experts are calling for - and politicians are mandating - a "balanced approach" that tailors a program to each child's specific needs. Freeing teachers from relying exclusively on one methodcould ensure that more children become competent readers. But it requires teachers to be trained in and have access to materials for a range of methods - currently not the case in most schools.

"Every program we've ever studied works with some kids and leaves many behind," says G. Reid Lyon, chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

For 60 percent of US children, reading is a "formidable challenge," he says. For poor kids, the struggle to learn to read can be especially tough.

"There is an epidemic of reading difficulties among economically and socially disadvantaged children in the United States," Mr. Lyons told the House Committee on Education and the Workforce last week.

"Recent research shows that learning to read - or failure to do so - begins long before kids enter school. Children that are talked to and read to early start school with a big advantage.

"It is estimated that children from low-income homes enter school with an average of 16 total hours exposure to print, including books, alphabet letters and blocks, and name labels, while children from middle-income homes enter school with an average of 1,000 hours of exposure to print," says Lois Bader, a professor at Michigan State University.

Early exposure to rhyme and alliteration helps children develop what experts call "the alphabetic principle," or an ability to connect sounds and print. …

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