My View

Melissa Rooney: When parents can’t read

June 9, 2014 

Those who read my May column may be wondering what is the second Bryce Courtenay quote that inspires me:

“If you read one good book a month to your kids, you will do more for their education than the entire education system will achieve in ten years.”

During my adolescence, I read what school required and not much else. During grad school, I rediscovered reading for pleasure and realized what a gift it is. Reading is the gateway to knowledge – if you can read, you can educate yourself … about anything. I knew I wanted my kids to learn and love reading as soon as possible.

From infancy, my daughter had a CD player in her room. When she was a toddler, I’d often get 30-90 minutes of alone time by playing children’s stories on audiotape (thank you, Junie B. Jones!). I’m certain that listening to stories, as opposed to watching them unfold on television, improves concentration, imagination, and reading abilities. That said, LeapFrog’s “Letter Factory” DVDs provided guilt-free television time; I’m convinced that playing these for kindergarteners several times each week would improve their reading skills significantly.

Around the time she turned 3, I began actively teaching my daughter to read. I’d become insanely bored cooking with plastic ingredients, playing with fuzzy dolls, etc; so, several times a day, it was easy to tell her that, if she was going to play with me, we were going to play “Reading.” My daughter is strong-willed like her mother. More often than not, she’d flash her temper, and I’d refuse to pay attention to her until she read a book with me. How long it took to sound out the three- to four-letter words in that book depended on her attitude (and mine).

After about 6 months, I literally saw her face light up as she truly understood what she was reading for the first time. Reading was easier after that, though we still had our moments. By the time she was 4 1/2, she was reading on her own. A weekly highlight was visiting the Durham County library and exchanging our load of old picture books for a stack of new ones. These occupied her for at least an hour when we got home.

My other two kids have had this same experience. When they started kindergarten, they were reading on a second-grade level. Meanwhile, most in their class didn’t know what sound each letter made.

I’ve never claimed my kids were rocket-scientists; my vote’s still out on the “Nature versus Nurture” puzzle. But I’ve no doubt that, regardless of his/her race or socioeconomic status, when a developmentally normal child is persistently exposed to reading from an early age, particularly by their parents, that child cannot help but learn to read.

This prognosis is both hopeful and disheartening, because it means that, to enable all kids to read, we’d have to start public school from the time they are toddlers or ensure their parents prioritize reading from an early age (which means ensuring the parents can read, themselves) or both. Lord knows we have enough trouble under-funding public education as it is. On the other hand, when fretting over how to improve public education, it is virtually taboo to consider the parents’ lack of education. Because when considering their lack of education, we must also consider their lack of opportunities – and facing that challenge would cost even more than funding public preschool.

If parents can’t or don’t read, it’s almost certain that their children will have problems reading. Indeed, it’s likely they will eventually read only on a rudimentary level – enough to get through life but not enough to reach their potential.

“Children are great imitators, so give them something great to imitate,” my kids’ kindergarten teacher wrote to me in a thank-you note that is taped above my bed.

The idea that some children in my daughter’s seventh-grade class read no better than she did in kindergarten astonishes and saddens me. It doesn’t have to be this way. It shouldn’t be this way.

While on the site-improvement team at my children’s elementary school, I insisted to the principal that we can’t make much headway until we reach the parents, make them accountable for their children and themselves and ensure they have the resources (including literacy) to be so.

The principal said there’s nothing we can do about what happens at home; we can only maximize what we can do during the 8 hours that they are at school. In other words, our hands are tied … a far worse prognosis and one that I simply cannot accept.

Melissa Rooney is a Durham scientist, writer and mother. You can reach her at mmr121570@yahoo.com

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