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Parent-Teacher Partnership Called the Key to Reading

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Washington--Working together, parents and school officials can do more than either could do alone to make lifelong, successful readers of children. But the process of developing a strong partnership, according to many of the participants at a recent Library of Congress symposium, involves more than simply keeping the doors of the schools open.

The national symposium, sponsored by the Library's Center for the Book, brought together 73 invited participants, who contributed their thoughts and reactions on the subject of "Reading and Successful Living: The Family-School Partnership."

Speakers Discuss Themes

Several themes emerged from the day-long symposium, organized around four main speakers who offered their perspectives as a school superintendent, a parent, a librarian, and a reading teacher.

In order to strengthen parents' interest and involvement in their children's reading, many symposium participants agreed, school officials must communicate with parents and foster an atmosphere of mutual trust between them and teachers. The officials must also use television, computers, and other forms of technology to work for, rather than against them.

The audience of librarians, parents, and educators agreed that the benefits of working with parents to encourage better reading can be substantial.

For example, studies have shown that children with the highest degree of "reading success" are those who have seen people reading--parents, brothers and sisters, or other family members, noted Carl B. Smith of the International Reading Association Committee.

"Reading is a prime example of an area where shared responsibility can increase educational effectiveness," said Verne A. Duncan, Oregon state superintendent of public instruction, who added, "We make our job more difficult if we fail to use parents."

And as Robert C. Andringa, executive director of the Education Commission of the States, emphasized in his keynote address, educators can be faulted in some ways for not encouraging parental involvement.

Though not entirely intentionally, the schools, he suggested, have assumed exclusive domain over the process of educating, creating "a false set of expectations" regarding a student's learning while at the same time alienating parents from this educating process.

Ideally, he continued, we should return to the concept that "parents have the primary responsibility for education ... and that schools are a service organized by society to help parents educate their children."

But families are not the relatively homogeneous entities they used to be, pointed out Karl A. Plath, superintendent of Township High School District #113 in Highland Park, Ill. Because many more children now live in single-parent households where the parent is often holding down a full-time job, he said, that parent may have less time to devote to supervising the child's reading.

Greater Effort Required

As a result, noted Mr. Plath and others, school officials must exert more effort simply to reach parents, let alone to encourage them to take an active interest in their children's reading habits. Under these circumstances, school officials may have to reach out into the community more and carry their reading campaign into the workplace and other public places.

Mutual trust between parents and school officials also plays an important role in strengthening the reading partnership, Mr. Duncan noted. Often, he said, schools do not trust parents, and parents do not trust the schools. They must be made to feel welcome in the schools, Mr. Duncan said, adding: "I visit schools all the time, and sometimes I don't feel comfortable."

The problem of trust can be particularly acute for minority parents, noted Lucille C. Thomas, assistant director of elementary schools for the New York City Board of Education. "I have great empathy for minority parents who are intimidated by schools, who never see themselves as educators of their children. They've been programmed otherwise, so they do expect schools to do everything."

Edward L. Palmer, vice-president for research at the Children's Television Workshop, offered some relatively simple steps that parents and educators can take to encourage children to read.

For example, schools could send home a monthly "tip" sheet for parents. "The tips need not be elaborate," said Mr. Palmer, a psychologist and former teacher of high-school English. "One example is to provide an atmosphere of respect for the requirements of someone who is reading. An explanation of the importance of storytelling in the motivation of reading interest is another."

Other suggestions to promote family involvement include shutting off the television for a period of time each day in favor of a family reading period, or having the whole family choose and read a book aloud, by daily installments, accompanied by discussion.

Reading Partnership

Several participants suggested that even non-reading parents can become involved in the reading partnership. In these cases, educators can emphasize the importance of oral communication or suggest that an older sibling or friend read to younger children.

The theme of technology--television and computers--also ran through the symposium. Reading, the participants stressed, is still a vital skill, but school officials and families must make children aware of its benefits and rewards.

"Is reading still important?" asked Mr. Duncan. "Yes. I keep hearing that electronic technology will make reading obsolete. I reject that concept. We in education failed to harness the power of television; we may also fail with computers. If we fail to enlist the 'silicon soldiers' in the battle, we will end up competing with them."

Leo Fay, chairman of the language education departments at Indiana University's school of education, pointed out that 98 percent of all jobs require some reading, much of it involving the higher skills of problem-solving. The need for this skill will increase in the future, he said. Moreover, he added, a person who cannot read cannot operate a computer. But computers may be useful as tools to motivate children to read, several speakers noted.

The symposium, which was also sponsored by the American Association of School Administrators, the American Association of School Librarians, the International Reading Association, and the National Parent-Teacher Association, will be followed by sessions at the annual meetings of the four organizations. The symposium's organizers also plan to issue a report.

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