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Parents, not schools, must teach kids to read

Published July 5, 2004

When I was in first grade, my teacher made me take a note home to my parents. When my father read it, an expression I remember as amusement crossed his face.

Then he told me very seriously that I probably should not discuss in school the books I'd been reading at home. My crime, in this particular incident, had been using the term "whorehouse" in class.

My father and I agreed that I would keep my reading to myself during school hours, although of course I could continue to read what I pleased, including Gone With the Wind, the book from which I had learned the unmentionable word. I tell this story not to show that I was particularly smart, but that my father was. I had started reading at 3 because he'd taught me to read, as his mother had taught him at the same age.

My father never went to college; his mother was a teacher, but she never went to college, either. She taught in what was literally a one-room schoolhouse in the coal fields of Kentucky, with children of every age crammed into a tiny ramshackle building beside a creek.

But my father taught me to read, and his mother taught him.

I've been thinking about these things now that school is out and many parents are wondering how best to help their children with their summer reading lists. Here's why: We have convinced ourselves that only those with a degree in education, particularly those with specialized training and certification in reading education, can teach our children to read.

Yet I know that can't be true. My own experience tells me that. And countless parents over the centuries, both here and abroad, have taught others, both children and adults, to read. Although it can lead to rocket science, teaching someone to read isn't, in fact, rocket science. If it were, no one would have learned to read before the advent of certification and specialization, and clearly they did. Teachers colleges as we know them are a product of the 20th century - but still, Americans learned to read.

We are impressed by credentials. The people to whom we entrust our young are certified, we say; they are experts. How then to explain the successes of children who are homeschooled? Many not only keep up with their peers in the government-sponsored educational system, they often surpass them in reading ability and other skills. Some even go on to attend quite adequate colleges.

Parents are, and should be, their children's first teachers. I'm afraid that many of us have forgotten that, even though we don't hesitate to teach our children to speak, eat, play, walk or ride a bike. It is possible, I imagine, that some parents are simply so burdened with keeping the family going that it becomes easier to pass the chore on to professionals. Other parents, I imagine, may feel inadequate to the task, particularly those whose educational backgrounds may not include college, or even a high school diploma.

But we are putting the most important responsibility a parent or guardian can have into the hands of people who have many other children to attend to in our often-overcrowded schools. We put it in the hands of - no offense meant to those teachers who take their jobs seriously and truly wish to help our kids - people unrelated to us, people whose commitment to our children is, by necessity, less strong than our own.

Make no mistake: Teaching a person to read is an enormous responsibility. Reading helps shape who we become and what we think. In handing over that incredibly important task to others, we allow those others to choose for us the subjects that we think about. We allow them, to a great degree, to shape what we think about those subjects.

The very act of reading is such a strong influence on who and what we become that even now I am grateful to my parents for not leaving the task to my otherwise wonderful, well-meaning teachers. During the years I taught writing and literature to college students, I saw a very clear difference between the students who read and those who didn't. The readers were overwhelmingly better writers and communicators. They were overwhelmingly more skillful in expressing their ideas; they were more curious, more imaginative. I have no qualms about stating this as fact, because I saw it consistently, wherever I taught, whomever I taught.

Yet we allow ourselves to forget the importance of reading, then we wring our hands when our children do poorly on reading tests, when they are held back in third grade because, by then, their own language is very nearly foreign to them. And we forget that, for good or ill, children emulate their parents. After working all night, my father would come home and make coffee in an old percolator. Afterward, he would stand at the kitchen table and read until it was time for the rest of us to get up. Clearly, if my father spent so much time doing it, it had to be important.

If you wish to help your children be successful in school - and more to the point, successful in life - read where they can see you. Read often. Read widely. Even if you don't enjoy it, even if you have other things to do, even if you're tired.

If you want to leave a legacy for your children, the love of reading is, I think, the most important gift you can bestow. Our schools can't do it all, and those who leave this job to our educational system are handicapping their children in a terrible way. Their children most likely will never catch up to the kids who come to school knowing how to read and how to learn. They almost certainly won't catch up to the ones who come to school not only knowing how to read, but loving it.

Given the difficulty that so many children are having with reading, I am grateful beyond words that my parents left me to my own devices after having provided me with the simple tools needed to read, on my own, a book. Or an article in a magazine. Or a story in a newspaper. Yes, my teachers routinely scolded them, but my parents held their own and refused to back down, refused to allow others to dictate what I could read and when.

And they accepted the responsibility of being their children's primary teachers. When that happens on a larger scale, we as a society will be the better for it.

- Lynn Stratton, a St. Petersburg Times database editor, taught writing at the University of South Florida for 15 years. She can be reached at 727 892-2388 or

[Last modified July 2, 2004, 10:51:55]

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