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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, September 6, 2001

Parents have role in better learning

Advertiser News Services

Parents are witnessing radical change in public education.

Their youngsters are tested more than ever and face new demands to compete in an increasingly technical world.

But recent test scores show that U.S. students lag in critical subjects such as reading and math.

How do you help young children learn to read? When should your daughter take rigorous algebra courses? How do you stay in touch with the teachers?

Here are some answers to the latest research and practical advice to navigate the system.


Reading test results from 2000 show that fewer than one-third of fourth-graders nationwide read proficiently.

Without intervention, weak readers struggle through school because they cannot keep up with the grade-level textbooks. A recent report on the senior year of high school found that 13 percent of college freshmen had to take remedial reading classes.

The problem is so dire, President Bush wants to spend $5 billion over five years on programs to boost reading and push a strong academic focus in Head Start.

Reading instruction starts at home. Some suggestions:

• Use labeling games — such as asking toddlers to "show me your chin" — to expand their vocabulary. Researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risely found that babies exposed to high levels of talk performed better on IQ tests at age 3.

• At home and in school, children must learn that speech can be broken into smaller units.

"Kids as young as 4 respond quite well to learning about letters and sounds," said G. Reid Lyon, a child-development expert at the National Institutes of Health and Bush's top reading adviser.

• Even second-graders who can read independently should read aloud; otherwise, you cannot tell when they are stumbling over difficult words. Research from the National Reading Panel found that independent silent reading is not effective when it is the only reading instruction children get.

• Middle- and high-school students might still need help on comprehension skills.

"Lots of kids read very well and accurately, but they miss the point," Lyon said. Encourage children to ask questions as they read: What's the main point of this paragraph? How does this relate to my life?

Math and science

Parents and educators have been deluged with news about the inability of U.S. students to compete in an increasingly technical world. While fourth-graders rank high on international science and math surveys, by senior year they plunge near the bottom.

Many educators and policymakers say: Address this before high school. Suggestions:

• Between kindergarten and fifth grade, your child should learn the basics — addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, said Lee Stiff, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Students also must grasp concepts. In addition to knowing by rote that 8+6=14, they also should be able to regroup the numbers to recognize 8+2+4=14.

Help elementary kids with foundations of geometry and algebra. Use a shopping trip to teach the difference between shapes by comparing rectangular cereal boxes to cylindrical ice-cream containers.

• Students best-prepared for rigorous math and science in high school take algebra by Grade 8.

Middle-schoolers should take science that integrates subjects such as biology with chemistry. While many U.S. eighth-graders learn the parts of the eye, students elsewhere understand the biochemical process that causes images to be formed in the brain, said Michigan State professor William Schmidt.

All high-schoolers should take four years of math, Stiff's group says. The College Board suggests at least three years of lab sciences such as biology, chemistry and physics.

Know your child's teachers

How well do parents know their children's teachers and classroom techniques?

Some suggestions:

• "Talk to teachers early and often," said Michele Forman of Vermont, the 2001 National Teacher of the Year. "Don't wait until there is a problem."

• Ideally, parents should meet face-to-face with teachers. But don't discount other communication — by telephone or e-mail.

• Many school districts frown on parents making requests for specific teachers. But that does not mean parents have no say.

"Parents can ask important questions and demand answers," said Shirley Igo, president of the Chicago-based National PTA.

Ask your principal how many teachers are licensed. In the middle- and high-school grades, how many of your child's teachers have degrees in the subjects they teach?

You can steer clear of requesting an individual 10th-grade science teacher by instead talking with the principal about the kind of chemistry instruction your budding scientist needs.

Remember: As a parent, you'll get further with school administrators if they know you. Volunteer. Network with other parents.