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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 7, 2004

Failure to read well by 3rd grade makes it tough for kids to catch up

By Treena Shapiro
Advertiser Education Writer

After third grade, students stop learning to read and start reading to learn. If they have not mastered reading before entering fourth grade, they begin falling behind in all other subjects.

Schools superintendent Pat Hamamoto has set a goal of having all public-school kids reading by the end of third grade, but there are many ways parents can make the path to literacy smoother.

From birth, read to the child as much as possible. "That's the best that any parent can do," said state Department of Education specialist Marian Crislip.

Another thing parents and teachers can do is "echo reading," where the adults read one line and the child reads the next.

When you read aloud, do it with exaggerated expression. "Just show the children that reading is an enjoyable act and it's a lot of fun," Crislip said. "What we are trying to convey to the children is that print has sound, sound makes words, words make sentences and sentences make thoughts."

If you suspect there might be a problem, however, don't wait to talk with the child's teacher or principal. Determine whether the problem is the reading program or the child.

Studies indicate that while the majority of children can learn to read by any classroom method, those who struggle need additional work with phonics.

"Right now, 35 to 40 percent of the children in Hawai'i are failing to read (at grade level) — they cannot read at what's considered a basic level," said Lou Salza, head of ASSETS School for gifted and dyslexic children. "These kids don't have dyslexia. They have 'dysteachia.' "

Salza said educators need to drop the debate between "whole language" approaches and phonics. "You need both," he said. "You have to teach phonics in a systematic, structured way."

Children with learning disabilities need to be identified before the third grade, Crislip said. "We've already lost three years of school," she said. "It's very hard to catch up. They're already two grade levels behind."

These students need remedial classes, and by the third grade they will need accelerated learning skills to catch up to their grade level.

They also need to be taught using less traditional methods. For instance, by second or third grade, children are in a hurry to learn and should not be made to guess.

Instead of having children struggle to figure out a word through mistakes, teachers should tell them exactly what they need to know so they can practice repeatedly and correctly, Crislip said.

People can learn to read at any age, Salza said, but "as a child gets older it's more difficult, because there might be other issues now." The child could suffer from low self-esteem or have given up the struggle to learn.

Crislip places responsibility on the schools, but also "parents are a critical part of how prepared children come to school to learn." She suggests helping children with homework, reading with them, talking about what they have read and keeping the lines of communication open.

"We can say parents are responsible, but we can't put them on detention," she said. "We just ask them to be really cognizant of the influence they have on their children."

Salza wants to make sure parents know "it doesn't matter how slow you go, as long as you don't stop. It just doesn't matter. You just have to keep going."

That way, even if students never catch up to their grade level, "they don't continue to slip further and further and further behind."

Reach Treena Shapiro at tshapiro@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8070.