Can Disadvantaged Parents Motivate Children for Reading?
by Adeline W. Gomberg - 1970
Professor Gomberg sketches here the story of a Philadelphia experiment in which workshops were organized for teaching the parents of Head Start pupils how to teach their children to learn. The larger questions could not be answered in one summer's experience; but Dr. Gomberg does indicate that disadvantaged parents, when made sufficiently aware of the learning opportunity being offered to them, can achieve a good deal of learning themselves as they find out about teaching their children to read.
Can parents, as their children's initial teachers, help prevent failure in schools? Can they be taught the developmental process of reading and help their children learn to read? On June 27, 1967, an experiment was undertaken under the auspices of the School District of Philadelphia to determine whether or not disadvantaged parents could be taught to prepare their children for reading in the schools.
We were aware of the faulty assumptions underlying the thinking of many educators: that all children entering school have had learning experiences and expect "school" to be one more place for asking questions and learning; that all children will attend to what their teachers say instead of "tuning out"; that all children will respond immediately to the tasks at hand; that all children will fully understand what is expected of them; that all anticipate success. By now most teachers are familiar with the absurdity of assuming that every student has been reared by parents who have inculcated good habits of work and questioning, a sense of purpose, and an awareness of the importance of maintaining academic standards. They know they can no longer take for granted parents' understanding that they are participants in a cooperative educational venture. Nor can they take it for granted that their pupils' parents have been engaging in oral communication with the children—acquainting them with formal language patterns, complex phrases, descriptive words, and the multiple meanings and understandings symbolic discourse makes possible.
Like teachers throughout the country, those involved in the Philadelphia experiment were reevaluating what might be done through working with parents to prevent the academic failure that is due to deprivation in the early years. They embarked, in time, on an experimental program of teaching parents to teach their children to learn. A workshop for parents was established in June, 1967 for the parents of thirty children who had been accepted in the Pennell Elementary School's summer Head Start program. It was assumed that thirty would attend the workshop sessions; but not one parent came to the room assigned when the workshop was scheduled to begin. After investigation, we discovered that they had not been asked to commit themselves firmly; and telephone calls were made in the attempt to assemble a group. The next day, three parents arrived, staying only long enough to explain why they could not come. They might come, they said, if we met once a week, or perhaps twice a week. One hour daily? They would have, they said, to think about it. "Why," each one wanted to know, "should I come?" We began selling the program, using the argument that we— parents and teachers—were partners in helping children to learn better. Parents, we said, had much to tell the teachers; and we were willing to listen and to learn from them. "Oh yeah?" "Definitely, yeah!" We asked them to try it and see.
We got busy writing letters which we pinned on each child whether or not he was in the Head Start program, opening the workshop to any interested parent. On June 29, the third day, four parents arrived. They agreed really to start after the 4th of July. One parent remained for more than an hour, testing our willingness to listen to him talk about raising a child whom "nobody wanted or loved." On July 5, six parents arrived at 8:45 a.m., and the workshop started. (Forty-seven parents answered our letters and expressed interest.) The first hours were spent in sharing opinions about the nature of learning, ways of learning, styles of thinking and remembering. Since our questioning focused on the children and not upon adults, parents did not seem to feel threatened. For example (after we introduced ourselves around the tables), the writer started out by identifying herself as a mother of two children, and the foster mother of two others. She then briefly explained how she first became aware that one of her children was learning something. (In response to her calling her three-month-old son, he had turned his head towards her and smiled. When she moved in back of him, he had turned his head to follow her voice. He was learning to recognize her and to respond to her voice.) When questioned about the earliest age at which they remembered their own children noticing or remembering, each parent was eager to talk. Once recollections were shared, we listed all the elements that had been a part of this elementary initial learning process. This was followed by a game to tease listening, recall, and memory: "Please go to the door, open it, look outside to the right, then to the left, close the door, return to your chair, sit down and say, 'That was easy,' Mrs. So-and-So." Using their names at the end of the directions caught the non-listeners. Two parents laughingly "failed" and openly approved the father who had been more alert. Parents took turns leading the game and gave amusing directions.
Two important decisions were made by the parents:
To illustrate: once the sessions were underway, a few parents decided that they would construct alphabet cards as a reading readiness activity. They asked for a lesson on manuscript writing, assembled oak-tag, cut out squares, and printed the letters. Some began to think of possible ways in which these cards could be most effectively used. They ruled out using them as flash cards—"Too much like school." Putting them in alphabetical sequence was a "one-shot-deal." With some help, after they were "stuck," they thought of playing "Concentration" with them. This led to making another set, since they needed pairs.
In testing their "game," their own confusion became apparent: two parents could not "read," others weren't sure about the "m" or the "w," the "p" or the "q," the "b" or the "d." The impact of careful seeing, left-to-right direction, became more than a phrase to them. They put in dots under the "m" and "w" to give them better cues, and a stroke on the "q" to differentiate it from the "p." As they played, some decided to keep score since they too wanted to "win." One parent began to shuffle the letters around and began to construct words. This led to a new game using the same cards. The added realization of the importance of the vowels led them to constructing a minimum of five pairs of each vowel. And, so, the words began to form. Parent vied against parent, first constructing three letter words, then four, then five. Dictionaries were needed, since some parents refused to yield on a meaningless word when challenged. Each session led to other equally meaningful activities as the parents learned the various aspects of a developmental reading program.
The importance of naming common words proved sufficiently important to the parents for them to spend a full week constructing bingo charts. They hunted through magazines and assembled pictures to illustrate objects that fly and move, wearing apparel, trees and flowers, foods, neighborhood stores, etc. For each picture used, a second identical picture was pasted on another card.
Two parents made picture alphabet booklets for children too young to attend "Head Start." Others made consumable booklets in which their children could trace manuscript letters. Two parents decided to make alphabet cards with a picture on each one to use as display at home. One constructed an alphabetical mobile. These became their personal gifts, and they ruled out the "one-shot" concept.
Some sessions were given over to a discussion of books children enjoy; the school library was utilized, and parents browsed. Collections were brought in and shared as parents took turns reading some pages aloud. One parent clipped pages from Ebony magazine and wrote her own story about "My Family." Others followed her lead, and all experienced a sense of budding creative pride as their efforts were praised.
Only nine parents were able to keep to a pattern of work and daily adherence to a schedule. Only nine became committed to learning. More than forty-seven parents expressed interest, yet only nine attended daily. Attendance over all ranged from twenty-one to nine. On the sixth and final week, new faces were constantly seen. Parents newly arrived expressed annoyance that they had not fully understood what was being offered.
A better method of attracting parents and informing them about a workshop has still to be found. Announcements during Home and School Meetings might be followed by the ringing of doorbells. A "Block Leader" plan might be attempted.
Parents actively learning were better able to involve their children. In response to a questionnaire evaluating the effect of the workshop, a parent wrote:
…In the few weeks we were together I really learned how to help my children to concentrate. My youngest could not sit still long enough; but when we play the games at home he is really interested in what is going on. In bingo he knows he must learn all the words to be the caller. Now he takes the cards and reads them on his own. He plays with the neighbors on the patio in bingo and concentration. At this time I would like to thank you very much. ...
Another response read as follows:
It was the most wonderful thing that has happened to me since becoming a mother. I have always tried to help and spend as much time with my children as possible. ... I have learned how simple it is to play so many different games while learning and everyone has fun. ... If only the classes could be all year. . . .
The activities involving reading which the parents preferred were: scrabble, alphabet concentration, homonym cards, and linguistic bingo games. These activities were most successfully used at home with children ranging in age from five to twelve years. Both child and parent welcomed "games." Workshops of this nature do help to uncover parents' learning disabilities. Two parents actually began to read.
Many came for two or three sessions. For some, the writer believed, the situation proved "threatening." Two parents seemed wholly unable to communicate. They listened, yawned, conformed to any activity done, and left as quickly as possible. At least eleven parents explained why they could not attend daily. A majority of women were working and could come only during their vacations. One woman, anxious not to miss the program, had her husband take her place. "At least he'll tell me what happens when I come home at night." And so he did, for the three weeks he was on vacation!
Parents became more aware of the importance of being active thinkers and learners. Any game constructed was unacceptable unless it could be used in more than one way. Like their children, parents enjoyed competing with one another. In the excitement of competition, many sessions ran over the hour.
Our conclusion, at the end of the experiment, was that parents are interested—or can be made interested. Also, many parents can function effectively as teachers, once they understand the developmental steps in helping prepare children to learn, to think, to see, to hear, to talk, and to read. We recommend similar workshops on a year-round basis for all schools, but particularly those in poverty areas, with afternoon and evening sessions. Our initial question has not been finally answered; but at least we know that parents can be taught to teach.