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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:

  1. To test each activity or game with their children at home and to report on success or failure.
  2. That a "one-shot-deal" (to use a father's phrase) wasn't worth the effort. A game, to be val­uable, had to permit "variations-on-a-theme."

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.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 71 Number 3, 1970, p. 451-454
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1738, Date Accessed: 5/22/2022 9:48:57 PM

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