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Sue Bruns PrimeTime column: Teachable moments: Reading readiness

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I had just moved into the old farmhouse I was renting in Elrosa and was teaching in neighboring Belgrade, Minn., when the woman from across the road came over one evening to ask me to be her tutor.

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It was 1976; I was the only full-time senior high English teacher in this wonderful little school, teaching nine different classes over the school year.

Preparing for and keeping up with all of these classes without a curriculum guide to go by or a set of objectives or standards to steer my way -- in addition to advising a weekly student newspaper -- was certainly challenging, but not nearly as challenging as the request put upon me by my neighbor.

She was a Japanese woman who had married an American GI. When she heard a new English teacher had moved in across the road, she called me and asked if I would tutor her in reading. I agreed out of a sense of obligation, but as our first session approached, I found myself in an elementary classroom, begging a first-grade teacher to give me some tips, some materials, anything.

I left that first-grade classroom with materials that might be interesting to a first-grader but seemed pretty ridiculous for a woman in her 30s.

I prepared a basic lesson plan and met with my pupil. She was anxious to learn and very patient with my ineptitude. In the next few weeks, I found myself preparing as much for our weekly sessions as for one of my high school classes. Not only were appropriate materials unavailable, but I simply didn't know where or how to begin.

Eventually I decided to discontinue my tutoring. Although I was working hard and my pupil was working hard, I felt very inadequate. Such an enthusiastic student deserved someone who really knew how to teach reading and to teach English as a second language - which, as I had discovered, is not at all like teaching high school English.

Just because we know how to do something (and maybe we are fairly good at it) doesn't mean that we know how to go about teaching it. If you are reading this, take a moment, please, to think about your first- and second-grade teachers who made reading this and countless other writings possible. You might want to thank them, if you have the opportunity to do so.

For many students, reading comes almost naturally. We learn language, we discover written symbols and we make the connection that those written symbols represent sounds and that the sounds put together form words. We learn to decode those words and read. But for some children, for any number of reasons, it is not a natural progression.

So what is a parent to do? Reading is the key to virtually all academic and enrichment learning. If a child struggles as a reader, the chances are, unfortunately, very high that he or she will have learning difficulties, will experience higher than normal levels of frustration, may eventually give up trying and possibly drop out of school.

One of the most important things any parent can do is to help your child develop oral language skills. You don't have to be a trained teacher of reading to do this, but you do need to talk to and listen to your child, answer his questions, introduce him to songs and stories and books and a wealth of experiences. If you can take your children on trips, to museums, to concerts, to the Science Center, or to other places where they will see and hear about things that will inspire them to learn, do so; but if you can't, either for lack of time, resources, or money, there is still a great deal you can do.

Visit your local library. It's free! Take a walk downtown and window shop, pointing out things to your child or letting him or her point things out to you. Take your child grocery shopping with you; entertain him or her by playing a name game with the various fruits and vegetables you see in the produce section. (This is also, free - not counting your grocery bill.) Take the sculpture walk, go fishing, play catch with your kids.

Think about all of the things you do every day and every week that can be learning experiences for your children if you just talk with your child. Explain what you're doing, get your child involved, let him help if he can, answer his questions. Even if you are not a confident reader yourself, you will be developing valuable language and thinking skills and expanding your child's realm of interests and knowledge. Many parents do this naturally from the time their child is in the womb, but if your parents didn't do this for you, you can still do it for your children.

Everything you do with your child any time of the day can be a learning experience, a pre-reading preparation or an opportunity to develop language.

Interact with your child. Learn together. Explore. Not only will you be providing important pre-reading experiences, but you will also be strengthening the parent-child bond and making your own daily chores into more interesting learning opportunities.

Sue Bruns is a retired teacher and assistant principal with Bemidji Area Schools.

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