Washington, DC - Jennifer Simpson is a mother on a mission. Simpson knows her daughter is falling behind in reading, and she is determined to get her second-grader the help she needs. Unfortunately, Simpson's knowledge and determination are born of experience. Her first child, Keith, battled severe dyslexia and struggled all the way through school. Now 19 years old, Keith can read enough to scrape by, but feels limited by his poor reading skills. "He thinks he could've done something more," says Simpson. "And it shouldn't have been on him. He was the child. I was the parent. I should have fought for him, and I didn't know I could."
Al Roker, of NBC's "The Today Show," hosts "Empowering Parents," a primer for parents whose child is struggling to read. The 30-minute documentary, the sixth episode of the award-winning PBS series "Launching Young Readers," airs on public television stations across the country beginning in spring 2005 (check local listings). The entire show can also be viewed online or videos are available for purchase by calling 1-800-228-4630.
"Nearly 40 percent of children have difficulty learning to read," says Noel Gunther, executive director of Reading Rockets. "This program is designed to show parents how to recognize risk factors and problems, and more importantly, how to help their child."
Simpson's children illustrate the sea change that is occurring in the education community. "When I put him in kindergarten, he still couldn't learn his alphabet," says Simpson. "So, we said, 'Let's put him in first grade and see what happens.'" The assumption that children will somehow catch up is not supported by current research. "Empowering Parents" outlines the warning signs that indicate a child may have difficulties and shows why early intervention is so important.
"Children who are having difficulty in kindergarten are very likely to still be having difficulty in third grade," says Dr. Julie Washington, a researcher with the University of Michigan, in the program. "An indicator like being able to recognize all the letters of the alphabet is a strong predictor of reading ability."
The program visits a parent workshop run by special education expert Rick Lavoie to show why it's important to take action. "Parents sometimes worry that they're overreacting when their child isn't reading in first and second grade," says Lavoie. "It's really not possible to overreact to that. It's a fairly serious thing." Lavoie tells parents to "toughen up" and get their children the help they need.
To illustrate a good reading program, "Empowering Parents" goes into an elementary school outside Portland, Oregon. Metzger Elementary takes an intensive approach to literacy instruction, using a variety of research-based teaching methods, intervention strategies and frequent assessments.
Metzger's approach incorporates the work of University of Oregon professor Roland Good, who led the development of an assessment tool that allows for the continual adjustment of instruction to match a child's reading progress. "The truth is we have the knowledge, we have the skills, we have the intervention to teach these skills to an extremely broad range of children," says Dr. Good in "Empowering Parents." "And we should not accept a reason why we are not teaching them."
The program also follows the work of Dr. Guinevere Eden, a researcher at Georgetown Medical School who studies brain activity using MRI technology. "Several studies have determined the differences in the brains of people with and without dyslexia," says Dr. Eden in the program. "We know it's biologically based." She notes that children often seem relieved to discover that there is a physical root to their reading struggles. "We explain to them... we're hoping that through reading interventions we're going to make up for that difficulty."
"Some of the stories we heard from parents were so painful," says Christian Lindstrom, senior producer for Reading Rockets. "Children don't need to be told how important reading is. They know. We hope our show will give parents the information they need to step in before a slow start becomes a full-blown problem."
"Empowering Parents" is part of an ongoing WETA initiative called Reading Rockets (www.ReadingRockets.org), which looks at how young children learn to read, why so many kids struggle and what can be done about it. Reading Rockets is funded primarily by a major grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs.
WETA is the third-largest producing station of programming for the public broadcasting system and the flagship public broadcaster in the nation's capital. WETA productions and co-productions include "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," "Washington Week," "Tucker Carlson: Unfiltered" and Ken Burns's latest film ""Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson." Sharon Percy Rockefeller is president and CEO of WETA. For more information on WETA and its programs, visit the Web site at www.weta.org.
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