Breaking the news to parents that a child has a reading disability is hardly an easy job. But even more painful, remembers William Balant, a retired reading specialist who worked in Montgomery County schools, was the parents' reaction: tears and guilt.
"You would see this dejected look come over their faces," said Balant, who spent 20 years testing struggling students and reporting the often worrisome results to parents. "And they would say, 'I didn't know how to help my child.' "
Balant wants to teach them how to help their children. Instead of spending his retirement in Carroll County golfing or relaxing, he is running a seminar to educate parents about the skills children most need by the time they enter the classroom and begin learning to read.
In his two-hour "Promoting Early Literacy" course, Balant teaches that many common children's books are ideal tools for practicing rhyming and learning to distinguish between different sounds -- two skills that are critical to learning phonics.
Balant's program seeks to solve a problem that reading researchers have noticed recently: that educators have urged parents for years to read to their children, but have offered little guidance beyond that.
Momentum is growing among educators and literacy researchers to deepen parents' understanding of the jargon in research journals -- phonics, phonemic awareness, whole language, auditory discrimination -- and show them how they can take this research into their homes and hone their children's skills.
The idea that parents need to play a role in preparing youngsters to read is nothing new, and Balant's seminar is not the only one.
New Song Community Learning Center in West Baltimore's Sandtown has offered a program called "Starting With Words" since 1994. Parents of preschoolers attending the center participate in monthly seminars at which instructors offer advice on how to read to children and hand out free books.
Louise Paige, New Song's day care director, said parents must realize that children's books include rhymes for more than entertainment value. In later years, recognizing that certain words rhyme makes it easier to understand how certain letters create the sounds.
Seemingly mundane tasks such as reading a bedtime story can be productive teaching tools.
Three-year-olds might be barely able to hold a pencil, she said, but "they are like sponges. They soak up everything. A lot of parents don't understand that everything is a learning process."
Balant, rehearsing his seminar, pulled out a copy of the classic children's book "Chicken Soup With Rice" by Maurice Sendak and began to read.
"You should use your finger so you know where you are," he said. "[Children] begin to understand that reading is just talk written down."
He reads this and many other titles with the passion of a stage actor -- "mooing" like the cows in stories, "oinking" like the pigs. Letting children hear different sounds and words clearly, Balant said, is an important early step toward phonemic awareness. (He explains that "phonemic awareness" is the idea that words can be separated into distinct sounds -- for example, "cat" is made up of the sounds "c," "a" and "t.") Being animated, he said, helps keep a child's attention.
For parents who fear they don't have theatrical ability to act out the characters in a book, Balant accepts no excuses.
"Ham it up. If it says bark, 'BARK,' " he said. "Kids are not critical of their parents. They like that."
Sarah Hall, chief of the compensatory education branch at the Maryland Department of Education, said programs such as Balant's are critical because they help parents inspire their children to learn.
The state coordinates a program, the Home Instruction Program for Pre-School Youngsters (HIPPY), which is available in select Head Start classrooms. Parents commit to spending 15 minutes a day, five days a week, in an educational activity with their children -- one that could be reading a book or setting the table and asking them to figure out how many spoons are needed for how many place settings.
HIPPY is open only to those enrolled at specific schools or Head Start Centers. However, the state has plans to begin piloting a more widely available program to teach parents about developing early reading skills.
Balant's seminar is open to anyone, but requires tuition of $48 -- money Balant uses to print materials for each participant and to rent rooms for his course.
He was disappointed when only two parents showed up for his first seminar last month. He says he's hoping for a better turnout next month when he offers the program at Western Maryland College at night, when more parents are available.
Balant points to a statistic that 95 percent of reading disabilities are preventable. He said he is eager to see smiles on the faces of parents who realize they can help.
"I'm tired of giving them the problems," he said. "Now I'm the purveyor of good news."
Balant will offer his next seminar at Western Maryland College at 7 p.m. Oct. 11. Information or registration: 410-857-4350.