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It's not how they look that really counts

There's the trendy wardrobe: baggy cargo pants and platform sneakers. And the new backpack with lots of zippered pockets to stash folders and a dozen pastel gel pens. And the nifty calendar posted on the fridge with "Open House" already penciled in. What more can a parent do?

If there's one thing that parents and teachers can agree on, it's this: The elementary and middle school years are the most critical times in children's reading and math education. This is when they learn basic skills and develop study habits that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

Keeping track of what kids are learning, whether they're struggling to complete their assignments or whether they're keeping up with peers are crucial for parents to be aware of so that they can intervene if problems occur.

Raising a child is a parent's No. 1 job. Seeing that he or she gets a good education is, in many respects, the most challenging aspect of that task. The good news is that parents can cultivate in their youngsters the reading and math skills that will help them excel.

Get your children excited about reading

Reading is the heart of an excellent education, because every school subject is based upon it. Reading builds vocabulary, teaches grammar and spelling, and helps kids become better thinkers and writers. If children enter middle school unable to read fluently, their chances for academic success in high school are slim.

Educators agree that children should read fluently by the end of third grade. This is why it's critical for parents to monitor their youngsters' progress. Take a good look at their materials and assignments. Visit the class and observe a reading session. Are students being taught that there are connections between letters and sounds? Are there plenty of drills, word games and fun-to-read stories for kids to enjoy?

Many reading teachers divide their classes into small groups based upon the children's skills and language development. This ability grouping upsets some parents _ most often those with children in the "slower" groups. They worry that their youngsters will be labeled. But the reality is that an elementary classroom is naturally full of kids who read at different levels, and it's unrealistic to expect an entire class to proceed at the same pace. When handled skillfully, putting students into groups helps slower readers get the additional time and attention they need to improve while the faster readers can zip right along.

Don't forget that the most important reading "group" is a twosome: parent and child. Studies show that kids learn to read more easily when they've heard stories read aloud at home. They will come to school eager to learn how to read, convinced that books are enjoyable.

Make math a family affair

In our increasingly technological society, it's essential for students to acquire math skills. Why? Because math trains kids to think abstractly, to develop reasoning skills, to separate relevant from irrelevant information and to break large problems into smaller parts.

In the early grades, children learn the basics, such as adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing whole numbers, fractions and decimals.

By middle school, children's thought processes expand, and they will need to know how to take those basic skills and apply them to word problems.

Don't buy into the idea that rote procedures, such as memorizing times tables, are a waste of time. Kids must practice math and practice it a lot if they are going to use those basic skills to find the areas of circles or calculate proportions.

Whenever children are struggling with math, the problem is usually attitude rather than lack of ability. Parents can help far more than teachers when it comes to improving attitudes. Be positive and genuinely interested in what they're learning.

At home, play games that involve numbers: Monopoly, Yahtze, Go Fish, Quizmo (math bingo).

Make sure children do their homework. To help, don't do it for them but ask them to explain a problem or show how they came up with an answer.

Keep a close eye on test scores and, if necessary, talk with the teacher to schedule extra help or to provide more at-home practice activities.

Reading and math success comes from putting enough time into the work. There's an old saying: What one spends time doing is what one ends up knowing. If kids spend hours skateboarding, they will know all the tricky maneuvers of skateboarding. If they devote time to learning to read and mastering those basic math skills, their chances of succeeding in school are much better.

Carolyn Sandlin-Sniffen teaches language arts and reading at Seminole Middle School in Pinellas County.