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Wednesday, 11 January 2006 00:00

Getting kids to read

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By Michael Beadle

Remember when Mom or Dad read you your favorite bedtime story? Maybe it was a book like “Where the Wild Things Are” or “Guess How Much I Love You”? Even if you knew the ending of the story, each book became a magical journey before a new night of dreams.

But not all children have that opportunity to experience the wonder of books, and research shows that children who don’t read often become adults who don’t read.

That’s why the Haywood County Public Library is kicking off “Read to Me,” an early childhood literacy campaign aimed at helping children from birth to age 5 start a lifelong interest in reading before they reach kindergarten. Using $20,000 already in its budget, the Haywood County library system will be offering free books, brochures, bookmarks, paper, pencils, library card applications, tips for parents, workshops, and various materials to promote early childhood literacy for pre-kindergarten children and their parents or caregivers.

Library staff will be recruiting volunteers from local civic groups, churches, and county organizations to receive training in promoting basic reading skills. These volunteers will then go out into the community in a series of 30-minute workshops scheduled for February and March to offer parents materials and tips on how to read to their children.

That’s not all. The Haywood County library is planning to recruit dozens of volunteer readers from all walks of life that will go into about 60 daycare classrooms and 35 kindergarten classrooms throughout Haywood County during the week of Valentine’s Day for a kind of “love your library” promotion. Volunteer readers will be giving out free books, bookmarks, library card applications, brochures, and various materials.

There are also plans to set up a “Read to Me” Web site for parents and caregivers looking for ways to keep their children interested in reading. Then in April, the families and volunteers who have participated in the program will take part in a culminating celebration, a school readiness fair that’s being organized by the Altrusa Club of Haywood County.

Jennifer Pratt, director of the Haywood County Public Library, is spearheading the “Read to Me” campaign, which is generating a lot of interest among local grassroots organizations. After seeing a presentation on a literacy program at a North Carolina library directors meeting last year, Pratt thought it would be a great idea to put together a similar literacy program in Haywood County.

“And it kind of snowballed from there,” Pratt said. “And everybody I talk to about it gets really excited about it.”

Giving out free books sounded great, but what good would it do if there was no one around to read those books to young children?

Naturally, conversations among librarians constantly are about how to improve outreach services, make books more accessible, and offer a comfortable place for people to enjoy books and reading. Pratt and her staff contacted local representatives from civic clubs, churches, child advocacy organizations, government agencies, and other areas to see if they would be interested in participating in an early childhood literacy program.

 

Read to succeed

Who would turn down an opportunity to read to a kid? Those who have been volunteer readers in schools know there’s that extra ego boost afterward when children spot you in the grocery store like a local celebrity.

“My staff love it,” Pratt said.

Part of the push for early childhood literacy, according to Pratt, lies in research. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, only about a third of the fourth-graders in the United States are proficient in reading on standardized tests. NAEP research shows that kindergarteners who start school with a basic knowledge of alphabet letters will more likely be successful readers in the 10th grade. Further NAEP research has found that if a child is a poor reader at the end of first grade, there’s almost a 90 percent chance he or she will be a poor reader at the end of fourth grade. And once you’re behind your grade level in reading, it’s harder each year to catch up.

Before children learn to read and write, experts say they need lots of experience with language, whether it’s understanding the rhythms of speech, picking up basic sounds, or reading gestures and facial expressions associated with speech.

Based on the research, if children don’t have those early experiences with language — with adults reading to them or generating interest in words, sounds and letters — these children could face a life-long aversion to reading, which could in turn prevent them from succeeding in school, getting a quality job and passing on the importance of reading to the next generation. Insufficient reading experiences in early childhood could also result in a lifetime of illiteracy.

Illiteracy affects everyone one way or another, according to Karla Woody, executive director of the Haywood County Literacy Council. Without basic reading and writing skills, you won’t be able to fill out health forms or a job application. You won’t be able to read your own prescriptions or check nutritional information to stick to a doctor-prescribed diet. Those who wind up unemployed, poor and chronically sick may end up needing financial help from the government.

“And it effects everybody, because tax money starts figuring into this,” Woody says.

The literacy council, which serves both children and adults, has its office in the lower level of the Haywood County Public Library in Waynesville, right across the hall from the children’s library. For the upcoming “Read to Me” campaign, literacy council members will be encouraging parents to attend the community workshops and helping the library recruit new volunteer readers.

The key to early childhood reading is to make it fun, Woody says. There’s nothing like having a book in your hand and wondering what will happen next in the story, she says, though she realizes not everyone shares her intense passion for the written word.

It tears her up when she hears someone say, “I hate to read.”

“I always want to know why,” Woody says. “In my heart, I want them to at least like it.”

The literacy council sees a lot of first- and second-grade boys who aren’t as advanced in reading as their female counterparts, Woody explains.

“That’s perfectly normal,” she says. “They will catch up.”

Woody uses The New Read-Aloud Handbook, an excellent resource for parents and adults who are looking for children’s book titles, tips on how to handle television in a child’s life, and how to promote silent reading, as well as research supporting the benefits of early childhood reading. (For more information about the Haywood County Literacy Council call 828.452.1695.)

 

A delicate balance

Reading to children seems like a cause most anyone would want to support, but there are all sorts of issues that prevent children from experiencing this simple pleasure.

Working parents may not always be available to take advantage of reading programs at the library. Transportation may be limited or not available to get children to a bookstore or library. A supply of children’s books can be expensive, and some parents may lack the reading skills to read to their children.

Adding to that, parents may feel uncomfortable about seeking help when it comes to learning more about reading to their children. There’s also the social stigma traditionally attached to bookworms, and parents may get concerned if little Johnny constantly wants to read while his peers are outside playing ball.

Southwestern Child Development Commission, an organization that oversees more than a dozen child care centers in the seven western counties, sees its share of infants ages birth to 5 years old who don’t always have the healthy reading experiences that many take for granted.

Rita Wilson, area coordinator for Southwestern Child Development, says day care workers try to encourage reading and literacy wherever they can without making parents feel inadequate.

“It’s a delicate balance,” Wilson said.

In a largely female-dominated field like child care, male volunteers who come in to read to children are often in short supply, so Wilson welcomes any and all men who can come in to read or volunteer at child care centers. (For those who would like to be a guest reader or volunteer with Southwestern Child Development Commission, call 828.456.4473 for more information.)

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