Ten years ago the National Endowment for the Arts published a comprehensive overview of the state of reading in America. “To Read or Not to Read” portrayed a disturbing story of Americans reading less and reading less well. In the intervening years since the report, the smart phone has become ubiquitous and has changed how we send and receive information, changing the reading landscape even further. It is conceivable that Americans may be reading more, but the likelihood is that sustained reading in long form has declined even further.
As a new school year begins, it is another opportunity to encourage students and their parents to read more and to read better. One of the disturbing findings of the NEA report (though even without these findings, the same conclusions are easily reached) is that children who do not read have a lower rate of achievement. Nearly one-third of teenagers drop out of school because they have trouble reading and understanding what they read. Thus a cycle begins: lower levels of reading and writing cause students to do less well in school so that inevitably, when they become adults, they also do less well in the job market. Poor reading skills, according to the NEA report, correlate with unemployment, lower wages, and fewer opportunities for advancement. And, those with the worst reading skills tend to end up in prison.
Libraries play a vital role in a community’s reading life, which is why, each September is National Library Card Sign-up Month. A library card is the most important school supply of all—and it is free! The library card is not just a vehicle for checking out books, it also symbolically represents a family or an individual who is committed to the act of reading. It quietly says, I read and I support reading.
Whether a family is struggling or thriving financially, checking out books at the library is such an important activity for children. As a child, I found that books satisfied a need to know the world in more complex ways than either a television show or movie could depict. I wonder if the real point of a book is that it allows for an immersion in a world that no other media can. While it is now highly clichéd, libraries transform lives because they provide an entry into other lives and worlds. Knowledge, most easily attained through reading, gives lives a depth and breath that might not otherwise be experienced—especially for those whose worlds are small. I know my local library transformed my life.
Even fifteen minutes of reading each day results in higher academic achievement. As “To Read or Not to Read” concluded, daily reading can powerfully affect lives in crucial ways and transform the lives of individuals—whatever their social circumstances. In addition to academic and economic success, regular reading also appears to awaken a person’s social and civic sense. It is not surprising that the study found that reading correlates with every measure of positive personal and social behavior. What is surprising however, is that readers exercise more and play more sports—no matter what their educational level.
In addition to instruction at school, how do kids become readers? Children model their behavior after their parents’ behavior. Parents are a child’s first teacher. If a child sees his or her parent read, a child will naturally be curious about it and want to do it too. Thus having a child see a parent read is the best way to get a child to become a reader. And if the parent doesn’t read? Then the child starts school already disadvantaged in ways that can never be remediated.
What should a non-reading parent do? If a parent is able to read, but simply doesn’t, that parent can begin by checking out children’s books from the library. By setting aside a time each day for reading to their child, the parent can indicate without saying a word, that reading time is a very important time. That time is not only a reading time, but a one-on-one time that can be used to strengthen the bond with the child. If you aren’t reading regularly to your child, you need to start now. There is also great pleasure from reading children’s books as an adult. They are delightful in their simplicity.
If you have no children, what can you do to help those children who do not come from reading families to take up the daily habit of reading? One way is to become a volunteer for Read Aloud West Virginia. Read Aloud sends adults into the classroom to read to a classroom each week. This adult becomes a role model to so many kids whose families are not reading to them every day. This simple act of reading aloud can show a child how wonderful it is to be fluent in reading and the excitement that comes from hearing stories that teach us as well as change us. If you are interested in this volunteer opportunity, please contact the library for more information.
If you are a reader, start a conversation with a non-reader about reading. It is a vital part of a well-lived life and everyone should know the joys and pleasures of reading.
If you don’t have a library card, sign-up this month as we celebrate the library card as an entrance to unknown worlds, useful knowledge, and the imagination.
For additional reading on the topics covered here, see:
- Handy, Bruce. Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult. 2017. (809.89282 HAN)
- Marx, Susan. Help Me Get Ready to Read: The Practical Guide for Reading Aloud to Children During Their First Five Years. 2010. (649.58 MAR)
- Boog, Jason. Born Reading: Bringing Up Bookworms in a Digital Age: From Picture Books to Ebooks and Everything in Between. 2014. (372.425 BOO)
- Allyn, Pam. What to Read When: The Books and Stories to Read With Your Child and All the Best Times to Read to Them. 2009. (649.58 ALL)
- National Endowment for the Arts. “To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence.” 2007. https://www.arts.gov/sites/default/files/ToRead.pdf