11/18/2011 01:08 pm ET | Updated Jan 18, 2012

Senator Reed and the Importance of Reading

Since 2002, Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed has championed Reach Out and Read in the United States Senate, fighting for our funding and lobbying for our cause. Despite the challenges of a tight economy -- and competing priorities -- Reed has never lost sight of the importance of preparing our nation's children for success in school.

Recently, I had the chance to sit down with the Senator and ask him about his passion for early literacy and reading. This Thanksgiving, Reach Out and Read is thankful for Senator Jack Reed.

Earl: Why literacy? Why is this the cause you support so strongly in the Senate?

Senator Reed: Literacy is the foundation for learning -- not just in school but for lifelong learning. When kids love to read they have a better chance to succeed. Helping young people learn to read is one of the most important things in terms of getting them on the right path, and helping them develop the skills they'll need to be successful throughout their lives.

Senator Grassley (R-IA) and I introduced the Prescribe a Book Act, which is modeled on the successful Reach Out and Read program, to enlist doctors and nurses in the effort to promote early literacy and better reading habits. So when mom or dad brings their little one in for a checkup, they get medical care -- along with a free book for their child and a reminder from the doctor about the importance of reading. When parents hear directly from doctors how important it is to read their children, they tend to pay attention.

Earl: You sit on the Senate Appropriations Committee, and have a firsthand view of how our country is funding literacy and education initiatives. Are we moving in the right direction?

Senator Reed: We are in a difficult budget-cutting environment and literacy programs, like a lot of other worthy programs, have taken a hit. For Fiscal Year 2011, there was no direct federal funding for literacy -- no funding for school libraries, no funding for book distribution such as through Reading is Fundamental and Reach Out and Read, and no funding to support comprehensive literacy instruction at the state and local levels. This was clearly the wrong direction for our students and for our future.

Fortunately, the Senate Appropriations Committee is trying to correct this and has provided funds in its Fiscal Year 2012 bill for competitive grants to support these activities. Unfortunately, the House has not proposed any funding for literacy. This is one of many spending issues that we will have to resolve in the weeks ahead. Investing in literacy programs is something that really pays off and will prepare our children to compete in the growing global economy.

Earl: There is a vibrant Reach Out and Read program in your home state of Rhode Island that serves more than 32,000 children -- or 61 percent of those between the ages of birth and five. Why is Reach Out and Read so important to you? Why is it so critical for parents to be engaged in their children's learning from the start?

Senator Reed: We know the stubborn achievement gaps that we see in our schools begin before children arrive as kindergarteners. Reach Out and Read can give parents the tools and confidence to support their children's education from the very beginning. Parents understand that learning and literacy are part of healthy child development. It's all about encouraging an early foundation for successful schooling.

Earl: You have a strong military background, both from your education at West Point and your time in the Army. Reach Out and Read is currently working to expand our Military Initiative to serve more and more families who serve our nation. Why is it especially important to offer this reading support to military families? What can books offer children who are faced with stress and anxiety due to a parent in the military?

Senator Reed: Our military families make many sacrifices. It is especially tough for families with very young children, which is why the services offered through Reach Out and Read are so important. A child sitting on a parent's lap with a book feels safe, secure, and loved. People have always used stories and books as a way to talk about, work through, and even get a break from stress and anxiety.

Reach Out and Read carefully selects books that are tailored to the needs of military families and can help reassure kids who may be nervous about their mom or dad getting set to deploy. They also offer encouragement and reinforcements to a parent who may be struggling with the kids while their spouse is overseas. We have heard a lot of positive feedback from the military and military families, and I am proud to have secured $1.1 million to help Reach Out and Read expand its Military Initiative.


Courtesy of Senator Reed's office

Earl: As a graduate of both Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and Law School, education has clearly been a priority in your life. Growing up, was there an emphasis on reading in your home? When did you discover your own love of reading?

Senator Reed: I was fortunate to have wonderful parents who put a great emphasis on education. My father was a custodian at a local elementary school. And even though my parents weren't very wealthy, they went out and bought for us our own complete set of Encyclopedia Britannica. I spent my grammar school years reading it, particularly the sections that had anything connected to the military. Then my aunt would go out and buy me books every Christmas. She bought me an illustrated history of the Second World War and I just started reading it and reading it.

I remember going to the Auburn Public Library in Cranston, Rhode Island and checking books out and reading. So, yes, reading in my family was fundamental!

Earl: Now, as a parent, what are your reading rituals in the Reed household? What are your favorite books to read with your daughter, Emily?

Senator Reed: I read every night to my daughter before I put her to bed. And, we read all sorts of books. We read a lot of stories about princesses and right now the "Olivia" series is one of her favorites. We read about everything. She's got lots and lots of books. Her room is literally full of books.