The message is LOUD and crystal clear. Economists have blessed it. Non-profit organizations have projected it on billboards and blasted it in texts. And educators are celebrating it. Parents and caregivers must read to children -- even to babies -- if these kids are going to be ready for success in school.
But once we have internalized mantras like Talk, Read, Sing, we have to carefully examine how that message is converted into action. If we hope to produce life-long readers, we need to instill a desire to read, not just because it is important for building a child's school readiness, but because it is fun and it builds parent-child relationships.
The campaigns for reading have been wildly successful. And the energy and focus on reading emanating from places like the Annie E. Casey Foundation http://www.aecf.org/ has made a dramatic impact on early education, reaching from the National Governor's Association http://www.nga.org/cms/center/edu to state capitol buildings where dozens now mandate grade level reading.
The movement is in full force. Yet, there is something wrong. It is missing its soul. Reading is not just an activity. It is a joy that ignites a child's imagination when she is nestled in her parent's lap. It is the shared stories that jump from the pages of books as parents knit together the author's words with their own. It is the thrill of watching that Very Hungry Caterpillar (by Eric Carle) munch his way through the pages to maturity! Those tender moments allow parents to reach beyond the covers of the book and nurture a dialogue in which vocabulary is grown.
Parents hear that they are supposed to read -- and so they do -- because they want what is best for their kids. But the "just get it done" reading activity will not yield the outcomes we hope to achieve. Witness reading in this low-income clinic in Manhattan: The clinic was crammed with well-intentioned parents who bought into the message that reading was critical. They wrestled with their energetic and wiggly preschoolers until the children sat impatiently on their laps. Restraining the child with one hand while positioning the book in the other, one mother commanded, "Sit still! It is really important that we read!" They get that reading is a ticket to a better life and they WILL READ even if they and their child are both miserable in the process.
How can we help parents value their role in their child's language and literacy? How can we ignite the joy that will instill fond memories while preparing their children for school? On October 16th the White House Conference on the 30-million word gap will convene with scientists and public relations folks sitting side by side. The Clinton Too Small to Fail staff will be there as will the Anne Casey Foundation -- all considering ways to narrow the gap in language between lower and middle income children. Talking about the story in the book and the vibrant pictures offers a key way to narrow that gap. Now that parents understand the importance of reading, we need to ask: How we can bolster parents and caregivers so they make reading fun and engaging for their kids and for themselves? On October 21st, Jumpstart , an inspired non-profit organization promoted to helping children learn to read, will mount its Read for the Record Campaign. Last year, this initiative brought 2.4 million people to a single book generating a community with a common vocabulary that could speak to a common theme. Here too, let's reinforce the wonder and awe in the way language and reading can be a platform for community discussion and for personal joy. Adding desire to need would be a welcome next step in the reading campaign.
Reading to kids is on the national agenda. The message is clear and ever-present. Children need strong language and pre-reading skills if they are to be ready for Kindergarten and successful in school. But it is time to expand the messaging so that reading is not merely on the to-do list, but is empowering, joyful and meaningful. We want parents to feel confident in the reading they do -- even if they are only using the book as a prop for their own stories. We want parents to know that conversations with their children around a book are golden nuggets for their children's minds. If parents love to read with their children, their children will love to read with them. Together they will use books as portals into unexplored worlds while at the same time building enchanting memories and strong bonds.