Photography: Darius B. Williams
For my family, going to the public library has always been like going someplace special. In fact, it is a rite of passage for my children to get their own library card when they turn 6 years old.
All three of my sons received their library cards as kindergartners, and soon it will be my daughter’s turn. They love the pomp and circumstance around the experience, which usually ends with a trip to get a scoop of ice cream. The Memphis Public Library requires minors to have a parent or guardian sign their application and be the responsible party, but it still sends an important message to children that this is a big deal. For a child, there’s something powerful being able to walk into the library and check out a book with their very own library card in their name.
Read Early, Read Often
Angela Massengale, the Children’s Department manager at Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library in Memphis, says exposure is key to raising readers.
“Children learn new sounds and words every time you read to them,” she says.
Reading is literally priority number one for Shelby County Schools. SCS reports reading proficiency by 3rd grade is the most crucial milestone in predicting high school graduation and career success. Currently, 30 percent of 3rd graders are reading on grade level, the goal by 2025 is to have 90 percent of 3rd graders reading on grade level. In addition to increasing access to Pre-K programs and teacher training, a key component in their strategy requires family involvement committed to literacy.
Increasing literacy is a campaign not limited to Memphis and Shelby County. Last year, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam launched “Read to be Ready” to boost low literacy statewide.
“We know the ability to read translates to academic success while equalizing opportunities for all students,” says Tennessee Education Commissioner Dr. Candice McQueen.
Gary Shorb, the new executive director of the Urban Child Institute, a Memphis-based non-profit dedicated to promoting the health of Mid-South children, echoes the sentiment.
“Reading is a skill that is essential in order for children to attain good health and high quality of life,” Shorb says.
In fact, the first step toward graduation begins with reading.
Through the Read to be Ready program, the state has set a goal to have 75 percent of 3rd grade students reading on grade level by 2025 — which would be an increase from 43 percent in the most recent data.
Governor Bill Haslam and his wife Crissy Haslam recently announced a $30-million grant that will be implemented this summer to boost literacy.
“Literacy is essential to success in life, and it is not acceptable to have less than half of Tennessee students reading proficiently,” First Lady Haslam says.
Because of the new funding provided by the Tennessee Department of Human Resources, the Read to be Ready summer grant program will be able to increase the number of students who can participate from about 600 children last year to up to 10,000 students this summer, which could increase the number of summer programs from 20 to as many as 350. Additionally, in 2017, the Department of Education expects the number of educators receiving training to increase to more than 2,000.
NEVER TOO LATE
With quality resources and support, even those who are not reading on grade level by 3rd grade can catch up. Reading intervention grounded in research teaches older readers the skills they missed in primary grades and can bring them to grade level in one to two years.
For students who may not be significantly behind in reading but still do not like reading, there are ways to engage what librarian Angela Massengale calls “reluctant readers.”
“They’ve likely never been exposed to books that speak to them at their level or engage their imagination,” she says.
To help jumpstart a child’s interest in reading, Massengale suggests selecting a book for the family to read together, whether it is a picture book, fiction, or non-fiction — the purpose is to read and discuss it.
“Just remember — if you can set aside time every day or week to watch a particular show on television or Netflix, then you have no excuse for not setting aside that same time to do family reading,” says Massengale. “If you can do this with your readers when they are young, you’re much less likely to have a reluctant reader on your hands.”
“Reading comprehension is fundamental to the knowledge we build, regardless of what we do, to not only be able to comprehend what you’re being told but also to communicate that back, and the foundation of that is great skills in reading,” says Governor Haslam. “We’re making great progress in education across the board; we’re the fastest improving school system in the country, but the data shows that our 3rd through 8th grade literacy skills are not improving as fast as we would like, so this is an effort to address it.”
Tips to Encourage Reading
- Make reading fun, put books everywhere: in the car, in the kitchen, in your child’s bedroom.
- Read aloud for 20 minutes or more with your child every day. For younger and more active children, shorter sessions multiple times a day may help keep them engaged. Have older kids read silently for 20 minutes a day.
- Schedule a regular time and place to read together.
- Show how you can read in the world around you. Point out signs, newspapers, maps, or even other people who are reading.
- Visit a public library with your family and check out a few books — both for you and for your child.
- Unplug and set aside time each day to turn off electronics, read, and interact with your child.
Visit tn.gov/readtobeready for more tips.