The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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December 23, 2013

Program’s goal is to motivate children to want to read

BECKLEY — When a recent West Virginia KIDS COUNT report cited that 73 percent of West Virginia students are not reading proficiently by the end of their third-grade year,  concern was raised in state education leaders, prompting a critical re-evaluation of elementary reading and comprehension programming.

For nonprofit organization Read Aloud West Virginia — which has been striving to address such deficits statewide for more than 20 years — the alarming statistic only served to reinforce its ever-important mission to help raise a state full of readers.

“Sadly, a lot of West Virginia children do not value reading,” said Mary Kay Bond, executive director of Read Aloud West Virginia.

However, Bond does not believe that it is too late to instill those values into our current generation of youth.

According to Bond, one tactic in the battle of curbing reading apathy in children can be as simple as reading books aloud to children in the classroom or before bed.

Bond was inspired to form the nonprofit organization with a group of fellow concerned mothers in the late 1980s. She explained that “The Read-Aloud Handbook,” a reading advocacy book written by Jim Trelease, served as the initial model and guidebook for the program.

“Our focus is not on teaching reading; our focus is on motivating children to want to read,” Bond said. “We believe that motivation is absolutely essential in acquiring any skill, whether that skill is academic, athletic or something else.

“You have to want the skill in order to do the hard work to attain it.”

Read Aloud West Virginia seeks to both ignite excitement surrounding the activity of reading and motivate children to pursue reading as a lifelong pastime.

Volunteer community readers serve as curators of the Read Aloud campaign. Upon completion of a one-time orientation, volunteers are placed in local elementary classrooms and are responsible for reading to students on a weekly basis.  

Currently, 22 West Virginia counties have Read Aloud programming active in various elementary schools. Locally, Raleigh, Fayette, Summers, Nicholas and Greenbrier counties have at least three or more participating elementary schools.

“We’re adding a few counties at a time. After our initial push, the focus is on developing the existing counties and adding a few counties each year,” Bond said.

Raleigh Schools Superintendent Jim Brown said that he believes the Read Aloud program can impart many important values to our youth.

“We believe motivation is really important in encouraging a child to read,” Brown said. “The program is centered around volunteers, and that makes it very fun for the kids. The more volunteers that come in (the classroom), the more it serves to get students excited about reading.

“When kids see adults modeling that reading is fun and important, it reinforces what we are hoping to instill in our children.”

- - -

In a culture that often prefers to blame the system rather than taking any responsibility upon oneself, Bond explained that she does not solely blame the educational system for the poor reading skills in West Virginia children.

“I certainly believe there are things the education system could and should do differently … but we have to look at the role that the entire culture plays (in reading skills),” Bond said.

Bond explained that children raised in affluent households often enter school with a drastically better vocabulary than children raised in poverty-level households.

“Studies reveal that vocabulary gaps are apparent before a child ever enters the classroom,” Bond said. “This occurs in the home, not in the school.

“Children coming from poverty-income homes typically, but not always, have smaller vocabularies with which they enter the classroom.

“That frustrates me because words are free, and libraries are free.”

In their first years of school, children are “learning to read,” Bond explained. From about third or fourth grade, kids no longer have formal reading classes, and are rather “reading to learn.”

“If we haven’t made them fall in love with reading, they’re only doing reading in the classroom,” Bond said.

Bond strongly believes that the poor reading skills prevalent among West Virginia children is a serious issue that will prove detrimental to our children’s futures, and there are multiple scientific studies that back up that assertion.

“Students who are poor readers are more likely to drop out, less likely to be employed and more likely to be incarcerated,” Bond explained.

The Read Aloud program encourages parents to follow four steps in order to cultivate a passion for reading in their children:

-- Start early: Bond said that it’s never too early to begin reading to your child, from even as early as the womb.

-- Provide access: Kids can’t learn to read if they don’t have access to books and magazines. Take children to the library, and keep books in the home and car.

-- Model good skills: Make it a daily habit to read to your child.

-- Keep the excitement alive: Turn reading into a conversation. Discuss favorite books and authors. Ask children what they’re reading, and share interesting newspaper and magazine articles with them.

“When we read to our children from books, we’re building a natural leg-up in spelling and grammar, we’re improving their listening skills and we’re developing their attention spans,” Bond said. “Reading aloud to a child is also a time to build relationships between family members.”

- - -

The Read Aloud program has faced many obstacles in its 25 years of development, but has since stabilized and has grown to be a self-standing nonprofit that was voted 2013’s “Best Local Nonprofit” in the inaugural Best of West Virginia Awards polled by WV Living Magazine.  

It is funded primarily by private donations, foundation grants and business sponsorships.

To make a donation to Read Aloud West Virginia or to learn about upcoming volunteer orientation programs in your area, visit www.readaloudwestvirginia.org or call 304-345-5212.

— E-mail: bunderwood@register-herald.com

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