One of the highlights of my week is volunteering to read with two first graders at East End Community School in Portland. I don’t teach them to read, I inspire them to love reading by reading to and with them and by sharing my love of books. This small amount of extra support can make a big difference in a child’s progress to reading proficiently.

Sadly, not every child has a book to read or an adult to read to him or her. In fact, two-thirds of the 15.5 million children living in poverty in the U.S. do not have even one book in their home. In Maine, 13 percent of children live below the poverty level, translating to about 22,000 children in this state without a book. Having age-appropriate books in the home is the leading indicator that children will be ready to learn to read when they arrive at school. Children with no books in their homes are at risk of being left behind academically before they even walk into kindergarten.

As an early childhood literacy activist, I always look forward to National Read Across America Day, a national event held annually on March 2, the birthday of Dr. Seuss, to celebrate reading and to encourage children to read. In Maine, we have events throughout the state that day, including at schools, libraries and community centers.

I applaud this annual spotlight on the vital importance of early childhood literacy, and it inspires me to remind people that we, as a community, need to focus on these efforts year-round. We are all stakeholders in helping young children learn to read. Functional illiteracy costs the world $1.19 trillion per year, so it affects everyone.

One way to give young children a strong start on literacy is to begin reading to babies at birth. Parents and caregivers can participate in supporting young children’s early learning just by talking, reading, singing and playing with babies throughout the day, every day. Starting Strong’s Talking is Teaching campaign provides free tips and resources to make it easier for families to implement the vital back-and-forth interactions with babies needed to support later learning.

We can also donate new and gently used children’s books to food pantries. One in five children in Maine is food insecure. One in four is not learning to read. That “one” is the same child. Preschool children with no books in their homes are at the highest risk for reading difficulties. There are many organizations that accept and distribute free books so every child can have books in their homes. My grassroots literacy initiative, The Book Fairy Pantry Project, delivers donated books to children anywhere and everywhere there are children who lack books, because the children being left behind are the ones with no books in their homes.

There is a great need for more reading volunteers in our schools. In Greater Portland, we have Reading Partners and Summer Readers, however, there are many reading volunteer programs throughout the state. I’m also excited to launch a community literacy campaign to support children in hearing at least 100 stories before they are expected to learn to read. Parents of children from birth to first grade can participate by enlisting the support of their children’s relatives, siblings, friends, neighbors, caregivers, teachers and librarians to help their children collect 100 stories before first grade.

Reading problems are so easy to prevent and so difficult to remedy. The more stories children hear, the more they fall in love with books. Being in love with books is the most powerful pre-literacy skill children can acquire. They can discover that love of books only by owning books and having people to read the books with them.

Literacy is everyone’s responsibility, and we can all play a role in supporting the youngest, most vulnerable members of our community to succeed in school and in life.

— Special to the Press Herald


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