You didn’t know it then, sitting on your parent’s lap, but that’s when you became a reader.
Dr. Kathryn Brown knows reading aloud is the most precious gift parents can give their children and it’s as simple as holding them close, opening a book, and starting at the beginning. To be sure, study after study shows reading aloud to children helps them develop their skills in speaking, reading and writing, and leads to their future success in school and in life.
“Developing language and literary in a child is a special way to create a closeness between the parent and the child, as well as a love for reading,” Brown says.
But Brown, Wilmington University’s director of graduate specialty programs and a volunteer for Read Aloud Delaware, knows that reality can be quite different. Not everyone is fortunate to have parents who understand the importance of literacy or can provide the opportunity to their child.
That’s where she and other volunteers from Read Aloud Delaware step in, by reading to children one-on-one in childcare centers, schools, churches and other venues throughout the state. And it is also through training offered through Read Aloud Delaware that parents can learn to become comfortable with reading to their own children. The volunteers set the example of what is possible.
But it goes beyond that. In one of the more recent training sessions she had with parents at her assigned center, Absalom Jones Head Start Center in Wilmington, several talked about how much they wanted to be able to learn about literacy and reading to help boost their children toward success. Many of the parents Brown trains are non-English speakers. While some came to the U.S. as well educated professionals within their own countries, others are less so, and they are all in the U.S. learning a new language and culture.
“It’s quite difficult and challenging,” she notes. “This program is a way for them to enable their kids to be successful. They’ve made that connection.” And, she adds, “They have an understanding that literacy is important for their children and they are doing what it takes to make that an easier process for their kids.”
Indeed, the importance of that parental connection is evident in Brown’s own life. Her parents also helped her develop a deep love of reading from Brown’s earliest childhood years, a book was in her hands.
“I’ve always loved to read,” Brown says. “I used to get in trouble because I would read all night,” she laughs, remembering. “Not for reading, but because I’d stay up all night.” As a young girl, she would walk to her town’s small library, she says, and would read “all day long until the library closed, then would check out my books and walk home and go back the next day.”
In 2006, Brown moved from Florida, where she worked as a curriculum development and reading specialist, to Delaware. But with that move she discovered that her need to be involved in children’s literacy moved with her. She says she found a perfect match at Read Aloud Delaware, working with the organization ever since that time to help spread her love of literacy and reading to others.
“Because I was away from all of my family, this work gave me two of my loves, being with children and reading,” Brown says. She initially volunteered at a nearby childcare center to read to the littlest ones. “It was the highlight of my week, the reaction the kids gave when I spent that time with them.”
Brown says she then moved from working with children to working with their parents, teaching them how to do what she was doing. She makes it clear to the parents that reading time is a special time of closeness.
Parents interested in participating in the program can connect with Read Aloud Delaware through their childcare center. Read Aloud Delaware matches the volunteer with the center. Brown says she visits the Absalom Jones Head Start Center three times a year to train the parents using a specially designed curriculum that includes her reading children’s books to the adults. She has found the parents “eager, open, appreciative, and they’re fun. They laugh, enjoying when I read aloud.”
Read Aloud, Delaware!
Sitting next to Brown in Read Aloud Delaware Executive Director Mary Hirschbiel’s office in downtown Wilmington, it’s not hard to see this is a place where children’s literacy is the primary focus stacks of colorful children’s books, flyers and booklets with helpful hints for reading aloud, fun parent-child activities and more fill the room. Bold letters “Early exposure to reading helps prevent illiteracy,” play across one flyer on a desk.
Hirschbiel explains that Read Aloud programs exist to open the door to reading for young children, and teach their parents how to help. “We need to reach parents with a message,” she says. “All parents, from all walks of life. The message is that it is important to talk to their children, and read to them, every day. It’s easy and it’s free, and it can guarantee that the child is ready to start school.”
She shared some statistics: one in five people in Delaware is functionally illiterate meaning they can’t read or write well enough to perform basic everyday tasks; one in every six adults in Delaware has less than an 8th grade education; one in three adults in the state has not finished high school, and each year, approximately 2,000 students drop out of high school. National statistics have found, on average, a typical middle-class child receives 1,000 to 1,700 hours of one-on-one reading before starting school. The average low-income child, however, receives 25 hours.
Not only does illiteracy hurt a child’s chances to succeed, but overall economic loss is huge. According to national statistics provided by Read Aloud Delaware, low literacy skills increase annual health care expenditures by $73 million in the U.S., and businesses lose $60 billion in productivity. Half of all Fortune 500 companies underwrite remedial employee training at a cost of approximately $300 million a year.
Read Aloud Delaware, working in the state for 30 years, is unique in that it is the only non-profit statewide organization in the U.S. that focuses on early childhood literacy. Hirschbiel says they partner with 98 childcare centers, including Head Starts, kindergartens, clinics and shelters. More than 700 volunteers read to about 6,000 individual children each year and train hundreds of parents via workshops and presentations, as well as offer ideas, education and training to caregivers and teachers throughout the year.
The programs include:
- Volunteer Reading Program: Volunteers read one-on-one with a child, in childcare centers, Head Starts, kindergartens, and at seven clinics and shelters. Includes Reading Buddies and Mother Goose visits.
- Parent Reading Programs: Educates parents through lectures, workshops and community fairs. Includes Reach Out and Read, Read-In/Read-Out, Reading Challenge programs, an informational webpage, Parent Empowerment sessions, and Speakers Bureau.
- Care Giver Reading Programs: Includes an annual conference to provide professional in-service education, In-service workshops at Read Aloud Delaware sites, Storytelling events featuring local storyteller Clem Bowen, who presents at childcare centers.
State government and many agencies and corporations also provide financial and other support, along with several local organizations and churches. Without this support, and the steady work of the volunteers, none of these programs would be possible, says Hirschbiel.
The organization is constantly working on finding different ways to reach the variety of groups they serve. Currently, they are testing a way to reach more parents through regular short text and email messages.
“For six weeks, we’ve been sending little messages, twice a week, to parents who signed up at two centers,” says Hirschbiel. One message was about summer reading programs, like those offered through the county library, and reading reward programs through TD Bank or Barnes & Noble. Another message was on using a familiar book in different ways, like making an alphabet game from the words, and geared toward the child’s age.
“We’d like to know what the parents want,” says Hirschbiel. “Do they want a swap box to trade books, do they want presentations, text messages? How can we help?” Parents can go to the organization’s website and select the tab for Parent Outreach to download a variety of helpful hints and activities. They can also ask their own childcare center director for volunteers to read to the children or present parent workshops.
Hirschbiel brings out a “literacy box” that volunteers like Brown use to take to the centers or when training parents. Included in the box are directions and printouts of activities, children’s books for reading aloud, colorful flash cards, and much more. In Hirschbiel’s case, bags of dry pudding mix are included.
“The pudding is for the child to trace letters,” she adds. “I like to use something edible in case the child puts it in his mouth.”
Other volunteers might use dry hot chocolate mix or other substances in a similar way. Volunteers can add what they wish to enhance the learning experience, based on their own backgrounds and strengths.
One new item soon to be added to the boxes are “recipe” cards, printed in Spanish and English, detailing specific activities. Hirschbiel shares “The Rhyming Box” card.
“In a shoebox or other small box, place a collection of small objects whose names make rhyming pairs (cat/hat; truck/duck; bell/shell; fish/dish). Show your child objects in the box and give an example of one rhyming pair. Choose one object and ask your child to find the rhyming mate. Invite your child to match other rhyming pairs in the box. Keep the session short enough to be fun and not work.”
“These are easy take-and-go activities,” she says.
Many parents, especially the Spanish speakers, says Brown, “are so hungry to learn.” If the parents say they can’t read a flashcard, for example, she gives them a strategy, in a few words of Spanish. “One is uno, pretty much the same in both languages.” When working on color recognition, a Spanish speaker might use the word “rojo,” but the volunteer can use that along with the word “red.” “You might say one red ball,” Brown says. “Talk about one red ball, what does it do? It rolls, one red ball rolls, and they begin to understand the differences in the language.”
Brown says her fondest moments are when families attend her readings. “I love it when the dads come. They get right into it.” Many of the non-native-speaking parents tell her they want to learn English, too, says Brown.
“Words are the way we communicate, whether they are written or oral,” she adds. “And so it’s important that we develop in children a sense of language and how that enables them to interact with people and the world in general. It’s a real skill, and it’s something we need to develop a love for. Talking to children, talking out loud, thinking out loud about what we do, giving them words, different words for the same object, increases their ability to see things differently by encouraging language.”
Volunteers are always needed for Real Aloud Delaware, adds Brown. “Just get started.” If you love reading and want to share that love, that’s all that’s needed. It’s a small amount of your time, she adds, “but you won’t be sorry, whether you work with the parents or the kids. You get so much more out of it than you could imagine.” WU
For more information: Read Aloud Delaware, 100 West 10th St., Ste. 309, Wilmington, DE 19801; 302-656-5256; www.readalouddelaware.org.