“We exist to change the literary climate in West Virginia.”
Her name is Mary K. Bond and she is the executive director for Read Aloud West Virginia. She stood at the head of the table and looked each one of us in the eye. There were five of us sitting, five potential volunteers. Before we can go into a classroom and read to children, we have to complete this training.
“Seventy-three percent of our children do not read proficiently by fourth grade. And we know that fourth grade is a benchmark. From pre-K to fourth grade you are learning to read. But from fourth grade on, you are reading to learn.”
She went on to tell us that many children’s reading skills plateau at fourth grade. Poor readers are less likely to complete a high school education, she said. And this puts them at risk for things like substance abuse and teen pregnancy.
Mary K. told story after story of how her read aloud volunteers have changed lives. The one about the woman who, at her daughter’s high school graduation was approached by a girl she didn’t recognize. “Why would you,” the girl said, “When the last time you saw me I was in the first grade?”
The young woman thanked her and told her that she had sparked in her a love of reading that without, she probably wouldn’t have graduated high school. “When I saw you I realized that you are part of the reason I am here today.”
The one about the man who read Shakespeare to a classroom of inner city kids. The principal later told him that he heard one boy yell to another one on the playground, “Wherefore art thou?”
Change the literary climate.
It’s an audacious goal. West Virginia is the only state entirely in the Appalachian region. Our poverty rate is 17.6%, compared to a national average of 14.9%. We are below the national average in percentage of high school graduates and average household income. For many in our state, poverty is a way of life.
This makes a difference in the reading climate. Mary K. shared some information from the Study of Meaningful Differences. Two researchers studied families from different SES levels over a period of years. They discovered that there are significant differences in the total number of words heard by children from different SES backgrounds. By the age of four, children from professional families heard 45 million words. Children from working class families heard 26 million. And children from families whose income was below the poverty level heard only 13 million words. These differences are startling, and they appear as early as eighteen months.
A Stanford University study found that talking directly to toddlers strengthened their language skills. What better way to talk to a child than to read to him or her?
A University of Nevada twenty year study on increasing economic stability found that the number one thing that impacts this is increasing the number of books in a child’s home.
And don’t I know first hand the power of reading? When I contacted Mary K. about volunteering, I told her, “I’m one of those Appalachian kids whose life was changed by reading. If I can pass that on, that’s what I want to do.”
“When you go in the classroom to read,” Mary K. said, “You will change lives.”
I’m looking forward to it. I’ve been missing someone to read to for a while now. And I know I will be changed too.
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