Studies have shown that exposing babies and pre-K kids to books creates a foundational building block for future success. Language skills develop more quickly, brain development occurs more rapidly, and kids are better prepared to learn in classrooms when they go to school.
But there’s another reason that’s often overlooked.
“Children who are not read to think of books as work,” says Mary Denison, a local coordinator for Raising a Reader, a national non-profit organization that promotes early literacy. “They think of it as something you only do at school.”
Raising a Reader has become Denison’s post-retirement passion because of its potential impact.
A study by Stanford University, for example, shows that 2-year-old kids in lower-income families may be six months behind in language development. From her career as a school psychologist, Denison knows the “word gap” is real. But instead of seeing a problem, she sees an opportunity.
“That data demonstrates that those are the kinds of things we can fix,” Denison says.
The solution is simple: Get books into the hands of parents and caregivers and encourage them to read to their kids. For a pilot program at Angels’ Place, a non-profit organization in Swissvale that offers support to young parents, Denison started to deliver books in Raising a Reader’s red book bags. Each week, parents take home four books to share with their kids. The following week, they exchange them for four new books.
The books act as both a mirror and a window for kids, Denison says.
“The mirror is to see themselves in the story and to be able to relate to it,” she says. “And the window is so they can learn about the world’s experiences. You want books to be both.”
It’s important that the books include diverse characters, so kids can see themselves in the stories. In the past, she says, “there were few books about being a little person and you just happen to have black skin.”
That is beginning to change, says Denison, who relies on Raising a Reader to supply books to serve a number of ethnic populations.
Another hurdle that Denison finds troubling is that some young parents have no idea about the benefits for kids who are exposed to books early.
“I have had some parents, when I’ve talked about this, get upset and say, `No one ever told me this,’ ” she says.
That’s why part of the program includes training on how to read to children, what to do when they lose interest, and how to encourage kids to respond to questions.
So what do you do when a kid walks away?
“Usually, you let them,” Denison says with a laugh. “You call them back by getting their attention to the pictures or you wait for a better time. The last thing you want to do is fight with a child over reading a book. … The goal is to build a positive experience around reading a book.”
Denison will expand her volunteer efforts in Swissvale to Angel’s Place North Side location in August. She just started a nonprofit called Reading Ready Pittsburgh that will feature programming provided by Raising a Reader’s national organization. Learn more via email.