Parents and children can fuel a mutual fondness for reading

Sunday, November 20, 2005

NEW YORK -- Literacy is a life lesson -- beginning at the first cry or coo, and basically never ending -- so to get people psyched up for something that can seem daunting, it's best to get them hooked young.

Reading aloud to infants, toddlers, preschoolers and then schoolchildren and beyond might be the best bait, says Dawnene D. Hassett, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the department of curriculum and instruction.

She says that more than 30 years of research about early literacy all points to having adults read to children as the first step toward success.

"Oral language development is so important for early literacy success," says Hassett. "When you read books when kids are young, the tangible benefits last through at least the fourth grade. Hearing books with rich language develops vocabulary, new concepts, a sense of story and how books work."

She adds: "One of the big problems in schools for young children is if they don't have experience with books. It makes the early years in school that much more challenging."

Publications International, a publisher of children's books and creator of Story Reader, an interactive preschool book line, is launching an initiative called Family Reading Night. It encourages families to spend one night a week reading with each other.

"There's no wrong way to do it. ... It's like asking 'Are you for world peace or a strong economy?"' says Kerry Cunnion, a company executive vice president. "The difference is that you do anything about those things as an individual. You can do something here."

In his own household in suburban Chicago, the power to choose the book for the 60-minute family reading night belongs to Cunnion's 4-year-old daughter.

"I have three teenage boys. It would require an act of Congress for them to do something as a family if I asked, but she did the invitations for them to come to her 'reading club' -- and they came."

Publications International conducted a poll of 800 parents in October, 77 percent of whom said that books had the most positive influence on their own childhood compared to other forms of media.

Ninety-four percent of the parents also said they'd read to their children for one hour a week if they thought that reading more at home would improve school performance, yet 9 percent said currently no parent in the household ever reads to the children. Twenty-four percent said they read "occasionally."

"Parents have to be the initiator, but once they get it going, it'll just take off and reading will be part of these kids' lives," says Cunnion.

The evolution of strong readers usually begins with the aforementioned oral skills, especially rhyming, according to Hassett. From there, children learn concepts of print, letter naming and phonics.

Fluency and comprehension come next, followed by the reading-writing connection.

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