Tips for improving your child's literacy


The popular Storytime program for children at the Berkshire Athenaeum might be held twice a week, but literacy lasts a lifetime.

That's what local libraries want to stress to parents with young children. In an effort to celebrate National Family Literacy Month, area librarians and school officials are offering families tips for getting little readers started off on the right chapter for a lifetime of reading enjoyment.

Ron Latham, director of the Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield, Mass., said children's literacy starts at birth, and perhaps even before, when the child first hears a parent's voice in the womb.

"At this early age parents should read to and otherwise engage babies in conversation," Latham said. "While they may seem one sided in those earliest years, they become the building blocks of a rich vocabulary that will be extraordinarily helpful to reading as the child matures."

A child's literacy, Latham said, is greatly enhanced by parents and older siblings modeling reading behavior. And families, he said, can make great use of non-traditional time for learning.

"Car trips, for example, provide excellent learning opportunities," Latham said. "Children actually reading — to themselves or to a family member — talking about what they've read, sharing the story."

At the Manchester Community Library in Manchester, Vt., Executive Director Betsy Bleakie touted programming that can help parents and family members get involved.

"Talking with your child, and early on, is probably the most important thing for parents to do," Bleakie said. "Especially in families of poverty, this often is a foreign concept, and generational. In our 'Early Literacy Outreach' initiative, we model this behavior to parents."

MCL youth service librarian Janet Kleinberg agreed, adding that families today need to adjust expectations from old-fashioned, ideal notions of setting aside time.

"Reading to a child and expanding their words can be about dad looking through a hunting or car magazine and pointing out numbers, asking questions about every page, such as 'How many tires do you see, one, two, three, four?'" Kleinberg said. "In the drive-thru at McDonalds, with the child in the backseat, take the opportunity to ask about colors: 'Show me something yellow?' Or at the laundromat, watching TV, making dinner."

Kleinberg said children who can benefit the most often live in less-than-ideal circumstances and that while reading books remains critical, it's often best to weave opportunities into the child's daily life — particularly up to 5 years old, before they start school.

The MCL also sponsors a "StoryWalk" program, where children go on a walk set up with specific signs that they can read and identify objects, to build vocabulary.

Athenaeum assistant children's librarian Sara Belleau took stock of the books that can fulfill the other part of inculcating literacy into preschool and school-age children. She suggests popular titles, like "The Day the Crayons Quit" by Drew Daywalt. She also recommends "1,000 Books Before Kindergarten," a program that encourages parents to read one book a night to a child, which quickly adds up to more than 1,000 books in just three years.

And it is that period, Bleakie said, that is critical to a child's literacy skills.

"Research shows the best indicator of how well a child will do in school is how well they are prepared to read when they enter Kindergarten," she said. "When they land on the doorstep of school, children bring with them the strength of the connections in their brain, the language, culture, and practices of home, and the beliefs about themselves as readers."

Popular books

Sara Belleau, assistant children's librarian at the Berkshire Athenaeum, cited the following titles as popular with children right now:

For toddlers, preschoolers and Kindergartners:

• "Skippyjon Jones" by Judy Schachner. A Siamese cat pretends he is a chihuahua and goes on many adventures.

• "The Day the Crayons Quit" by Drew Daywalt or "The Book With No Pictures" by BJ Novak. Both are "laugh out loud" books that parents and kids can't get enough of.

For older children:

• "I Survived" series. Action-packed stories of actual events retold for ages 8-12.

• "Who Was/Is" collection of biographies. Short, engaging way to learn about famous people.

"Series are a great way to get older kids reading and keep them reading because once they finish the first book it's likely they'll be hooked and continue the series," Belleau said.


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