Tips for cultivating early readers

TELL US A STORY: Cora Heilemann and bull mastiff Amari are all ears for story time at Henderson County Public Library. Photo by Jason Heilemann

By Miriam Bradley

With a post-pandemic drop in North Carolina reading proficiency scores, it is all hands on deck to turn the situation around. One way educators and librarians are trying to do this is by nurturing a love of reading among children.

Fewer than 44% of third graders in North Carolina were proficient readers at grade level, according to N.C. State Board of Education’s District Level Report for 2020-21. Percentages across North Carolina counties ranged from 25%-72.1%.

Wendi Adair, executive director of Augustine Literacy Project-Brevard, noted that 80% of low-income students and 85% of juvenile offenders have a reading deficit. These stark numbers drive her efforts to provide tutors for low-income students in Transylvania County schools. “The nurture and knowledge of an Augustine tutor can be the difference between productivity and prison.”

Here’s what educators, librarians and parents are doing to foster reading.

Educators try a reading array

Educators from area public and private schools share many of the same approaches to building their students’ proficiency in reading basics. Avery’s Creek Elementary School Principal Caroline Lynch noted, “We use research-based instructional strategies balancing phonological awareness, decoding, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension,” which is a common theme among area educators.

Another repeated technique is using several modes of reading. Schools encourage students to check out books from the school library and keep a book handy to read when they are done with their seatwork, teachers read aloud to the class, and many schools use reading buddies.

Area schools also are on the lookout for creative approaches to make reading more interactive. Imago Dei Classical Academy students in Mills River engage in reading through a variety of ways, says Principal Meaghan Groth. These include reading aloud, listening to others read aloud and “participating in meaningful comprehension assignments such as oral/written reports/projects, debates, art and purposeful activities through our reading buddies program,” she says.

Talitha Johnston, a reading specialist at Avery’s Creek, says educators “try to connect the content of books to other areas of the curriculum so students have the opportunity to see that reading is not just a subject. When students read about something they experienced in science class or something they learned about in music, it adds more meaning to the reading process.”

Teachers from Brevard Academy host poetry slams, stage dramatic readings, arrange reading partners and allow the students to record themselves reading and then listen to themselves. Another favorite activity is to read by flashlight instead of overhead lights, says Caroleen Hodge, assistant director and instructional coach.

Earlier this year, Rosman Elementary School librarian and teacher Bethany Chapman received grant funding so her class could access an app called Novel Effect, which adds sound effects when she reads “trigger words.”

“I use it nearly every week during my class read-alouds and in all of my library classes from pre-K through fifth grade. The students love it, beg for it and always ask if our book has “sound effects.”

Avery’s Creek Principal Lynch described the school’s current reading challenge. “Students are invited to fill out a book card when they’ve completed reading a whole book. We are creating a ‘book chain’ throughout the school with the goal of making it down every hallway.” It seems to be working. Students read over 375 books in the first two weeks.

Libraries start readers early, very early

While schools focus on students, libraries engage readers much earlier. Area libraries offer story times for babies, toddlers and preschoolers.

Caitlin Lindsey, youth services coordinator at Henderson County Public Library, says, “Our aim is to use this programming to model ways for families to engage their little ones through reading and learning together.” Through community partnerships like Smart Start, the library offers a program called 1000 Books Before Kindergarten, which provides resources families can use to keep young children on track before they even go to school.

Buncombe County Public Libraries also focus on reaching the youngest children with materials that foster a love of reading at early ages. “Story time presenters are intentional in selecting books, songs and activities that are developmentally appropriate,” says Megan Northcote, youth services manager. In addition, all branches have a wealth of age-appropriate materials that the staff looks forward to helping children and parents find.

Recently, I attended PAWS for Reading at Henderson County Public Library, a program where children can read to therapy dogs. I met Jason Heilemann and his daughter, Cora. “We come here a lot,” Jason said. “We love the community and activities. The staff knows us and calls Cora by name.” At this point, our conversation was cut short. Cora had discovered a book and was ready to read to Amari, a bull mastiff, and her owner, Veheda Fuller.

Buncombe County and Asheville public school students can use their student IDs to check out books through the Student Access program, says Northcote. Area libraries also have books and other materials available through the Libby app.

Lindsey noted that the pandemic “limited children from socializing with other kids their age. This has made it hard to hold their attention when they are in a room full of kids because all they want to do is interact with them. We try to give them lots of chances to move around and talk with each other in these programs while also making sure that they get a preview of a classroom atmosphere by sitting and listening when a book is being read or instructions are being given.”

Another challenge is the increase in screen usage.

“Screens aren’t going away,” Lindsey notes, “so it is on us as educators to make sure that we give children alternatives when we encounter kids that are reluctant or struggling readers.”

Northcote summarized it this way: “Whether kids are getting their books digitally or in print, the important thing is that we find ways to continue to engage our youth with books and work to foster a love of reading at a young age.”

Job one for parents: read to your children

What advice do educators and librarians offer to parents who want their children to be readers? It boils down to one word. Read. Read to your children early, often and always.

“Developing an interest in reading can start in infancy,” says Imago Dei’s Groth. “Reading aloud to your baby, allowing them to manipulate board books and textured books as soon as they begin developing fine motor skills, and having books present in the home will spark curiosity.”

Brevard Academy teachers agreed. “Read aloud to your child every night. The benefits of hearing words correctly pronounced, talking about the story, stating opinions and learning about things that interest your child are priceless,” Hodge says.

“Parents are their child’s first role model when it comes to reading,” Northcote says. “If possible, carve out at least 15 minutes to read to your child every day. Reading is a great way to foster connections between your child’s world and the fascinating worlds that await them between the covers of a book.”

She also offers this suggestion. The library “is your resource for building that love of lifelong learning that can start at a very young age with a library card.”


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One thought on “Tips for cultivating early readers

  1. Jt

    All this is utterly meaningless if low income parents don’t prioritize their children’s education. We all know this, but no one wants to say it. Only 44 percent at grade level is abject failure!

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