By Zirconia Alleyne
Children’s books fill a table at the Hopkinsville-Christian County Public Library. A librarian asks Joseph, 4, to pick up the yellow book and read it to the snowman. Eagerly, Joseph runs over to the table, grabs the book and plops down in front of the snowman cutout on the librarian’s door.
Joseph just passed an Ages and Stages activity, in which a professional asks a parent what their child can do, and then asks the child to show what they know by doing an activity, similar to what Joseph just did.
“He responded appropriately,” says children’s librarian and specialist Jacki Jenkins, “but, of course, several don’t.”
Working at the library, Jenkins has been standing on the mainline promoting early childhood reading along with educators and community advocates.
While there are a number of parents who utilize the library’s children’s programs, such as Story Time with Miss Jackie and Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, research shows there’s still a lot of ground to cover.
According to the 2013 National Assessment on Educational Progress in reading, Kentucky fourth-graders scored an average 224 out of 500. Tennesee fourth-graders scored 220 and Department of Defense Education Activity students scored 232. The national average for fourth-graders was 221.
“The earlier the better,” says Bonnie Lynch, program coordinator for the Imagination Library, about introducing children to books. Literacy professionals agree.
“We blame children a lot (for not being able to read) and it’s not their fault,” says Denise Perdue, former developmental reading instructor at Hopkinsville Community College. “It’s the parents who are saying, ‘I don’t have time.’”
Besides time, there are other factors that come into play as well, such as learning disabilities, lack of interest in reading and a culture that just doesn’t read. But playing catch-up down the line takes more time and money, says library director Jackie Saturley, who mentions repercussions such as tutoring costs, remedial courses, not getting into a good college or being functionally illiterate as an adult.
Saturley says adults in the community are struggling with reading, too. She sees it most often when reviewing job applications that are filled out incorrectly.
“Lately, I’ve been getting in a lot of applications, and it’s amazing how many people don’t read the instructions,” she says. “That goes back to reading and comprehension because when you start reading early, you become a good reader, and good readers are good students …”
She went on to say that having an illiterate community hinders economic and personal growth.
“(When) attracting business in your community, you’re competing with other communities in the state — we’re all competing globally now,” Saturley says. “The communities that have the best workforce bring in the best businesses.
“It’s important for your own self-esteem, too, when you’re able to handle anything — that you’re not at anyone’s mercy, that if you have to go to a lawyer or sign a financial contract, that you understand it.”
There are several obstacles that can keep parents and children from enjoying reading. We interviewed a few parents who talked about their own struggles and how they actively participate in teaching their children to read.
Megan Aber, originally from California, lived at Fort Campbell for two years before buying a house in Clarksville. Aber, a mother of two, admits that she didn’t enjoy reading when she was growing up.
“I know I looked at reading like it’s so boring, but it’s not,” she says. “Kids have such a crazy imagination already that just reading a book and going into a different world is entertaining.”
Although she now enjoys reading as an adult, Aber struggles to get her son Gavin, 5, interested in reading. At 3, Gavin was diagnosed with childhood apraxia of speech, a disorder that makes it hard for his brain to coordinate muscle movements in the lips, jaw and tongue needed for speech.
Aber says the disorder makes it difficult for him to learn the sounds of letters and words, which is a precursor to reading.
“Honestly, I think Gavin goes by the pictures,” she says. “He likes dinosaur books, but it’s super hard to get him to read because some of the words he still can’t say.”
Despite the barriers, Aber and her son’s teachers and occupational therapists continue to promote reading. His elementary school has book fairs, and Gavin likes to pick out his own books, the mom said.
“He goes to the library a lot because he’s always bringing home books.”
Aber has found that family reading time is most successful after dinner or bath time — “after he’s had his melatonin so he’s calm.”
She also sticks to topics that her children are interested in. Little sister Rose, 3, enjoys reading fairytale or princess books and “Frozen.”
“I had to read the Monsters Inc. book like three times in a row one night,” the mother laughed. “But, I had to do different voices and different hand gestures to get them into it.”
Another local parent found that a personalized book keeps her daughter interested in reading.
Ronetra Ratcliff, 29, registered her youngest daughter, Joi Wills, 3, for the Imagination Library, a program started by Dolly Parton that sends a new book each month to children from newborn to age 5.
Ratcliff says Joi looks forward to her books coming in the mail each month because they always have her name on them.
Hopkinsville-Christian County Public Library has nearly 3,000 children registered for the free program. Program coordinator Bonnie Lynch is on a mission to sign up more.
“Some people wait until they’re toddlers, not knowing that reading should already be a practice,” Lynch said.
With Gavin, Aber asks him to identify different objects in the book to practice recognition, similar to an Ages and Stages questionnaire.
Through DoDEA, Gavin has an Individualized Education Plan, which travels with him no matter where his family moves with the military. Along with specialized courses, Gavin interacts with children who don’t have the disorder. Aber says they are determined to keep Gavin developing at his reading level.
“For my kids, I think they need to know that everything is not readily accessible to them through Google or the Internet,” she says, “that it’s OK to pick up a paperback and they can see that there’s more out there than where they are right now.”
Saturley says there’s always a way to reach children no matter their disability.
“We have books on it, and certainly, you can do research here on the Internet,” she says. “Just try lots of ways until you find something that clicks.”
Jenkins interjects, “It takes a village.”