The critical importance of reading

ESCANABA — Recently, Michigan passed legislation to address reading at the kindergarten through third grade levels. The new law has many parts, but the piece receiving most attention requires schools to retain third graders who are at least one year behind in reading. This requirement phases in during the 2019-2020 school year, which means current first graders will have to be proficient in reading by the time they reach third grade or they risk being held back.

To help young students become good readers, the Third Grade Reading Law directs schools to do several things. Starting this year, schools must give reading tests to K-3 students three times per year. When students are behind, parents have to be notified and children will receive an Individual Reading Improvement Plan, or IRIP. The IRIP will specify what additional instruction and special assistance students will receive in reading to help bring them up to grade level. For children in the third grade, the IRIP must also have a mandatory Read-at-Home portion.

?Recently, I’ve heard from many people who worry that the new law will require so much testing and IRIP writing that schools will have less time than they do now to teach important skills to students. I share many of these concerns, but I am also happy about the renewed focus on the importance of reading.

Why is reading so crucial? Nationally, we feel the social and economic effects of poor reading habits. For instance, children who don’t read proficiently by the third grade are now four times more likely to drop out of school than peers who are strong readers. If this stat isn’t sobering enough, 80 percent of American prison inmates are dropouts, and over 70 percent cannot read above a fourth grade level. I certainly don’t want to give the impression that struggling readers are doomed to failure, but I do want to show that poor reading skills can make obstacles in life much more difficult to overcome. And, since high school dropouts costs taxpayers an average of $292,000 over their lifetimes while an inmate costs society almost $32,000 per year, anything we can do to prevent dropouts is worth doing.

On the positive side, being a strong reader has immense benefits. It goes without saying that reading can make a person smarter, more knowledgeable, and vastly increase chances for success. But new research also shows that reading, especially the type of prolonged reading that comes from reading books, is physically beneficial for the brain. When children read, the effort required to learn vocabulary and follow a story leads to the creation of new neural pathways. As a result, scientists now believe that a lifetime of reading can help the body resist the effects of illnesses like dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Learning to read well leads to the development of other important skills, too. These include a better memory and an improved ability concentrate and focus. In addition, reading helps children acquire critical thinking and analytical skills that contribute to high achievement in a variety of areas, including math. Very recent research also indicates that reading leads children to interact more constructively with others and to show more empathy. I can’t think of any other activity that provides this much bang for your buck.

So, how do we help children learn to read? The answer is simple. When kids are exposed to reading while very young and encouraged to read independently as they grow, they become better readers. With reading, practice really does make perfect.

I know parents who hesitate to read to infants, toddlers, and preschool age children because they weren’t good readers themselves. Fortunately, small children don’t care a bit. If you have little ones in your family, go get that card, pick out some books, and teach your kids that a library is a fun, interesting place. I’m frequently at the Escanaba Public Library, and I can tell you they’re great folks who love to see you there. You can also visit one of the local used or new bookstores. Then, once you have a few books, read aloud to your children every day. Having a regular reading time — right after dinner or before bedtime, for instance — is especially effective because it makes reading something children look forward to. When parents are busy or have other obligations, grandparents and other family members can get in on the act, too.

Once young children learn to love reading and begin to do it independently, parents can continue to encourage it at home by setting aside daily reading time. Gradually, kids and youth will develop and discover their interests, and reading will become as natural and enjoyable as riding a bike.

Here’s the bottom line: reading costs little more than time, and the more time spent reading, the bigger the reward for both individuals and society. Our goal as educators is to help set up children for success, and we look forward to partnering with parents and families as we do so, especially in an area as important as reading.

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Dr. Coby Fletcher is the superintendent of the Escanaba Area Public Schools and an avid reader.