How do we encourage reading?

By Carol / April 29, 2013 /

Through 3rd grade, children learn to read. From then on, children read to learn.  I do not remember where I first read this, but the importance of that 3rd grade deadline has always stuck with me. A 2011 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation extended the implications of this moment in time, finding that students who don’t read proficiently in third grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school. BookGiving-Carol


An article in the Des Moines Register this weekend, “Iowa’s Roadblock in Reading” provided the dismal news that Iowa ranks last in the nation in improving reading test scores. In defense of my home state, I point out that Iowa’s reading scores started out high and other states are working to get to Iowa’s level, but the trend lines are not looking good. Iowa’s reading scores are declining while our dropout rates increase.


The article offered many suggestions for boosting literacy, profiled parents and children who are tackling literacy problems, and looked at how other states are achieving greater success.


It was good timing that this article came on the heels of World Book Night, an international effort to encourage reading among light or non readers. My writing buddy Mary Gottschalk and I joined thousands of other book giver volunteers on Tuesday to distribute free books. The book I chose was Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451; the book Mary chose was Tina Fey’s Bossypants.


Our venue for book giving was an after-school group of middle school girls participating in a pregnancy prevention program. Mary and I entered the room with an expectation that these girls would not be reading regularly. We were delighted to find that our expectation could not have been more wrong.


When we asked what they liked to read, these girls couldn’t get their hands in the air fast enough. They threw out titles and authors faster than a group of college lit teachers.


We learned that their schools encourage them to participate in a book challenge. The challenge provides a recommended reading list, then students compete not only to read the books but also to answer questions about the books and the authors. Beyond the challenge, these girls were reading regularly – sci fi, mystery and many genres beyond those.


I’d had a few reservations when I walked into the room to share my copies of Fahrenheit 451. Would they connect with such an old book, current though the themes are? I walked out confident these girls would not only read the book but probably discuss it and most likely research Bradbury in the process!


We do need to do more to encourage literacy, lower the dropout rate, and prepare our young people for future success. I am glad; however, that before reading the Register article, I had a hands-on experience with the good work many teachers are already doing to encourage reading.


What’s going on in your area to promote literacy? If you participated in World Book Night, what was your experience?


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  1. Shirley Hershey Showalter on April 29, 2013 at 7:21 am

    My friend and editor Lanie Tankard is a huge fan of this program. She wrote an extensive post about it. You have both made me want to participate next year. Going with friends would be fun!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on April 29, 2013 at 7:31 am

      It’s a terrific program, Shirley. Our book distribution point – a local bookstore – has a party before we go out where book givers share why they chose the book they did and where they plan to distribute. There’s a book club that does this each year and two families. Very fun to do with others.

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