Your gift can unlock a child’s potential

Among the many gifts my parents gave me, both the most powerful and the most mysterious were the books that lined the shelves on either side of our stone fireplace. My dad built the fireplace as a source of heat in the large room that he added to our trailer, and its heat and light provided an ideal place for a child to read the books that arrived through the mail in boxes with exotic labels like Works by Jules Verne or Disney’s World of Fantasy. Even the books I could not read haunted me with the words I deciphered on their spines, such as Native Son, The Way of All Flesh, and Sense and Sensibility.

As an adult, I now understand the powerful influence these books had on the person I became. I now understand the wealth the books provided, the wealth provided to any child whose options increase exponentially in a reading environment, and I understand this because I have studied it for most of my teaching career. The mystery of those books’ presence still remains, however, because I will always wonder how my self-educated parents knew then what 21st century research has proven to me and other educators: reading is the single most important activity linked to a child’s learning.

I recently read that gifted children are more likely to be read to daily, have books in their homes, and go to the library at least once a month. What the passage neglected to say is that children who are read to, who own books, and who have access to libraries are also the children who will be identified as gifted. Teachers and researchers have known for some time the direct relationship between children’s reading and literacy scores, but we now know that there is an equally strong relationship between children’s independent reading and academic success overall. On the other hand, there is an inverse relationship between lack of reading and academic failure, and studies of our prison populations reveal the even sadder fact that 80 percent of our prison inmates are illiterate.

It is common sense that the more time we spend on an activity, the better we become at its execution. So it stands to reason that children who spend time reading outside of school will score better on reading achievement tests. But take that further. Every part of life, every part of education, every part of a relationship requires words, and the more children read, the more comprehensive and precise their collection of words, their vocabulary, becomes. That is why strong reading skills help children outside of as well as in school. Teachers can provide reading instruction to children, and schools can provide periods of time for children to practice the skill. However, it is only if a teacher is perceptive, or has a schedule or a curriculum that permits it, that she or he will provide children with a degree of independence in their reading, because the love of reading begins, as do most of our passions, with a choice. 

In Swain County schools, an emphasis on reading in the lower grades has improved our students’ reading scores over the past few years. Besides professional development for all teachers, the school system also leaves no stone unturned in trying to find money for books at all levels, from pre-kindergarten through high school.

But there are limits to what the school can do and what dwindling budgets can provide, and that is where Congregations for Children, a partnership between schools and community churches, steps in. C4C, whose ultimate goal is to transform children’s and families’ lives in Swain County, provides volunteers in the schools, and so is aware of the limitations imposed by budget cuts, by numbers of students, by school schedules, and by poverty in our children’s homes. The people who volunteer from our churches are also aware of what reading research says about children who read at home, but many of our school children neither have books in their homes, nor, in the summer months, a way of getting to our libraries. By the end of this school year, C4C wants to provide all of our elementary children with a book that belongs to them, a book that may, if it is the right book, be at least one step in the direction of becoming a stronger reader.

Although neither I (as the Swain High School representative) nor the other volunteers at C4C can give a child the kind of family I had, we can provide these children with the books that will broaden their horizons and let them see that the world is perhaps bigger and more generous than they had ever imagined.

To contribute to the purchase of books, you may make checks payable to the Bryson City United Methodist Church and designate “Congregations4Children Books.” For more information, contact Linda Dills at 828.488.3096 or 828.341.5469.

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