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Children need to spend more time with books | READER COMMENTARY

Tsehai Subira, 4, looks at children's books including "Uncle Marcus" about Marcus Garvey, at a Tendea Family book and grocery giveaway in Baltimore. File. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun).
Tsehai Subira, 4, looks at children's books including "Uncle Marcus" about Marcus Garvey, at a Tendea Family book and grocery giveaway in Baltimore. File. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun). (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

In her article, “Kids miss out on so much as fewer now read for fun,” (Jan. 2), Karin Klein quoted a recent survey by the National Association for Educational Progress that documented the decline in the number of children who read anything beyond school-assigned texts. This trend is especially dramatic once children reach middle school.

With most, even young children getting tons of information through digital media, why is this seen as problematic? Two studies, a British one and one by the advocacy group Kids Read Now, found that readers had a more extensive vocabulary, were better at spelling and — surprisingly — even had higher mathematical ability regardless of their socio-economic background. They also showed higher empathy, and better decision making and social skills.

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These are certainly important benefits, but reading has rewards that go way beyond these measurable socio-educational ones. Reading naturally creates a partnership between author and reader since the reader’s imagination augments and embroiders what the author presents. My “Great Expectations” is not your “Great Expectations” unless we’ve both seen the same movie, which presents yet another participant’s interpretation of the story. For me, books therefore beat most filmed versions hands down. I cannot remember any movie that lived up to the ways my imagination had co-created the settings and characters of any book I’ve read.

Books take us out of ourselves into other worlds, be they real or fantastic, across continents and to the moon and back. They suggest new ways of looking at things or present options never before considered. Characters in books become companions or even role models. As we grow and change, our understanding of them changes. Some we leave behind, some will stay with us for life.

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With public libraries in every town and school in this country what gets in the way of reading whether for school, work or for fun is not lack of access to books, but the shockingly low level of literacy of the U.S. population. According to the latest figures available, 21% of citizens are illiterate and 54% read below 6th grade level. A study done in 2020 by Gallup on behalf of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy estimated that low levels of literacy cost the nation $2.2 trillion a year, because it affects employment opportunities, personal income, overall economic growth and even health outcomes. Illiterate children grow into illiterate adults, stuck in low paying jobs who cannot help their own children to read or kindle their love for reading. This deprives them not only of access to the world around them but of a chance to use their imagination and become creative, productive members of their community. So getting children to read for fun, is serious business.

All children love stories. Back in the days when I was briefly a teacher, I would tell stories to my class at the end of every day. Threatening to withhold story time for misbehavior turned out to be one of my most potent disciplinary tools! Importantly, any obstacles to becoming literate, like dyslexia, have to be diagnosed and treated as early as possible. Then, starting in preschool, in addition to teachers reading to children, the curriculum should have a daily period set aside for young children to first look at books and then to start reading them for themselves.

Books should also be sent home and parents encouraged to look at them or read them to and with their children during whatever short a time available. Having children keep a diary, at first by dictating to teachers, later on their own, or write a poem, turns readers into writers. And writers will remain lifelong readers to their own and the country’s enrichment.

Sabine Oishi, Baltimore

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