Why a book is the best gift you can give

by Jan Dixon
Special to The Leaven

OVERLAND PARK — As parents, we work hard to give our children the best — and it’s never more evident than at this time of year.

But too many parents are failing to give their children the single gift that best predicts their later success — in school and beyond.

Literacy is the door to all knowledge. Once a child learns to read, they are able to spend the rest of their life reading to learn.

Or just for fun, for that matter!

So, as you go about your shopping this holiday season, remember that with the gift of a book, you give the joy of reading.

And if the child on your shopping list is too young to read, don’t let that stop you.

Reading aloud to children models language and patterns of language.

It stretches thinking skills, said Karen Farrell, principal of St. Gregory the Great School in Marysville.

“Seeing the words on the page, learning vocabulary, understanding how a story is structured and being able to talk about the details of the story are all important when it comes to helping children learn how to read,” she said.

The gift of literacy, in fact, begins at birth. Books are full of words. Reading aloud celebrates words — the sounds and melody and how they fit together. It builds vocabulary.

The language in books is rich and in complete sentences. The language is more complicated and sophisticated than what is generally heard in the home or on TV. A child who hears more sophisticated words has a giant advantage.

It all boils down to the fact that research shows that the child who comes to school with a large vocabulary does better than the child who comes with a small vocabulary.

“The children that are read to often at home,” said Jeanne Myers, second-grade teacher at Mater Dei School in Topeka, “develop a larger vocabulary, a well-rounded background knowledge and higher self-esteem.”

Pam Allyn, executive director of LitWorld, said that “within the first 10 minutes [of walking into a classroom], I can tell which children have been read to before they came to school.”

“Their engagement with literature in the classroom, their capacity to listen deeply, to remain engaged, their stamina for early reading — all of those factors are potentially built right from birth,” she added.

“The foundation of education is reading,” said Farrell. “Developing a love for reading early helps children as they progress through school. Having books in the home and being read to helps them be more successful academically.”

Moreover, it is a bonding experience for parents and children. Even when your child is able to read well, take turns reading aloud to each other. It provides opportunities to share in adventures, predict outcomes and analyze characters.

Then, continue to read aloud stories that may be too difficult for your child to read independently, but will generate the opportunity for in-depth discussion.

Colleen Kolich, who teaches AP literature at St. James Academy in Lenexa, believes it is important to read aloud even to high school students.

“Adult reading is more fluid and the cadence is more polished, leading to a more enjoyable read for teens,” she said. “It develops the skill of listening.”  

At Mater Dei, teachers encourage parents to read along with their students. The school sends books home to be read together.

“When students participate in a novel study, parents are encouraged to share in the reading with their student,” said Andrea Hilbert, principal.

When children are read to, they are transported into new worlds — worlds they could not get to on their own. They come to see literature as something fun, positive and valuable. They become lifelong readers and learners.

And the bonds that reading together creates can serve as a door to lifelong communication.

“I had a little girl years ago,” recalled Mary Louise Totten, first-grade teacher at Mater Dei, “that always read with her mom. The mother always had a book — on the counter, in her purse or in the car. They loved to read together.”

“When the little girl went off to college and had a rough day,” continued Totten, “she would call her mom and quote lines from the book ‘Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.’”

Her mom would then quote back to her daughter lines from that same favorite book, said Totten.

“And then the day didn’t seem so bad,” she added.

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