McDougall: Children’s literacy is enhanced by free choice reading

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Duncan McDougall, executive director of the Children’s Literacy Foundation (CLiF), a nonprofit organization based in Waterbury Center.  It originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press.

Summer is a magical season for kids — a time when they finally get to make many of their own decisions. Except when it comes to reading. Right now, millions of children are slogging through a school-assigned reading list. And that may not be such a good thing.

Educators have long been aware of the “summer slide,” when many children, especially those from low-income families, experience a disturbing decline in their reading skills.

Though summer reading lists are intended to prevent the summer slide, a recent three-year study by the U.S. Department of Education underscores the power of letting children decide what they want to read.

Researchers tracked the reading habits and test scores of more than 1,300 low-income children. They learned that children who selected several new books of their choice from 600 diverse titles at a spring book fair experienced the same positive impacts as if they had attended summer school that year.

That finding is no surprise to the Children’s Literacy Foundation (CLiF). For 13 years our organization has helped more than 100,000 disadvantaged children select new books to keep that match their unique interests — and get them excited about reading.

CLiF serves children in low-income housing developments, homeless shelters and rural communities. We work with refugee and migrant children, children of prison inmates, and many other at-risk groups across New Hampshire and Vermont. We arrange fun, stimulating author visits, writing workshops and storytelling activities given by skilled professionals who can inspire young readers and writers.

CLiF’s Summer Readers program is aimed directly at preventing the summer slide. Rural towns, schools, camps and libraries across New Hampshire and Vermont can apply for a dynamic presentation by a professional New Hampshire or Vermont storyteller. After the presentation, children browse through scores of titles and select new books to enjoy and keep.

Many of the children CLiF serves are not avid readers, and they don’t think books are “cool.” Some don’t even have a single book at home. But after a CLiF Summer Readers event, virtually every child rushes up to select the books that call to them. We bring books that match every interest and reading level, so even struggling readers can find what they need. Choices range from “Goosebumps” to “Dracula,” “Junie B. Jones” to “The Secret Garden,” NASCAR to Ghandi, and “Magic Tree House” to “The Wizard of Oz.”

How do the events work? In the struggling town of Berlin, N. H., almost 100 children and their families attended a CLiF presentation in a municipal playground. The audience gathered on the grass and I began to talk with the children about the power of literacy and the joys of reading. I had encircled myself with a sea of beautiful new books, and made a point of highlighting dozens of favorite volumes.

“Who’s into adventure books?” I asked. “Have you guys read this one? It’s an awesome tale about …”

Together we read “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble” — with plenty of audience participation. Then eyes grew wide as each child was invited to select a couple of new books to keep from hundreds of titles.

Minutes after the Berlin presentation, kids were scattered under trees or sprawled on the grass, transported by the timeless magic of the written word. More than a few parents stood by, smiling and shaking their heads in wonder.

Empowering kids to choose their own summer reads doesn’t mean we should ignore the classics. We should encourage kids to fall into “The Hobbit,” “Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Stuart Little,” and we should keep an eye toward ensuring kids’ book choices are developmentally appropriate.

But don’t be dismayed if you discover your child sprawled on the couch reading “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” the biography of the latest teen idol, or “Calvin and Hobbes.” It all helps. When you encourage children to choose their own summer reads, you’ll be amazed how far they can go.


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