Every day, some children, for the first time in their whole lives, see the door crack open. Beyond is a brilliant world. It is not the world they feel and smell and hear and touch. It is a symbolic world that they can share with the best storytellers, generals, athletes, and poets; with the best scientists, mathematicians, and historians of the past three millennia. It is the pulsating world of computer screens and business contracts and freeway signs and coliseum seating. It is baseball cards and comic strips and backs of cereal boxes. It is Dr. Seuss, Garfield and Spiderman, Charlotte's Web and Harry Potter.
For about 40 percent of our children, the door opens fairly easily. The required brain development and social preconditioning come together smoothly. For another 30 percent to 40 percent of our children, it requires significantly more effort. And for the remaining 20 percent to 30 percent, opening that door may be one of the most difficult tasks of their lives. So difficult, in fact, that many of them never walk through that door. Yet when the door to reading does not open, hundreds of other doors that lead to exciting, financially rewarding, and personally fulfilling worlds also remain shut.
Our schools have been charged with the responsibility of teaching reading - and they do. From the time students enter kindergarten, most of them are able to advance one grade level in reading for every year they attend school. Many students master increasingly complex reading skills in the normal course of instruction, while some students require extra, or remedial, help to master these skills. But the vast majority of students in our schools make annual progress.
The problem is that all children who enter kindergarten do not start with equal experience and skills. Some children start kindergarten nearly two years above what would be expected for a typical 5-year-old. Other children can be up to three years below expectations. This disparity creates a five-year gap between the highest and lowest achieving students that is very likely to continue throughout their school experience. This gap originates in our homes from birth to age 5 and depends largely on the experiences a child receives in the home prior to entry in kindergarten. Children who receive rich language experiences and guided learning from birth to age 5 will be at the maximum level of readiness to participate in the school environment. Children who have few learning experiences will begin school with significantly lower readiness levels. In a report published by the Washington State Superintendent of Public Instruction, it was noted that for children to be successful at the fourth-grade level, they must reach certain benchmarks during their infant, toddler and preschool years. Particularly important are the first two stages, generally considered to be birth to age 3.
Ideally, any meaningful effort to increase literacy among children prior to entry in school should be a community-wide effort that is led by an organization that has the ability to mobilize local, regional, and national resources and build strong networks of collaborating partners. And the organization must be able to sustain literacy efforts in local communities over a long period of time. Once a critical number of community-based literacy organizations are established in key communities, then additional communities can consistently and successfully replicate operational goals, objectives and plans of action.
The Pierce County Reading Foundation is poised to do this. The "foundation" in our name does not refer to a monetary endowment but to the strength and stability a strong reading foundation gives a child for success in school and life.
Our partners include school districts, libraries, local businesses, human services, community leaders and many others who are interested in a simple message: Read aloud 20 minutes a day with a child. It's the single most important thing you can do to help them succeed in school.
The Pierce County Reading Foundation is a ParentMap Giving Together partner. Its Web site is currently under construction; you can reach Becky Fontaine at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Becky A. Fontaine is the Executive Director of the Pierce County Reading Foundation
Originally published in the April, 2007 print edition of ParentMap.