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How to Boost Your School's Literacy Development Programs

A Mom Congress and National PTA report:

You know one of the surest ways to help your kids succeed in school is to be an involved parent. But not every mom and dad has the chance or support to be as engaged as they'd like. In fact, each year 37 percent of incoming kindergartners are not prepared to succeed in school. While some kids enter school with an understanding of more than 20,000 words, others understand fewer than 3,000, says Carol Rasco, executive director of Reading Is Fundamental (RIF), the nation's largest family literacy organization. Why the huge gap? "The richness of the language a child hears before kindergarten is a huge element," she says. Some kids are simply spoken to more, and hear more words per day, than others.

"Most Americans get that early literacy is important, but sixty-one percent believe that most kids will catch up in a year. They don't realize that the gap they enter school with is usually the gap they leave with," says Kim Davenport, senior vice president of education and programs for the nonprofit literacy organization Jumpstart. In fact, this gap is a better indication of the importance of early learning, she says, than anything else.

That's where you come in. "When we look at children's scores before our volunteers' literacy intervention and after, we can see that we are making gains of twenty to thirty percent in language and literacy development during the year," says Davenport. "We can tell our volunteers that they are making an impact."

And, say literacy experts, the ways in which volunteers in preschools and grade schools can drive such success are simple. "Parents often think that teaching literacy has to be a formal activity," says Elanna Yalow, Ph.D., executive vice president of Knowledge Universe, the parent company of KinderCare, a private provider of early care and education. "But it's the accumulation of the little things that parents already do naturally that makes the difference: singing songs and telling stories." Talk to your teacher or principal about the ideas below and learn how you can best get involved.

Just Read

At school, volunteer to come in for story-time. You may share several books a night with your child, but not all families have the luxury of time to do so, says Davenport. In fact, fewer than half of families with kindergarten-age children read to them on a daily basis, which makes reading at school that much more important. And when you are at home, National PTA recommends reading with your child for 30 minutes every day. As he gets older and begins to read more on his own, continue to bond over books by asking him questions about his latest fave.

Talk It Up

Prefer to make up your own tales rather than read from the page? Great! Telling children stories about travel or a cultural tradition automatically exposes them to different words and concepts. So arrange a time when you can come to the class to talk about your job, where you come from, a trip you just took?anything. It's helpful to bring a prop to help spark discussion and focus the kids' attention, says Rasco. But don't feel pressured to make your presentation fancy. Simply listening to and conversing with a new grown-up is beneficial for kids.

Share Books

A recent report commissioned by RIF indicates that increasing children's access to books significantly increases their literacy skills and reading performance. Make a list of your family's favorite books and encourage other parents in the class to do the same. You can share lists and then start an informal book swap.

National PTA recommends dedicating a section at your school's book fair to new and gently used books donated by parents and available at no cost (one or two per family, depending on supply).

Liven up the Library

If you notice that the media selection at the school library doesn't match the diversity of the school or community, hold a fund-raiser to drum up money for new titles. You might also work with your PTA to hold a book drive to build the school's collection or to share with local families. For more ideas, Rif.org has great book lists, reading games, and activities.

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