Most Important 20 Minutes

By Jennifer Davis Cary and Patricia Z. Eppinger posted Wednesday, October 1, 2014 Telegram and Gazette

Publication Date: 
October 1, 2014

By Jennifer Davis Cary and Patricia Z. Eppinger

Several years ago Worcester and more than 150 cities across the country joined together in the Campaign for Grade Level Reading, a national effort to dramatically increase the number of children who read proficiently by the end of third grade. This is a critical benchmark as it is the point where students shift from learning how to read to reading to learn. The national campaign focuses on school readiness, summer learning loss, and chronic absenteeism. These areas are all the responsibilities of families and communities, and support the hard work primary grade teachers perform each day in classrooms to build children's literacy skills.

A substantial body of research indicates that many children do not have consistent access to appropriate reading material. Often children from low-income families have no books in the home. In addition, all children are affected by our cultural obsession with electronic devices and quick, brief bites of information. We are drifting away from a culture that values sustained narratives and that values and encourages reading.

As a result, Worcester added another important focus to its campaign: getting books into the hands of children and encouraging daily reading.

The first successes of this phase of our campaign were the deployment of two new bookmobiles for the Worcester Public Library: Libby and Lilly. More recently, with support from community partners, new branch libraries opened in three of our elementary schools. These new libraries have been enormously popular with children and community members. New programs have been well attended and books and other materials are flying off the shelves.

The current phase of our campaign is a broad and exciting community effort that emphasizes the importance of daily reading as a key component of literacy. Our message is simple but very important: "Twenty minutes, Every Child, Every Day."

Why 20 minutes? Why every day? Because the cumulative effects of consistent daily reading, particularly reading aloud with young children, are profound. They include:

• Building literacy skills: in phonics, listening, and comprehension.

• Increasing breadth of knowledge: both fiction and non-fiction books can broaden a child's world.

• Language development: reading a variety of books builds vocabulary; the number of words that children know when they start school is a key predictor of their academic success.

Sharing books with children, pointing out pictures, talking about the characters and their experiences and feelings, relating the information in the book to children's lives is important not only for their educational development, but also for their social and emotional development. Parents and caregivers who regularly read with their children develop important and enduring bonds. Simply put, reading with children is both effective and fun.

Reading can also help children to develop clear interests and feel confident and competent in their ability to master material. Whether it's a passion for dinosaurs, baby animals or trains and travel, there are hosts of high-quality books to engage a child's interest.

Despite the many positive benefits of daily reading, nationally only 48 percent of young children, across all socio-economic groups, are read to each day. Worcester — The City That Reads, aims to increase that percentage by making adults aware of the importance of reading daily with children. Like other national campaigns — Buckle Up for Safety, for example — the Twenty Minutes Campaign aims to make daily reading a habit.

This phase of Worcester — The City That Reads grew out of Worcester Education Collaborative's Education Roundtable and is supported by the Worcester Public Schools, the Worcester Public Library and a host of corporate and nonprofit partners, as well as dozens of committed individuals.

Twenty minutes, the length of a sitcom minus commercials, is a manageable amount of time to build into the day. For small children, it is a good way to help settle down before nap time or bedtime, or as a break when some quiet time is needed. For older children, reading to a younger sibling or other relative helps reinforce skills and build confidence in their own abilities.

Reading 20 minutes every day with a child does not seem like much, but over five years, it will mean over 600 hours of rich and varied learning experiences. It can open the world to children, help them to empathize with others, and to see, through literature, that they are not alone in their concerns and questions. Sharing reading time can also give children the opportunity to bond with a caring adult. For adults who care for children, sharing reading time is the most important 20 minutes of the day.

Jennifer Davis Carey is executive director of the Worcester Education Collaborative and Patricia Z. Eppinger, is WEC's incoming chairperson.