Libraries in Kansas and across the country are trying to help children improve early literacy skills by offering a reading challenge: to read 1000 books before kindergarten.
About two dozen children with parents in tow are making their way to the storytime area at the Central Library in downtown Wichita. They find a seat along the carpeted platform steps that's shaped in a semi-circle. The children are all two years old or younger, and there are a few babies here, too.
Nina Hand takes her seat at the front, and clearly, she is a rock star with these kids. Her title is senior library assistant, but she’s better known as a storyteller. She’s been doing storytime at Wichita libraries for about 20 years.
If you haven’t been to a storytime in awhile, the thing you need to know is that it’s not just about hearing someone like Miss Nina read a couple of books. The 20-minute session for this two-and-under crowd is packed with activities to get the kids moving and learning.
The books she reads are colorful, with lots of pictures and short, simple stories. Miss Nina knows this age group has a limited attention span. When young children hear a story, they are building language and literacy skills to last a lifetime.
Library storytimes for preschoolers have been around for decades. Now, even the American Academy of Pediatrics is encouraging doctors to tell parents to read to their children daily at home, beginning in infancy.
Children’s Library manager Erin Downey Howerton agrees, saying reading aloud during those early years is crucial to stimulating a child’s brain development.
"Between the ages of 0 and three, children’s brains experience the most development and make the most neural connections," Howerton says. "So by the age of three, most kids are about as ready as they are going to be to learn language and engage with the written word and pictures and things like that."
Educators say when children don’t have strong literacy skills, they face challenges in elementary school, and as curriculum advances, the kids fall behind.
The research is clear: Strong reading skills form the basis of learning in all subjects.
The Wichita Public Library has joined a nationwide initiative called “1000 Books Before Kindergarten” to help get parents on board with reading to their infants and toddlers.
"What it is actually doing is helping families make reading a part of their daily routine and it’s helping build relationships," Howerton says. "And it’s helping build relationships with young people and their families so that books are seen as a wonderful addition to all the wonderful things they are already doing together."
The free program is easy: Every time you read to a child, you mark it down on a tracking sheet that counts 100 books. Once you complete 100 books, you start over with a new sheet until you reach 1000 books.
If you register with the library, there are prizes at different completion levels so kids will be rewarded for reading.
"We encourage families to read books over and over and count every time they read the book because repetition is one the best ways for kids to learn," Howerton says.
The 1000-book challenge is designed for children under six years old, who aren't in kindergarten. Some kids might even be doing the reading themselves.
Howerton says reaching the 1000-book milestone is doable.
"If you think of it as one book a night, that’s one book a night for about three years, if my math is correct," Howerton says. "If you are starting it a little bit late, let’s say, if you have a five-year-old that’s starting kindergarten next year, it’s not too late. That’s three books a day."
In two months, more than 800 families have signed up for the challenge. Altogether, Howerton says, they have read about 25,000 books so far.
She says it’s likely more people are doing the reading challenge on their own.
The library distributed more than 5000 tracking sheets to child care centers and children’s groups to bring awareness to parents who might not be regular library visitors.
"A lot of families have not yet heard the message of how important it really is to be engaging with your young kids even before they can read—before they really know what a book is—to help them develop that relationship so they have a chance of doing better later on in school," Howerton says.
Summer Stephen, of Wichita, has been bringing her one-year-old son, Harrison, to the library’s storytime for the past six months. She says she reads books to him whenever she can.
"We try to do at least once a day, but, you know, it can be a little hectic," Stephen says. "We definitely try to do once a day."
It’s a start, and there’s proof it can be done.
A four-year-old girl in Georgia finished the 1000 book challenge by reading all the books on her own. As a reward, she was invited to the Library of Congress, where she was named honorary librarian for the day.
Follow Deborah Shaar on Twitter @deborahshaar.
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