Score One for Reading Week by reading with children at home

"A little madness in the spring is wholesome even for the king."

- Emily Dickinson

Every spring, elementary schools throughout Nevada go a little crazy. No, this particular insanity has nothing to do with achievement testing. However, it does involve crazy hair days and dressing up in silly costumes. It calls for usually dignified school administrators performing very undignified stunts., things like riding camels, spending the day on the school roof and dressing as punk rockers.

It's Reading Week, and it involves a lot of foolishness, but it does get to the root of reading, the reason to read -- motivation. Without the desire to read, reading simply doesn't happen. So maybe it does have something to do with those test scores after all.

This year's theme for Nevada Reading Week is "Score One for Reading." Sports are a perfect metaphor for reading. Both learning a sport and learning to read begin way before Little League signups or the first day of school. Both actually begin before the beginning. They begin by watching others and wanting to join in. They begin with toys and books in the playpen. But of course, there is more.

Young children aren't born knowing how to shoot a basket or balance on two wheels any more than they are born knowing how to read. So coaches, teachers and parents lower the baskets or install training wheels. They also use careful words to encourage and teach.

In reading, that boost might look like picture books with just a few repetitive words on each page, or books that rhyme. We allow our children plenty of time to practice and make mistakes, using careful, encouraging words.

Similarly, we don't expect proficiency in sports or reading overnight. It doesn't even happen at the same age for every child. Both take lots of practice - and probably more than a few fumbles and stumbles. We practice sports on the field, on the court, in the driveway, in the yard. We practice reading at school, on the couch, in the car and in bed before lights out. Parents take on the dual role of coach and cheerleader.

The goal, of course, is that children find the act of reading intrinsically rewarding - that they simply like reading, just as they simply like playing ball, riding a bike or swimming. However, for many children, reading isn't fun - yet. It's hard work. That's why Reading Week is important. Even reluctant readers can join in the fun.

Part of every Reading Week celebration is a challenge to read at home. Why? Because as little as 15 minutes a day spent reading outside school can make the difference between scoring at the top and bottom on those tests everyone is worried about. But reading at home, with people who love them, offers children benefits much more important than test scores.

Children also learn that reading is important, so important that parents -- grown-up, busy people -- take time out of their day to read with them. And children will forever associate reading with that loving presence. That in itself is pretty motivating. The daily closeness and interaction can also help them over many of life's little bumps.

In addition, reading opens their minds and hearts to experiences that are beyond their own. It stretches attention spans, increases vocabulary, encourages critical thinking and improves writing and speaking skills. It also allows parents and children to experience a vast world together from the safety of their own sofa. It allows them to learn from the choices of others without personally having to make them. Reading together is powerful stuff.

So regardless of the rigors and rigidity of No Child Left Behind, schools across Nevada will celebrate Reading Week. You see, in spite of the fact that students are spending more and more time preparing to take tests, teachers - and parents - know the ultimate goal is still for children to be lifelong readers, to be literate, successful independent, happy adults. And there is no test in the world that can achieve that.

In all of their efforts to improve schools, don't let us forget that children feel the same pressures and frustrations as adults do when asked to do more. The focus on test scores has left out any room for fun. However, without fun, we will lose many of the children, the ones most at risk for failure. They won't come along on what is sometimes a long and rocky road.

And yes, wearing a funny hat can make the journey a little more bearable for all of us.

• Lorie Schaefer teaches kindergarten. She wishes to remind Seeliger Elementary School families that the annual Family Reading Night, including fun, games and the Book Fair, takes place Thursday from 6:30-8:30 p.m.


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