Reading Is A Family Affair – By Sydette Watlington

Sydette Watlington is the mother of first grader Syerra Watlington who attends Brooks Global Studies in Guilford County Schools. She believes reading as a family is crucial to the long-term success of our children. She is an ardent supporter of Guilford County Schools’ 3 Million Books Challenge and reads with Syerra to promote lifelong learning.

Reading is the fundamental building block of success in and out of the classroom. In Guilford County Schools (GCS) – North Carolina’s third largest school district – we embarked on a lofty reading campaign at the beginning of 2012 called the 3 Million Books Challenge. As the name suggests, our students have been challenged by Superintendent Maurice “Mo” Green to read 3 million books by the end of this year. Last year’s goal of 2 million books was shattered by more than 600,000 and we’re on track this year to break the 3 million mark. What’s most interesting is how our entire community is working and learning together about the importance of reading as a family.

Personally, this challenge has been an inspiration to my family and me as we work together to read, read, read! My daughter, Syerra, is a first grader at GCS’ Brooks Global, and we take every opportunity to demonstrate to her the importance of reading. This past summer my husband and I made it a point to sit down and read as a family as we wrote down on a list the books Syerra read. Reading has always been a part of our lives, and early on we used e-reader toys to help Syerra learn and grow. But I think the most helpful was actually reading along with her, following the words with my finger and helping her sound them out.

Reading and learning should be casual and fun for a child. Pressuring a child to read will only hurt them in the long run. That’s why we as parents have such an important job since our children will do what we do. If we read and do it with pleasure, so will they. And, by the way, this starts long before a child is able to actually understand words. In fact, I even read to Syerra while I was pregnant with her! It’s never too early to start a good habit.

My daughter’s first visit to her school library in first grade was also another milestone in our house. She brought home a book and I looked at the size of it and thought, “We’re going to be here for hours!” I didn’t discourage her, however, and to my surprise she jumped right into the book with very little assistance from me. I was amazed at the ease and the speed at which she read, as well as the words that rolled off her tongue. This book was definitely not from my era when “See Jane Run” was the norm. Since this first library visit, my husband and I continue to be pleasantly surprised at Syerra’s reading level and her love of books. We’re very proud parents and know that reading to her at an early age (even in the womb) has played a part in her success.

In addition to her reading skills, Syerra’s writing skills are also very strong. We’ve received praise from her teachers and she was even picked as one of the top five in her class to read her writings aloud due to the vivid descriptions she provides in her journals and book reports. She absolutely loves to write in her journal and does so when she has free time at home or on the weekends. When her class assignment calls for a book report, she finishes it a week or so in advance because she’s so excited about her ideas and the story she intends to write. She once told me that she wants to become a writer. I know her desire to become a writer is in direct relation to her love of reading. Reading is at the core of everything that a child will learn and how they will learn. And if it sound like I’m bragging, well I am! Parents should encourage and brag more about their children and their reading habits so they can hear it.

As I mentioned earlier, I stressed the value of reading with Syerra by sitting down with her early on as she read. Right now, I’m teaching her how to read long, chapter books by herself without me being directly beside her. She was a little hesitant at first, but after she read a few chapters by herself, she realized it was a piece of cake. I’m never too far off in the distance, however, so she can feel secure that I’m there to answer any questions. Again, encouragement is a big factor in a child’s reading success. In Syerra’s case, I told her that she was reading like an adult and that I was so proud of her. She wore a big grin after that (with her two missing teeth). We still grab our favorite book together in order to make it a family affair.

Homework time can also be viewed as reading time since most of the classroom assignments require online or library research. In doing homework with Syerra, I refer to her teacher’s instructions and ask questions that initiate thought and not just a regurgitation of the facts. I want to see that she actually understands what she’s read and can make connections to other real world things. By consistently asking questions and assisting them with their homework or writing assignments, children become better readers. My child’s good grades and great writing skills are in direct correlation to how well she reads.

Another way to incorporate family reading time is to schedule it like you would any other extracurricular activity. We usually read over schoolwork first thing when we get home while I am preparing our meals. Sometimes if we have a stop to make on the way home, and if time permits, we will read over assignments in the car. Every free moment presents an opportunity to read, so it’s up to us parents to get creative with time. If something occurs and your agenda is changed, setting aside reading time, even if it is only 10 minutes for that day, is better than skipping it all together. Last minute schedule changes or canceled school activities also provide great reading time opportunities. We always have a book on reserve or are thinking about the next book to put aside so we’re prepared if we get some down time. You don’t have to complete a novel each time you sit down to read either. The purpose of reading is to free your mind so you can make connections between what you’re reading and what’s going on in the real world. Again, simply asking Syerra what she read at school that day or what she did in math or science is usually enough to spark some great conversation.

This month is National Family Literacy Month, but in our household, we try to make reading as a family a daily event. I’ve seen firsthand how my child and her love for reading has influenced her success as a student. I’ve also experienced how, as a parent, we can be the best champions for learning and discovery. By picking up a book and reading alongside Syerra, I’m “practicing what I preach.” By actively participating in reading time with her, I can show how and why it is so valuable. I challenge students, teachers and parents to do the same. In Guilford County, we are quickly approaching 3 million reasons (and books) why reading is so important!