The Family That Reads Together

Family That Reads Together...By Sara Hodon

Few pastimes bring families together like reading. No matter your age, background, or favorite genre, there’s nothing like sharing the experience of a good book. Whatever fills your family’s schedule, it’s important to make reading a regular practice. Across the Lehigh Valley, there are numerous programs available to help children, parents, and families improve their vocabulary and comprehension skills, increase their shared reading time, and celebrate their love of books.

Developing good vocabulary and reading skills are critical for success, both for children in school and for adults in the workplace. Many folks list reading as a favorite way to relax and unwind after a stressful day. Beyond the escapism a good book provides, reading is a necessary practical skill that is almost impossible not to use every day. “Almost everything in life requires reading,” says Carol Jones, Executive Director of The Literacy Center of the Lehigh Valley who named everyday things like understanding a bus schedule, instructions on a bottle of medication, or hospital discharge papers as just a few tasks that require reading skills. “It’s very difficult for those of us who can read to imagine how you could get by without reading.” Currently, the Lehigh Valley has a 15% illiteracy rate; Pennsylvania’s is 8%. Nationally, 1 in 5 adults are below basic literacy and read at or below a fifth grade level. Jones said that these folks are people who have trouble reading or filling out a basic job application. Organizations like the Literacy Center can help. They offer tutoring programs with one-on-one reading skill building, high school GED study courses and ESL programs, among others. Jones said they’re also in the process of creating family reading areas at their centers where parents can bring their children in for reading time or take books home to read together.

Developing good vocabulary and reading skills are critical for success, both for children in school and for adults in the workplace.

It’s never too soon for parents to introduce kids to reading, as children develop a love of books and learning at an early age. So how do we get them started? Jones says that simply reading to children, improving the parents’ own reading skills, and keeping books in the home will all help a child’s reading ability. But it’s not just parents who shape the kinds of readers children become. Grandparents, aunts and uncles who share reading time with the younger members of their family help to lay the foundation for a lifelong love of learning.

Public libraries have long been among the biggest advocates of early childhood and family reading initiatives despite ever-shrinking operating budgets and a bigger need for their free services than ever before. Large and small public libraries across the Lehigh Valley have event calendars jam-packed with story times, youth-based summer reading programs, book clubs for both teens and adults, and more. Besides the practical benefits that sharing favorite books can provide, reading is an inexpensive activity that families can do together. Whether it’s a genuine love of books or a practical need for affordable pastimes that are bringing more patrons into the library, these public institutions have never been busier. “It’s been really exciting to see just how much our library is being used,” says Jennifer Stocker, Easton Area Public Library Director. “Reading is free, educational fun. I’m just excited to see that with all of our advances in technology, reading is still so important.” Stocker said that library usage was up by 13% in June 2009 over the previous year, with the biggest jump in their young adult section. Ellen Heath, Easton Library’s Coordinator of Youth Services, says that even reading together for 15 minutes every day can make a huge difference in a child’s reading ability. “Parents can read at a higher level, and they can show their children the ‘next step’ as their own skills improve. Adults can read with expression and make the words have meaning as they read aloud. Parents can also show children that they value reading themselves,” Heath said, adding that telling a child to “Go read” while the parent sits in front of the TV is a big no-no. “Say ‘let’s read’ so you’re reading together; value reading as a family activity.”

Renee Haines, Interim Director at the Allentown Public Library, says that they are working on expanding their adult programming, as they already offer a number of popular children’s programs and want the whole family to use their services. “Our adult book discussion group is up and running again,” Haines said. “We had been running one for a few years but it faded out. There was some interest in getting the group going again.” The Allentown Library also holds summer reading programs for both adults and younger readers, where both can register online and visit the library to track the books they’ve read over the summer and be eligible for various prizes. “There’s no formal reading list. It’s all self-directed, so it’s up to the individual to register and record what they read,” Haines said, adding that the adults get into the spirit as much as the younger readers. It’s a great way for both parents and kids to keep up their reading routine once school is out.

And sometimes when parents just may not understand, books can also help kids navigate the difficult waters of adolescence. Ximena Miranda, Young Adult Librarian at the Allentown Public Library, says that for readers in the 12-19 age range, “If you have books that mirror their lives, they tend to read more.” Besides the latest trends in young adult books, Miranda says series novels that tackle peer pressure, diversity, and bullying are among their most popular reads.

Local bookstores are doing their part to encourage families to read together and create a common bond through books. The Barnes and Noble store in Bethlehem hosts a Mother/Daughter Book Club that meets on the second Tuesday of each month. The current group of girls ranges in age from 3rd through 8th grade, and reads books from all genres appropriate to their ages and grade levels. “The whole idea is that mother and daughter read the book, get together and discuss it. They answer questions like Do they like it? Would they read it again or recommend it?” says Barnes and Noble bookseller Sue Rabson, who facilitates the group. “Although it’s a book they never would have chosen, it’s amazing how much they enjoy it. The older girls and their mothers get just as much out of reading the juvenile books as the adult books.” Besides the Barnes and Noble group, there are countless book discussion groups for all ages and genres throughout the Valley. The Easton Area Public Library has a nonfiction group that meets monthly, and the Moravian Book Shop in Bethlehem hosts a loyal gathering of mystery lovers every month. Their choices run the gamut from releases by contemporary authors like Thomas Perry and classics like Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Jane Clarkston, bookseller at the Moravian Book Shop, says that the meetings average about 12-15 members. “It’s the sort of thing where someone will say ‘I didn’t like that book’, but as they all discuss it, they understand it more.” Sharing a great book will do that—help us understand ourselves and the world around us a little better. It’s never too early—or too late—to develop good reading habits and become a lifelong reader. Whether reading for pleasure or to improve yourself, as Heath said: “Reading is a window to the world beyond your everyday life. It’s a way to choose what you want to learn. If you can read, there’s nothing you can’t explore.”

Sara Hodon is a Schuylkill County-based freelance writer who loves books, bookstores, and libraries, and wishes she had a few extra hours in every day to get caught up on her reading list.

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