By Courtney B. Vance, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: As a youth, actor Courtney B. Vance attended the Boys & Girls Clubs in his native Detroit. With a passion for reading and an advocate for improved literacy among youth, Vance supports the organization’s Bright Spot for Reading initiative, which focuses on developing a positive attitude toward reading among young people.
The list of the hottest kids’ toys for the 2011 holiday season is out, and it’s notable for what it doesn’t include. There are dolls and cars, games and action figures, but there’s not a single book. This isn’t just a sad commentary on holiday gifting; it’s a sign that our next generation is going to lack skills vital to success.
Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” the Harry Potter series, C.S. Lewis’ Narnia writings and Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol” are some of the top book gifts for the season according to Amazon, but I expect book purchases will be but a fraction of what’s spent on electronics and toys, most of which will be forgotten by January.
I read recently (pun intended) that September was “Read a New Book” month. May was “Get Caught Reading Month.” March was “Read Across America Day.” So with all these opportunities to teach kids the importance and value of reading, why aren’t we seeing more improvement in our children’s reading skills?
According to the 2011 Reading Report Card, only 34% of fourth-graders are reading at or above “proficient.” By the eighth grade, the reading proficiency rate remains at just 34% for all students. The Report Card noted that fourth-graders who reported reading for fun almost every day scored higher on average, and students who hardly ever read scored lowest.
As a parent, one of my great joys is reading to my children and seeing them develop their own love of books. When I was growing up, education was important in my family. My mother was a librarian, so we grew up around books. My parents instilled in us the importance of reading and that it would help us get good grades and get us into college.
But I worry that too many American children will never know the joy of reading a new book, because they have never learned to read or been encouraged to read. In fact, less than one-third of 13-year-olds are daily readers.
Reading isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity. Reading ability doesn’t just translate to success in academics. It can also be the crucial factor that determines whether a child will succeed in life.
Without intervention, children with reading problems will grow up to be illiterate adults. Poor literacy has far-reaching implications, both for the child and for society. Deficient readers are far more likely than skilled readers to be high school dropouts and less advanced readers have fewer opportunities for career growth.
As Americans, we should be embarrassed about illiteracy. More to the point, we should do something about it.
We have to make literacy a priority. Giving children the necessary tools to build strong literacy skills also gives them the tools to succeed in life.
Consider these benefits of good literacy skills:
– Reading is a vital skill in the workplace. Higher reading levels correlate to higher employment percentages in management and professional occupations and by extension higher wages.
– Strong readers are twice as likely as nonreaders to volunteer or do charity work.
– Students who read for fun nearly every day perform better on reading tests than kids who don’t.
Kids need reading support from parents, school and the community. Community programs supported by nonprofits and corporate partners encourage children to work harder at reading. In a number of cities, The Walmart Foundation funds Boys & Girls Clubs of America’s Bright Spot for Reading effort. Targeted at children from 11 to 15, the program encourages them to read more and develop a positive attitude toward reading.
Parents should encourage activities in drama, art and technology. By tying reading to other activities, even the most reluctant reader is drawn into literacy. Reading programs create environments where children can enjoy the company of their friends and develop a lifelong love of reading, leading to a happier, more productive life.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Courtney B. Vance.