My View: Give a child a book and open the door to a great future
Kids at the Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club in the Bronx listen as actor Courtney B. Vance reads to them.
December 16th, 2011
08:01 AM ET

My View: Give a child a book and open the door to a great future

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.

Actor Courtney B. Vance talks to youth about the importance of reading.

Actor Courtney B. Vance talks to youth about the importance of reading.

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.

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  1. jarrodporter

    Hello Bloggers,

    I found this to be an interesting post that addresses a vital skill that will help young people succeed in life. While growing up in Baltimore, our mayor at the time Kurt Schmoke had a phrase for the city called "The City that Reads". He was helped to emphasize the importance of reading. I have a youth mentoring enterprise I am building in Tucson, AZ and one of our goals to teach young people to "Read to Succeed". So much can be learned through biographies of those who are successful and have been able to make a difference. Life lessons can be taught and wisdom gained from what others have walked through. I heard a Bible teacher say a few times that, "books are missionaries, they work while you sleep". I think reading to one of the lost arts that has so many treasures waiting to be discovered.
    If anyone has come across any other interesting others on reading and youth, can you send the link to Thank you!

    December 30, 2011 at 5:01 am |
  2. Rick Brooks

    Almost every night these days I sit down and read the mail from people who have wanted to share stories about their love of reading. They write about all the people they have met at Little Free Libraries in their neighborhoods, the memories they have of reading to their children and being read to as children. And they tell me about how happy they are to help others read. We are just about to give our Boys and Girls Club a kit to build a Little Library of their own and paint another, then fill them up with their favorite books. This evening we got an email from a teacher who now has the first Little Free Library in Ghana, and she has written to a teacher in El Paso who has her students so excited about their own Little Library and books that they can hardly resist. If one wonders these days about how to excite children and adults about the joy of reading, take a look at the Facebook group on Little Free Libraries and see. The secret is to share the joy, adventure, mystery, sadness and wonder of good books, knowing that in those pages and words are the pathways to meaning. Dr. Seuss was right. Oh the places we can go...! We just have to start, preferably with someone whose love for words and pictures matches or exceeds our own.

    December 21, 2011 at 9:39 pm |
  3. John Luma

    Great article and inspiring, clear message. This is the first time I've heard literacy stated as THE determining factor in school and in life - and yet I've always known this. I fell years behind in grade school reading due to dyslexia and eyesight problems that were never understood. I almost dropped out. So it is this simple: Early literacy = success in life. Without it kids can't follow in class, can't do their homework, can't get the inspiration that reading unleashes in their young imaginations. The ability to read and write is the key to unlocking so many areas of our curiosity - the key to a vibrant life. Unlocking our curiosity, our imagination, our ability to think, express ourselves and dream.

    December 20, 2011 at 5:27 pm |
  4. Kristie

    It is unfortunate that many children turn to TV, video games, and computers rather than picking up a book. It is our responsibility as parents to make sure our children are reading. I read with my daughter 20 minutes every night and she now reads a lot on her own. Last year she was having trouble (she's now in 2nd grade) and was not at a proficient level. Anyway, I met someone who introduced me to a non profit organization called Cognitive First. Here is an exerpt I pulled from their site.

    Third grade reading proficiency is foundational to academic success. Building strong phonemic awareness skills is essential for children to reach 3rd grade reading proficiency. Unfortunately, despite best practices in reading instruction and even great teachers many children struggle and are not meeting reading proficiency goals. Most of these children have weak phonemic awareness skills.

    They offer a sound analysis program so I sat with my daughter for 10 minutes a day for about 6 weeks going through the exercises. She is now proficient in reading and absolutely loves to read. I look back now and realize that spending 10 minutes a day with her at the computer was well worth it. I am trying to get the message out to more parents and I don't know why, with all of the articles I've seen on this issue, that more writers aren't writing about the solution rather than the problem, or at least noting that their is a solution. I'm here as a testimonial that there is! All anyone has to do is go to just like I did. If parents don't do something to help their children, the schools aren't going to do it – they don't have the time to spend one on one with the kids. Besides, they have their own curriculum, etc. My daughter may not ever have become proficient in reading had a friend not told me about Cognitive First.

    December 18, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
  5. Jackie Treehorn

    I once read about a scientific study where they examined a number of homes to see which variables were most closely associated with high-achieving kids, and the highest correlating variable was the number of books in the house. Even when they controlled for the education level or income of the parents, it was the number of books in the house that really mattered. Of course, correlation is not necessarily causation, but still...

    December 17, 2011 at 8:13 am |
  6. gotacomment

    Mr. Vance, may I point out that most products of this nation's public schools don't read because they can't? Public schools and many private ones teach whole word or look-and-say methods, which don't teach real reading. The only true reading method is phonics. I learned to read phonically somewhere between my third and fourth birthdays and when I got to school I always stayed four levels ahead of whatever grade I was in as far as reading was concerned and spent six years being yelled at for "reading ahead" while some poor soul struggled with simple sentences. The Dick and Jane BS started somewhere in the 1930s and produced at least five generations of functional illiterates.

    December 16, 2011 at 11:44 pm |
    • Silence

      Sorry, but Dick and Jane was taught with phonics and public schools taught phonics up until whole language in the 1980s. The problem is that public school teachers have been told how to teach and what methods can be used. The textbook companies sell the states "programs" that are scripted teaching. Students do very little on their own when instructed with these programs. English Language programs, designed to teach language acquisition , are used in place of reading programs. And these language acquisition programs do not do a very good job, but politics are involved. Bilingual educator groups who lost their programs have been able to still influence how English language learners are educated. Any student whose parents indicated that there was any other language spoken in their home, had their child labeled English Language Learner, even if the child only spoke English. These children are saddled with substandard ELL (scripted) programs. The states govern the number of minutes they are required to be taught these programs. Most of the programs require 180 minutes a day, which leaves no other time to teach real reading. And if you have ELL students in class, the program must be taught. Since there is no extra money, all students wind up being taught to read using ELL programs.
      Dick and Jane would be an improvement!

      December 18, 2011 at 1:43 pm |
      • gotacomment

        Some phonics was taught when I was in grade school (1953-60), but not enough. In "reading circles", as I said, I always heard other children read in flat monotones, with no expression and no indication that they had any idea of the meaning of the words they were reading. The situation seemed to grow worse with every grade level. Rudolf Flesch's "Why Johnny Can't Read" and "Why Johnny Still Can't Read" underscored my experience. In the early years of the last century, reading was taught in schools and children learned and children of immigrant parents went to school and were taught entirely in English. They went home and taught their parents. The parents didn't speak English perfectly, but they spoke it, wrote it and understood it. I agree that the ELL nonsense has done more to create a functionally illiterate population subgroup than anything else. Just shows whenever politicians get their hands in anything the result is worse, not better.

        December 20, 2011 at 8:19 pm |
  7. ItDoesNotFollow

    I don't believe that the lack of any books on a list of 2011's hottest toys is a necessarily a sign of "a sad commentary on holiday gifting." It's more a sign that you're reading the wrong list. I mean, I don't look at, say, Amazon's list of top children's books of 2011 and think to myself, "Man, its pretty sad that there's not a single cookbook on this list," or "I can't believe that not a single video game made the list of top books!!!"

    As valid as the rest of the arguments in this piece are, that opening just doesn't seem to jibe with or support or enhance the thesis.

    December 16, 2011 at 11:27 am |