A Problem Staring Us In The Face

Keith Norris

Reading at grade level is a critical piece of development for every child.

As a child growing up in rural Missouri, one of my favorite pastimes was escaping into a Louis L’Amour pulp western. As I grew a little older, I discovered A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, and then the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings remains my favorite novel to this day. These tales of high plains heroes, time travelers, and hobbits battling the forces of darkness adorned my childhood and cultivated my imagination, giving me something to look forward to when farm life seemed mundane.

My parents instilled a love of reading into me virtually from birth. Those L’Amour books were hand-me-downs from my dad. Although my mom displayed no such affinity for westerns, she, too, always had her nose buried in a book or a magazine.

In the myopic worldview of my childhood, I thought that was what every home was like. Of course, that wasn’t the case then and certainly isn’t today. When I was a kid, reading was my entertainment. We had only three channels on TV, video games were still in their infancy, and the internet wasn’t a thing yet. Nowadays, most of us have almost infinite entertainment choices at our fingertips. And life seems so much busier. For many families, two working parents is the norm. The days of quiet reading time seem downright quaint.

But there is a price to pay for the diminished importance modern society places on reading.

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According to the most recent First Steps report from the Tennessee Department of Education, a third of Tennessee’s third graders read proficiently. The report shows a similar story for children that participated in the optional grade 2 TNReady assessment, developed by Tennessee educators: only 33 percent of the second graders tested got 80 percent or more items correct in the reading comprehension portion of the assessment. Why are these such alarming statistics? Because third grade reading proficiency is an important metric in forecasting future academic success, including the probability of graduating from high school.

For instance, a long-term study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation discovered that students who were not reading proficiently by the end of third grade were four times more likely to drop out of school, and 88 percent of students who failed to graduate from high school had difficulties reading in grade three. According to the report, the reason that third grade is so critical is because it is the last grade in which the focus for most children is on learning to read. After that, they must read to learn.

Obviously, this situation is a tragedy, not only for the students struggling to read, but also for society as a whole. These kids are not developing one of the primary tools needed to succeed in life. Far from ever reaching their full potential, as adults they face a greater risk of negative outcomes—such as incarceration and substance misuse issues. We will never know what could have been, what brilliant things these young people (given the proper tools) could have created.

On a local level, we depend on a highly educated workforce to compete with other communities in the global marketplace for good jobs. On a national level, we know that a democracy’s survival is based on having a well-educated population. These are the future voters that will, in part, select the leaders of our country some day, and without these critical skills, we run the risk of becoming non-competitive and seeing the electing of poor leaders.

Fortunately, improving early childhood literacy rates has become a priority of many Tennesseans, including policymakers and non-profits. The United Way of Greater Knoxville has long supported organizations in the region that make school readiness—reading included—a priority in their programming. Nonprofits such as the Children’s Center of Knoxville, Soar Youth Ministries, and Emerald Youth Foundation continue to provide important education-based programming for students.

And of course, who could forget Dolly Parton and her Imagination Library. The program works with local libraries and organizations across the world—like the Governor’s Early Literacy Foundation—to ensure that children receive a free book every month from birth to 5-years-old regardless of income. The Knox County Public Library has partnered with Imagination Library for about 15 years, boasting one of the highest per capita registration rates of any urban county in the program.

The Knox County Public Library is also home to a program that I am particularly proud of: Read City USA.

Read City USA is a collaborative program in which our community pools its reading hours to meet challenging goals. My administration launched the program in 2019 with the initial goal of reaching the moon from Knoxville—approximately 250,000 miles or, in Read City USA terms, 250,000 community reading hours. Our community smashed that goal, as we did the following year when we accumulated 500,000 hours. This year, our goal is to read one million hours on the Tails and Tales reading expedition.

The idea for Read City USA came to me after reading about Oklahoma City’s “This City is Going On a Diet” initiative. Started by Mayor Mick Cornett in 2008, the residents of Oklahoma City shed a combined one million pounds over four years. Along the way, Oklahoma City incorporated public initiatives aimed at improving community health. Driven by a common purpose, the people of Oklahoma City transformed themselves and their city.

Participating in the program is simple. You go to www.ReadCityUSA.com and download the Beanstack Tracker app on your smartphone. Then register your account using a Knox County Library card and begin logging your reading hours. Your time is automatically added to the Read City USA running total.

The work of Read City USA, the Imagination Library, and other literacy initiatives is transformational, as is the work of our library, where the staff works diligently to offer personal service to help parents find appropriate books and resources for their kids. But there is still more work to be done.

That is why this summer, the Knox County Public Library is operating a summer adventure program called the Hidden Picture Challenge. The program is designed to keep kids from losing academic gains over the summer months through enrichment activities, programs, and literary quests. Challenges range from writing a letter to a favorite author to researching their family history. And of course, reading.

In addition, we are working to launch Kids Trivia, a program where I will join with other local leaders to suggest books for our kindergarten through third grade friends and then invite families to trivia nights that will focus on the theme and details of the book. Keep an eye on www.knoxlib.org for details on this front.

We also continue to ensure the county’s students—particularly in the kindergarten through third grade range—have physical library cards, something typically only possibly when a student is brought to the library by their parents to fill out the paperwork. We actively work with schools to allow students to do this from their classrooms.

Literacy is a skill honed by constant use and immersion. Reading to your children is not only a great way to spend time with them, it is also vitally important to their cognitive development and their future success.

By bringing the joy of reading to life for young people, we not only foster a love of reading, but also secure future economic opportunities for these youngsters by ensuring that east Tennessee fields a quality workforce that meets the increasingly rigorous standards of the global economy. After all, literacy isn’t just a student issue; it’s an economic one.

While we’ve made some great strides, we simply cannot take our eye off the ball. Reading with a child on a consistent basis seems like an easy enough thing to do, but demands on family time and daily stresses are real and difficult. We will need to continually examine the obstacles and find ways to make early childhood fertile for learning, imagination, and development. Much like the adventures of Frodo in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, our community’s journey to tackling literacy head on will not be without its obstacles, but in working together this is a challenge I strongly believe we can meet.

Thanks to my parents and their love of reading, my journey took me from the fictional worlds of L’Amour and Tolkien to traveling the globe and experiencing a life I never thought possible for someone like me.

So, please, take advantage of these wonderful programs and read with your kids. It’s good for all of us.   

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