September is National Literacy Month.

There may be no better time than now to re-instill the value of reading and writing. The COVID-19 pandemic has done appreciable damage to our schoolchildren, and as a population, with English as a second language for many, literacy and constructive dialogue would be well served by a greater emphasis on these skills.

Encourage the young people in your life to go to the library, pick up a good book and explore new worlds. By putting books in the hands of our children, we can instill new habits and foster learning. This is just one way where parents, educators and other caring adults can unite to meet the needs of our youth.

Read together. How many of us remember being read to before bedtime or doing the same for our children? Read out loud. Make it exciting and interactive, allowing a child to let their imagination run free. Carve out special reading time. Twenty to 30 minutes at a time can be worked into our schedules for something as important as this.

Preparing young children for school starts in the home. Access to quality books before our youth even enter a classroom is crucial. That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics encourages pediatricians to promote early literacy development during primary care visits. Reading aloud and talking about pictures and words in age-appropriate books can strengthen language skills, literacy development and parent-child relationships, according to the AAP.

Reading proficiency by third grade is one of the most important predictors of whether a student will graduate high school and succeed in a career, according to the AAP. Unfortunately, for children from lower-income families, a bedtime story may be hard to come by because there may be no books at home to read.

Researchers have found a wide disparity between the literacy skills of children from low-income homes and those from wealthier families because of the lack of books. One study found that in middle-income neighborhoods there are 13 books per child, while in low-income neighborhoods, there is one book for every 300 children. By age 3, children from wealthier families have typically heard 30 million more words than children from low-income families, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

In Monroe County, there are thankfully several initiatives that support putting books in children’s hands. One is the Dollywood Foundation’s “Imagination Library” program, offered by the United Way of Collier and the Keys, which mails free books each month until a child’s fifth birthday. All parents must do is sign up and 5 years later, their child has a library of 60 books. The program is overwhelmingly popular with families, but funding constraints continue to limit enrollment to meet the needs of every new baby in Monroe County.

“Little Free Libraries,” an initiative sponsored by United Way of Collier and the Keys and the Literacy Volunteers of America follows the “take a book, leave a book’” philosophy. We have donated old newspaper boxes to be recycled to support this program.

The LVA has a local Monroe County chapter with three service delivery sites in the Keys where residents can be trained as tutors or enroll to avail themselves of student services. All five Monroe County library branches are also included. There are approximately 144 volunteers up and down the Keys and last year they served 426 students.

Finally, here are some suggestions to make September a fun month-long tribute to the written word!

• Read to your child: If you think reading aloud is something you only do for little kids, think again. Children of all ages enjoy having books read to them.

• Help a struggling reader: Not only is this a great way to give back to the community, but it instills in your children the value of helping siblings or friends with their reading.

• Play word games: Boggle and Scrabble are just some of the fun games that encourage literacy. Your kids can sharpen their literacy skills while having a good time.

• Write a story: Encourage your children to get their creative juices flowing by penning their own story. If they’re too young to write, let them dictate their tale and then add their own pictures.

• Visit the library: Make a trip to the library.

• Work a crossword: Reading is not the only way to interact with words. Buy a crossword or word search book for your little one.

The Key West Citizen and Florida Keys Free Press newspapers strongly support National Literacy Month and the work of local nonprofits in this area.

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