The list of what a child needs in order to flourish is short but nonnegotiable.
Food. Shelter. Play. Love.
Something else, too, and it’s meted out in even less equal measure.
Words. A child needs a forest of words to wander through, a sea of words to splash in. A child needs to be read to, and a child needs to read.
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Reading fuels the fires of intelligence and imagination, and if they don’t blaze well before elementary school, a child’s education — a child’s life — may be an endless game of catch-up.
That’s a truth at the core of the indispensable organization Reading Is Fundamental, a nonprofit group that provides hundreds of thousands of free books annually to children age 8 or younger, in particular those from economically disadvantaged homes, where books are a greater luxury and in shorter supply.
I shine a light on Reading Is Fundamental, or RIF, for several reasons.
We’re in the midst of giving thanks, and this group deserves plenty. It has distributed more than 410 million books to more than 40 million American children.
We’re on the cusp of the year-end holiday season, during which many people turn their attention to charity, making the most generous of their yearly donations. I urge everyone to think about literacy, books, early childhood education and organizations, like RIF, that support them.
And we’re a texting, tweeting, distracted country in which too many children don’t read at grade level, too many forces conspire against any improvement in that and too heavy a price is paid.
RIF just began its 50th year of work and is marking that milestone with some new approaches and a fresh determination to spread its message despite budget challenges. With the clampdown on federal spending over recent years, it lost about $24 million in annual funding that it had come to rely on. That represented more than two-thirds of its budget, which now leans harder on private contributions.
Consequently, RIF gives away fewer books in a given year than it once did. It was down to 1.8 million last year from a high of about 17 million more than a decade ago.
But RIF has signed on as a partner with ustyme — a digital platform that enables multiple users to read or play video games together — to make sure that underprivileged children in particular take advantage of ustyme’s Billion e-Book Gift, which will provide access to a digital library of 50 previously selected children’s titles, many in Spanish as well as English. Those titles can be downloaded, starting Dec. 1, by visiting RIF.org/50ebooks.
The ebook reflects RIF’s determination to get kids to read in whatever manner best accomplishes that. The goal is to develop a muscle, nurture a habit, maybe even spark a passion. You never know where a little reading might lead.
Ellen Halliday, the RIF coordinator for the Brooklyn Public Libraries, recalled a mother who worried that her 8-year-old son was wasting his time with easy, breezy, frivolous books.
“Then one day,” Halliday told me, “when he was about 9 or 10, he said to me, ‘You know, I got this book, and this author — I can really see what he’s talking about when he talks about the shire or the hobbit. I think this Tolkien guy is an excellent author.’ ”
RIF was the brainchild of Margaret McNamara, whose experience as a teacher convinced her that for many poor kids, one of the main barriers to proficient reading was simply access to books.
It’s vital nourishment. Research suggests that during their earliest years, kids from disadvantaged homes don’t hear as robust a variety of words as kids from privileged ones, and that’s the prelude to a series of other gaps with bearing on their success in school and beyond.
Early reading is one of the remedies.
“Reading follows an upward spiral,” said Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and the author of “Raising Kids Who Read,” which was published earlier this year.
“Kids who read more get better at reading, and because they are better at reading, it’s easier and more pleasurable so they read still more,” he said. “And kids who read well don’t just do better in English class — it helps them in math, science and every other class, too.”
I’d go even further. Reading tugs them outside of themselves, connecting them to a wider world and filling it with wonder. It’s more than fundamental. It’s transformative.