Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Reading for Fun

Miguel and Jonathan showing off all the books they read

Today I'm celebrating one of the most incredible surprises that I've been privileged to witness in all of my 4 years here on staff with Back2Back. But before I get to that, I feel like a little background information is necessary to explain why this is such a big deal...

There is a very strong connection between illiteracy and crime in the United States. I can only imagine that the statistics for Mexico would be similar if not even worse. The Department of Justice states, "The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence and crime is welded to reading failure." Over 70% of inmates in America's prisons cannot read above a fourth grade level. According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), two-thirds of American students who cannot read proficiently by the end of the 4th grade will end up in jail or on welfare. They say that fourth grade is the watershed year.

Less than 8% of Mexican adults have a college degree. The average number of books an American reads in a year is around 10 books. The average number of books a Mexican reads in a year is less than 2 books each year. There's a statistic somewhere that says that less than 4% of the Mexican population has access to a public library - including the ones that you might imagine should exist in schools. The current secretary of education here in Nuevo Leon (the state we live in) has started a new campaign to encourage elementary teachers to read to their students for 15 minutes each day. There are billboards and signs on buses to encourage teachers to read to their students. Why? Because teachers are not reading to their classes.

About a year in a half ago, I began working with children from one of the orphanages we serve during homework time on a daily basis. A few things jumped out at me:
1. almost every elementary aged child was multiple years off grade level in reading and math
2. the students were not reading at all throughout the week
3. the kids had no access to any kind of "fun" book even if they wanted to read
4. their public school does not have a library

The need to me is more than clear. Reading is the key to the future educational and vocational success of the orphans our ministry serves. Literacy skills are critical for all academic subjects. Return on any tutoring efforts are going to be most efficient in younger children. So start early and start young has been my philosophy. Several Back2Back staff joined me in my efforts to make reading more consistent and more fun throughout each week and infuse reading into not only their homework time but also into their normal routine throughout the day at Casa Hogar Douglas.

Since we started, I've seen the most notable attitude change toward reading in the younger children - ages 3 to 6. They LOVE to listen to stories now. But the most shocking improvement came this past December when Miguel, age 10 and Jonathan, age 11 read the entire first book of the series Diary of a Wimpy Kid in one weekend. A year ago, these same 2 boys would whine and complain when I would force them to read for 15 minutes in order to play with my Nintendo 64 for a few hours. I'm convinced that these two boys are the first children perhaps EVER at this orphanage to read large chapter books for fun.

Not only did these two boys read their first ever chapter book from cover to cover, but they read all 5 books in the series in 4 weeks. What blew my mind is that they chose to read these books for fun. There was no bribe offered to get them to read. It was entirely on their own. But once they read all 5 books, I just had to make a big deal out of it. To celebrate, I took them shopping for snacks, ate a ton of pizza and ice cream and watched the movie that was made from the first book.

The kids at Douglas are now reading on their own, for fun, in their free time. The older girls have started reading for fun now too. Some even bring the books to school to read during their free time at school. I could not be more proud of these kids. I was blessed with teachers and family members who made reading fun for me. I was blessed with the ability to go to a public library and participate in story time as a young child. And now I'm blessed to pass along to the children who live at Casa Hogar Douglas an invaluable resource - literacy skills and access to fun children's books in spanish. Thanks to a Rotary Club donation, we recently were able to remodel an old building at Douglas and turn it into a children's library.

Want to know how you can help? I'll post another blog post in a few days here for how you can help us in our efforts to provide fun reading material for the kids.

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