Monday, May 15, 2006

Make time to read with each child 20 minutes a day

Six years ago I decided to make a career change promoting something I love: reading. As director of the South Sound Reading Foundation, a local early literacy nonprofit, I soon discovered I had the best job in the world giving away free books, reading books to kids, dressing up like a yellow bear and encouraging caregivers to read with a child every day.

I wrapped my arms and life around this message, making sure my own daughters had full bookshelves and nightly bedtime stories from my own favorites like “Little House on the Prairie” or “Ramona the Pest.” They learned that trips to work with Mommy meant new books to look through. It was fun!

But then life got busier. Child #1, now a passionate reader, entered school and started reading on her own — at breakfast, in the car, after school and before bed. It was a tad obsessive, but what could I say? Obviously our “20 minutes a day” with her had paid off.

Unfortunately, the second child never seems to get as much attention as the first. This motherly guilt made me examine the mission of my organization: Was “20 minutes a day” too much? I began getting creative and reading to her in the bathtub at night, or before cooking dinner. But it was tough. It was so much easier to turn on “Arthur” or “Clifford.” And after all, weren’t these books too?

I am lucky enough to have a supportive spouse who also understands the bonding, academic and brain development benefits of reading to a child from birth. But recently he took a much-needed hiking vacation, leaving me to lead the single-parent life for a week.

It was a whole new, exhausting world. Life would often begin at 6 a.m., and we’d come stumbling home from school, grocery shopping and a softball game at 8:30 p.m. I had a whole new appreciation for the military families whose spouses were stationed abroad, the divorced parents whose three nights a week felt like eight, and the grandparents who were parents all over again due to unexpected life circumstances. How did they get through work, feeding, driving and laundry and still find time to read?

Our national organization recently looked at ways to “Take 20” — but not all at once. Remember that 20 minutes a day can be broken down in several smaller increments, like 5+5+10 = 20. The average child watches three hours of television a day, so surely one-ninth of this was doable? What parents don’t realize is that you do not have to teach your three-year-old to read. That will come, hopefully, with daily reading at home, quality child care and school.

What you can do is have them arrange magnetic letters on the refrigerator or look through cookbooks while you are cooking dinner. Or sing the baby a nursery rhyme and give her a board book to gum and play with while you change her diaper. Or have older siblings read to younger siblings. When you’re traveling, try to read road signs together, and always take books in the car in case you have a few minutes between appointments or school activities. The key is do your best and try to make reading a fun, daily family habit. And if you were not raised as a reader or do not speak English, then make up a story while looking at a picture book, magazine or photo album. Or ask questions of your child while reading — it can turn a 12-page picture book into a special 20-minute experience in no time.

Is all of this extra effort really worth it? Undeniably yes. The National Commission on Reading showed that the “single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success is reading aloud to children.” Just think, if every parent or provider read with their child 20 minutes a day starting at birth, they would have more than 600 hours of reading under their little belts before starting school. Compare this with the five hours of piano practice a week or 10 hours of playing catch and hitting for baseball. “Take 20” doesn’t seem so hard in the big picture.

So just like you “Buckle up for Safety” or “Put your Baby Back to Sleep,” please “Take 20” to help your child read and succeed when they grow up. It’s a third of an hour out of 24 well spent.

Courtney Schrieve is the executive director of the South Sound Reading Foundation. She can be reached at The Web site is


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