Impact: Volunteers, educators gather to help WV children succeed

By Bethany Kinder and Dawn Miller

Daily read aloud puts children almost a year ahead of children who are not read to every day, literacy specialist Christy Schwartz told a room full of Read Aloud West Virginia volunteers at their fifth annual conference in July.

Schwartz works for the state Department of Education’s Campaign for Grade Level Reading. She and her colleagues support county school systems and teachers to ensure children are reading on grade level by third grade. They focus on school readiness, attendance,  learning opportunities outside of school and high-quality instruction.

“I’m really excited by all the connections and the way that our work corresponds with one another,” she told representatives from local Read Aloud chapters meeting at Stonewall Resort July 23 and 24.

Read Aloud leaders were there to connect and share ideas and inspiration for the coming school year. This annual summit has proven to be an invaluable gathering for the organization and its local groups.

Volunteer readers and school coordinators gathered for Read Aloud West Virginia’s annual conference in July to organize, learn about research, build programs and share enthusiasm.

Schwartz reminded volunteers of the need they fill.

West Virginia has high rates of poverty, and years of research confirm that poverty is a risk factor for many problems, including poor school readiness. Education researchers have zeroed in on oral language skills.

“It is the foundation for literacy,” Schwartz said.

Children who have strong oral language skills often have strong reading and writing skills, she said. Those who don’t are at higher risk for difficulty. One old study famously measured a 30-million-word gap between what low-income children heard and what wealthier children heard by the time they reached school age.

“I always try to take that with a grain of salt, because I did grow up poor in West Virginia, and so any study that says people who live in poverty are this or that, I know that that’s not necessarily the case for everyone,” Schwartz said. “And I know that there are many people in this state who don’t have a lot but who value education, who are educated, who are intelligent, who have good vocabularies, so I know that we have to kind of take that with a grain of salt, but we do kind of need to also look at what the data is telling us and use it to help our students.”

Also at the conference, Read Aloud welcomed the West Virginia Department of Education’s Janet Bock-Hager, who spoke about a longitudinal study of the effects of preschool. Participants also heard from Read Aloud state board member and pediatrician Dr. Kim Cross, who shared details of Reach Out and Read, the medical community’s recognition of the importance of encouraging families to begin reading to children in infancy, and of the Academy of Pediatrics policy on limiting screen time for young children.

Chapter attendees were invited to share some of their favorite Read Aloud books in 30-second “book talks”.

The conference addressed best practices for starting and administering Read Aloud’s programs, which fall into four major categories: Volunteer Readers, Book Distribution, Public Education and Classroom Enrichment.

The needs and expectations of local chapters were addressed through presentations as well as group discussion. Each attendee received chapter information to share with their local leadership and a Resource Kit that provides all the “how to’s” of Read Aloud.

Read Aloud staff and board members have been encouraged each year by the commitment of the organization’s volunteers and the impact the conference has had on local chapters.

“I am always inspired to do better each time I go,” one participant said

“This was my first,” said another. “I learned so much. The people were so friendly and I enjoyed meeting people from other counties. I received information to help me be a better school coordinator. I plan to use a lot of information in my monthly newsletters to send to families.”

The state Read Aloud office thanks each chapter representative in attendance and is inspired by the dedication of all the Read Aloud chapters and volunteers.

Schools with hard-working Read Aloud coordinators were recognized with books donated to their school libraries the coordinator’s name.