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Raising kids to read

October 14, 1998

When officials of the William Penn Foundation figured out that poor children spent more of their waking hours in day-care centers than with their parents, they decided they needed a new kind of literacy program.

Called Books Aloud, it has distributed more than 89,000 storybooks to 17,000 children in 500 Philadelphia area day-care centers over the last three years. The project suggests again that even if parents can't or won't participate in such programs, students can still make progress.

Many of the youngsters involved in the project were too young to read, but officials determined that by using brightly illustrated story books, day-care workers could stimulate their interest in learning to read.

The Penn Foundation delivered books by the boxload to hundreds of center serving low-income families - but only if day- care workers attended workshops on how to promote reading and allowed a trainer to come in and help them set up an in-house library.

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The result? According to an assessment by Temple University education professors, three out of four children who've been through the program now have their own library cards. The children's improved ability to repeat stories also helped them gain skills now that will help them improve their writing skills later.

Based on the project's findings, a couple of things seem clear. Day-care providers can be key participants in the learning process, reading aloud to children instead of just parking them in front of a TV set. But many providers need help, not only with their own reading skills, but with the purchase of books that are appropriate for youngsters they serve.

But the best finding of all may be that the program yields measurable results and that unlike some computer lab, it doesn't take an expert and thousands of dollars worth of hardware to put together. All it takes are a few parents willing to invest in books and some day-care providers wise enough to know that if their young charges progress academically, they'll prosper financially.

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