The key to childrens literacy: a book of their own they can touch, read and talk about

One of my first books was about an enterprising French mouse named Anatole who went to work as an expert.

One of my first books was about an enterprising French mouse named Anatole who went to work as an expert taster in a cheese factory. That was over 50 years ago, and because my book was a sturdy hardcover, Ive still got it.

Now Im reading it to friends grandchildren. According to research, that little mouse is still building vocabulary and language skills, introducing them to different places and cultures, improving concentration and memory, and firing their imaginations. All that sets them up for future academic and career success.

To reap those benefits, literacy experts recommend that children have books at home because it encourages them to read more often.

Reading at school is a given, but its voluntary reading outside of school that really gets kids hooked. Borrowing a book from the library is great, but it comes with time limits: they cant hang onto it for more than two weeks, much less five decades. And while modern kids love electronic devices and e-readers, on-screen reading in general cant deliver the tactile benefits of a paper book the touch and smell of the paper, the sound of the pages turning which are especially important to reluctant readers.

According to the University of Saskatchewan, that pile of pages growing on the left and shrinking on the right is a real confidence- and memory-booster, making it easier to remember what they read and where they are in the book, and providing a sense of progress.

When children have books of their own, they have a greater likelihood of becoming strong and enthusiastic readers later in life, says Mary Ladky, Executive Director of Torontos Childrens Book Bank and a child literacy expert.

Given the cost of books, setting up a home library may be beyond the reach of many families. The Childrens Book Bank, which works to build literacy in low-income communities, has been welcoming kids of every background to its storefront in Regent Park for 10 years now. Once inside, children are encouraged to find, read and keep a book.

In 2017, the Book Bank sent 127,000 books home with visitors aged 0 to 12 through its storefront as well as through partnerships with community centres, shelters, schools and health clinics across the GTA.

Dave Page, early literacy specialist at the Macaulay Child Development Centre in the Eglinton-Humber area, understands the value of the Book Banks support.

In 2014, Macaulay served more than 7,000 children and youth, and their families, he reports. Twenty-three per cent of these families had an income below $15,000. Therefore they would not likely be able to buy their own books. Giving families quality books to keep is a powerful tool to support the literacy message.

A physical pile of books in a childs bedroom has a real presence, adds Ladky. These books become old friends they can go back to again and again, discovering new things each time.

Encouraging kids to talk about those discoveries is equally valuable. In fact, child literacy experts consider it one of the main reasons to read to your child.

At the Book Bank, child literacy staff and friendly volunteers including youth who grew up with the Book Bank are always available to read aloud and answer questions.

We want to make talking about reading a fun habit because it leads to more reading and greater comprehension, says Ladky. The storefront is set up like a cozy living room, with places where kids can sit and read, whether they come with their parents, class, daycare, or summer camp.

Ninety-five per cent of the Book Banks inventories are donated by families, and through workplace, school and community run book drives. To keep the doors open year-round and run after school, weekend and holiday programs, the Book Bank hosts an annual author event fundraiser each fall.

This years guest is Emma Donoghue, author of the bestselling novel Room, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker and Orange Prizes in 2010 and made into an Oscar-winning film in 2015. Donoghue will talk about the wonders of storytelling with author and biographer Charles Foran.

The event takes place on Thursday, September 20 at 6 pm at the Artscape Sandbox at 301 Adelaide Street West.

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