by MICHELLE LEE

Improving literacy and family relations through the power of reading together

CONSIDER THE FOLLOWING SCENARIO: A FAMILY OF FOUR IS SEATED ACROSS ONE ANOTHER AT A RESTAURANT. THE AIR is aromatic with the smell of each person’s favorite dish, yet nobody speaks a word. Instead, each person is fixed on his or her smartphone, too preoccupied to pay any attention to the others at the table. Such a situation has paved the way for organizations like Read Aloud America, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting literacy and family bonding, to take root.

“While technological advancements such as the computer and television have allowed for significant societal improvements, it has also brought detrimental consequences to the family unit,” says Jed Gaines, president and founder of Read Aloud America. “Of course there are exceptions to every rule, but as a whole we are losing it with our families.”

Based out of Hawai’i, Read Aloud America aims to encourage parents and guardians to read with their children on a regular basis while also limiting access to technological outlets such as the television, computer and smartphone. “By demonstrating the pleasure of reading and how it applies to our everyday life, it’s possible to instill in families a passion for learning and direct communication,” says Gaines.

The methodology behind Read Aloud America’s mission is simple. Referred to as the Read Aloud Program (RAP), the series of activities invite children and their adult guardians to enjoy two hours’ worth of interactive sessions to help families to spend time together, share recommended books and build a lifelong love of reading. Ideally, the program occurs six times per semester within the intimacy of the school’s cafeteria.

To begin the RAP program, participants start by enjoying snacks and refreshments while listening to music and associating with fellow peers. After a series of short, fun introductory activities, the children are divided into groups according to age. Within each group, parents and children can relax as they work with a program coordinator to read popular stories, listen to others practice reading and learn helpful reading tips.

At the conclusion of each RAP session, a light dinner of pizza and drinks is served. Students then have the opportunity to play more games in exchange for winning prizes and books.

Designed for families with children of all ages, Read Aloud America’s specialized programs remove the stress commonly associated with reading in school. “Our sessions are completely stress-free because there are no tests, quizzes, or reading reports,” says Gaines. “All we ask is that they fill out an evaluation at the end and that is it.”

Since January 1999, Read Aloud America has quickly become the largest and most e°ective family literacy program in the nation, having served more than 300,000 adults and children in more than 82 Hawai’i public schools. “I believe we have some of the greatest teachers in the world right here in our public schools,” Gaines shares. “However, to truly maximize the potential of every student, it needs to start with parental involvement at home.”

As the case with most non-profits, maintaining adequate funding is one of the most challenging aspects of running the operation. “Even with our reputation, it is difficult to get theñancial support we need,” says Gaines. “Everyone is trying to tap into a fixed amount of state funding that is steadily shrinking.”

Despite the seemingly grim obstacles that lie ahead, the hardworking coordinators who make up Read Aloud America remain optimistic. Although unable to be everywhere they want to be, those at Read Aloud Americañd fulfillment in thinking about the people whose lives they have affected. “Parents always tell me how the program has completely changed the way their family interacts with one another,” says Gaines. “Knowing their lives are now filled with more positivity and warmth is what motivates me to keep going.”

Aside from the immediate benefits of promoting familial closeness and strengthening the links between the school and home, Read Aloud America also aids in laying the foundation for a society of capable citizens and a literate workforce. “So many children today end up falling down a wayward path because they don’t feel connected at school or home,” says Gaines. “Our programs help prevent against long-term drug use, incarceration and other possible dangers by cultivating positive values and attitudes.”

Despite the program’s proven results and consistently high attendance rates, organizations like Read Aloud America struggle to meet funding and staffing needs. “As much as we have accomplished, we have not even scratched the surface in terms of what needs to be done,” says Gaines. “˝ere exists a need from sponsors to not only support usñancially, but even more importantly, to be involved in what we do.”

In the end, RAP works because the program is fun, stress-free and brings the family and community together. “Before we see radical improvements in test scores and behaviors, a child has to first feel loved, accepted and confident in one’s own abilities,” explains Gaines. “Everyone has love in them, and it is astounding what the power of a good story can do to draw it out.”

www.readaloudamerica.org