The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Happy Read Across America Day

Today is a double dose of fabulous for reading lovers everywhere: not only is it Dr. Seuss’s birthday, but it’s Read Across America day! Hosted by the National Education Association---known around these parts as “the other NEA”---Read Across America is a literary celebration that encourages families to keep their children reading throughout the year. Held annually on the good doctor's birthday, the event brings communities together around a specific book written by Dr. Seuss. This year’s celebration focuses on The Lorax to coincide with the release of The Lorax film, which opens today. The entire cast of the movie has gotten involved, and will be serving as co-chairs for this year's event (yes, even Zac Efron and Betty White). I talked with NEA President Dennis Van Roekel about why reading to children really is so important, how we can encourage teens to keep on reading, and whether e-readers have a role in children’s literature.

NEA: How did the idea for Read Across America first come about?

DENNIS VAN ROEKEL: The idea for Read Across America started with two or three teachers in New Jersey who said we needed to do something to promote reading. It’s one of the most important things for students, and we know that students who read---and who are read to---do better in school overall, and in life. And from that, we developed Read Across America. This year we’re celebrating the 15th anniversary.

We do this in partnership with Dr. Seuss Enterprises, and over 50 other national partner organizations. Every year it’s just amazing what happens. It is the nation’s largest reading celebration, with over 45 million individuals involved. Those are students, parents, educators, and people from all walks of life. It’s just incredible. This year, our co-chairs are really special because they’re lots of them. We have actors Zak Efron, Demi Lovato, and singer Taylor Swift, and the entire cast of The Lorax.

NEA: There has been a good deal of recent research (including our own 2007 report, To Read or Not to Read) that shows the positive correlation between reading and academic achievement, and later in life, between reading and financial success and civic participation. My question is, with all this research, why aren't more people reading?

VAN ROEKEL: That’s a good question. But more and more are doing it. There are many school districts where they have time when every student and adult in the school stops everything and reads for ten minutes or 15 minutes. As I tell students, you can go anywhere, see anything, know about any subject you can imagine, all from just picking up a book. What we really need to do is reach out more to parents, and get them to really believe in the research that shows the long-term benefits.

But there’s another aspect for parents. There’s nothing more special than sitting a child in your lap and reading to them, or asking them to read to you. It is that special, quality time that no other activity can compare to. We encourage parents more and more to take that time, read to your child, and form that bond that will last forever.

NEA: What would you say to a parent who said they just don’t have time to read to their child?

VAN ROEKEL: We all have time. We have 24 hours a day; it’s how we choose to use it. I also believe that when [parents] realize the powerful impact that reading to a child has, they will find the 15 minutes or 20 minutes a day to do it.

NEA: Research has also shown that as children grow into adolescents, reading rates tend to decline. How can we make sure that those good reading habits that might develop in childhood are maintained as kids become teens?

VAN ROEKEL: Many schools across the country form reading partnerships between high school kids and elementary students. It keeps the habit of reading with the high school kids, and of course the younger kids just love when those teenagers come in and read to them. Another activity that [schools] do is have high school kids work with elementary students and they write books. Or in elementary classes, the students write their own story, they read them aloud to the class, and then take them home in a bound book and read them to their parents. So there are many ways to encourage that lifelong reading.

I think another tool are things like the Kindle. You see more and more people on airplanes reading because it’s handier. You don’t have to carry a book with you and you can have five books contained in there. So I think we have to see technology as a tool to really encourage those reading habits. One of the other really special things this year is the NEA’s Reading Tour, driven by Mazda. For anyone who test drives a Mazda vehicle between February 20th and April 2nd, Mazda will donate $25, up to a $1 million, to benefit public school libraries in need across the United States. Another way we can encourage lifelong learning is to make sure  that our libraries have the resources and the books that interest kids that will draw them back for more and more.

NEA: Speaking of e-readers, I'm interested in the question of whether e-readers have a place when reading to a child. What are your thoughts on that?

VAN ROEKEL: The e-readers I think are probably more adaptable to adults right now. Kids love books. They like to turn the pages. They like to point to the pictures in the book. And there’s something special about them grabbing the book that they want you to read to them. I read an interesting thing the other day. It said what kids like about grandparents is they’ll read the same story three times and not complain. I think there’s real power in books. In my house, there’s a whole stack, and when the grandkids come, I just sit down and say “What book do you want me to read?” And they bring one book after another after another. There’s something special about holding that book, turning the pages, pointing to pictures. I don’t think that will ever go away, no matter how much technology advances.

NEA: What role did books play in your own childhood?

VAN ROEKEL: I’m old. I’ve been around a long, long time. I remember the days when we didn’t have a television in my house, but we always had books. We read a lot. My mom was a second grade teacher for many, many years. For me growing up, reading was just part of life. Not only was it encouraged, but [my parents] read to us. Even when you’re older and you feel really bad, like when you have the mumps, I can remember Mom reading stories, and you just kind of forget about the discomfort. It’s so mellowing to be read to. And you know, high school kids still love it. It’s amazing to me. I was a high school math teacher, but every once in a while I would choose things and read to them. They pretend like it’s not cool to be that old and being read to, but they are so quiet and attentive, you know they love it.

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