Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

Reading Is Fundamental

Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

Reading Is Fundamental

Article excerpt

Most everybody knows about the benefits of reading to children. But what about the benefits of reading to infants, particularly for underserved families who struggle to achieve early literacy?

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In the Black Belt region of Alabama, hundreds of expectant mothers make use of the Rock-n-Read Literacy Program, an outreach initiative of the University of West Alabama's Phi Kappa Phi chapter, the school's Students in Free Enterprise program in the College of Business, and the HealthStart Maternity Care Program within the Tombigbee Healthcare Authority.

"Many of the mothers who receive these books have not completed high school. A surprising number of these households have no books," said Mary Pagliero, an associate professor of romance languages and chapter president at University of West Alabama.

That's why undertakings like Rock-n-Read, which won a Phi Kappa Phi Literacy Grant for the second straight year, are vital, said reading and literacy expert Frank Manis, a psychology professor at University of Southern California.

"All human beings love a good story, and when parents read to their children, they are preparing them to be story readers and storytellers, two essential skills for later literacy," he said. "Reading to infants has many downstream benefits. When parents engage in this enthusiastically and steadily, they promote vocabulary knowledge, model a love of reading, stimulate children to use their own language to talk about the book, and foster a curiosity about the world around them."

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Established in August 2008, Rock-n-Read serves several counties in West Alabama. Students compile handouts about the importance of reading at home to children and put the information in tote bags with three or four baby board books that expectant mothers can read to their newborns. Each tote bag has a unique design created by a student.

The tote bags are distributed to expectant mothers who are part of the HealthStart Maternity Care Program, which is a Medicaid program, upon completion of a prenatal care program. At the last visit, which occurs after the child is born, moms receive the free tote bag, which acts as an incentive for them to come to the final appointment, Pagliero said.

Mothers ages 14 to 44 have participated in the program; most are in their early 20s. During the spring 2009 semester, Rock-n-Read students delivered 162 tote bags. By the end of the fall 2009 semester, Rock-n-Read students will have begun preparing 500 tote bags to be delivered the following spring semester. In the 2008-09 academic year, 17 students participated in making tote bags; in 2009-10, 16 are signed up.

"We have to improve the literacy rate here and the lives of people in this area," Pagliero said. "We want to give to the community and help make it a strong area where people will thrive and have a better standard of living and develop the area themselves."

Rock-n-Read hit close to home for Phi Kappa Phi member Jessica Merklin; the 22-year-old participated last academic year as a senior in the College of Business (and is now working toward a master's in continuing education at the College of Education). As a child, she had difficulty learning to read. A teacher took the time to help her succeed and Merklin wanted to "pay it forward," as she put it. "I was able to help others as I was once helped myself."

She continued: "Being involved in this program has helped open my eyes. I never knew that the work of a very small group can impact so many lives for so long."

"With the age of technology, it is imperative to impress upon young people the benefits of reading and the opportunities afforded to those who are proficient readers," offered Marcia Pugh, division director of Grants, Research and Outreach of West Alabama (acronym GROWestAL) at the Tombigbee Healthcare Authority. "The Rock-n-Read program helps instill the desire and advantages of reading upon this generation. …

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