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“And the trophy goes to…Horse Creek Elementary!” The cheering and yelling are so loud they drown out the rest of the announcement. Kids are jumping up and down, proud parents are snapping pictures, and 6,000 people gathered on the bleachers are cheering the new champions.

No, it’s not a basketball tournament—it’s the climax of the seventh annual Clay County Reading Celebration, one of many innovative programs across Kentucky that aim to make kids better readers. Students from eight schools have spent the past year reading thousands of books in an effort to win their school the county-wide reading championship.

Every child at the Reading Celebration receives free books, a T-shirt, a video, and as much popcorn, ice cream, and cotton candy as he or she can devour—all donated by individuals and businesses in the community. “It’s one great big reading party,” says Karen Lawson, the county’s Community Education coordinator. “Everything we do showcases the importance of reading.” More than 200 volunteers work throughout the year to put together the event.

This year’s theme is A Magical Place, and the host school, Big Creek Elementary, has been transformed into a giant Candyland game, like a life-sized storybook. Cotton “snowbanks” cover the floor near a giant candy-cane forest, and kids in fairy-tale costumes dart in and out of a chocolate swamp. The classrooms, too, have vanished behind glitter curtains and swaths of crepe paper, and in each “theme room” kids are enjoying a reading-related activity, like watching a puppet show or playing Jeopardy to test their knowledge of books and characters.

Every child who meets the reading goal is recognized individually at an awards ceremony. Amber Forman, a third-grader at Burning Springs Elementary, proudly shows me the personalized plaque she received. “I got 77 points,” she says. “A half-point for every book I read.” Which one did she like best? “All of them! Maybe I need a bigger bookshelf.”

Meanwhile, in the school cafeteria, eight Kentucky authors are selling and signing their works, and showing kids that writers are real people. “To see this many people come out and celebrate reading is really extraordinary,” poet and newspaper columnist Anne Shelby tells me.

Reading Right
Reading is the central skill in a child’s education. It’s also a very complex activity. “There are 44 sounds in the English language, but we have only 26 letters to spell them with,” explains Faye Deters, president of the Kentucky Reading Association. (For example, think of the words tough, though, and through.) Because of this, reading involves much more than just putting together the sounds of the letters.

Learning to read is different from learning other school subjects, Deters explains, because learning language is a natural developmental process and reading development is closely tied to language development.

All children pass through the same stages, beginning at a very early age. Even a 2-year-old understands that symbols have meanings—such as the sign for their favorite fast-food restaurant. Gradually, kids begin to recognize letters, and by listening when an adult reads to them, they start to match up the words they hear with the words they see. Many begin to read before they start school.

In the past, schools used several different approaches used in teaching reading. You may have learned to read by sounding out the words—an approach called phonics, which teaches the sounds of different letters and letter combinations. Or you may remember learning to read “See Spot run”—a whole-word approach, where you learned to recognize a list of words, one at a time. Today, these techniques are combined in the balanced-literacy approach, which focuses on understanding the story but also teaches phonics for decoding the words.

Learning to read well means mastering different skills and strategies. “Skills are what we do automatically, similar to driving a car,” says Deters. “These are things like recognizing words.
Strategies are plans that we use intentionally, like slowing down on a wet road. Readers have to learn strategies like guessing the meaning of an unknown word.”

Sharing Stories
All of this takes practice—and plenty of it. Kids need to read in school and out, on their own and with adults. In western Kentucky, the Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) matches senior citizens with children in the early grades who could benefit from extra attention in reading, through a program called America Reads. Every week, Hugh Smaltz, a 76-year-old retired businessman in Hartford, goes to Wayland Elementary School to read with Selena Ralph, a second-grader there. “Last time, we read a story about minnows, and what a tough time they have—then, they learn to jump out of the water. I have the kids read to me,” he says. “I only help them a little.”

In all, the program has 45 volunteers in 19 schools across five western Kentucky counties. According to Sondra Mattingly, RSVP manager for Audubon Area Community Services, on average, a child’s reading ability improves by up to three grade levels in a single year thanks to the personal attention. “The kids work on a special book, with a special person—it makes them feel special, too. We would love to be doing more, but we need more volunteers.”

No teaching experience is needed—just an interest in spending time with kids. “Anybody can do this!” says Smaltz. “I learn more from that little girl than she learns from me. And it’s important to reach these boys and girls in the early years, because if they don’t learn to read well, they may end up dropping out of school. It’s a wide world—a wonderful world—and reading stretches their minds.”

Catching Up
According to Faye Deters, regardless of what teaching approach has been used, historically about 20% of students have experienced difficulties with reading.

Across Kentucky, reading specialists are using innovative techniques to help these students catch up with their classmates. At Rockcastle County High School, an enthusiastic teacher named Wendy King is getting her freshman students up to speed—literally.

On the morning that I visit, the three students attending her Basic Reading class are working on different activities, at their own pace. William is studying a pack of vocabulary cards, Brandon is answering questions about a story he’s read, and Josh is listening to a cassette while following the printed text.

“He’s doing what I call a hot-and-cold read,” she says. He has just read the story out loud to her, while she timed his reading speed and noted mistakes. After additional practice, he reads the story to her again, faster and without hesitation. “Awesome job!” she says, marking down his improved score.

King uses a lively variety of activities to help students improve their skills. They work with books on tape to see and hear the words at the same time. They record themselves reading aloud to track their own progress. They work with electronic Hot Dot cards to quiz themselves. And every Wednesday, they work with newspapers in the classroom, doing “scavenger hunts” and discussing articles. “Whatever it takes to get them excited about reading,” she says. “That’s the main thing.”

At the end of the class, she does an activity called Reader Response. On the wall, she posts several quotes from famous people. Students read them, then choose one to interpret and react to in writing. Today’s are about determination: “I am not afraid of a storm, for I am learning to sail my ship,” says one from Louisa May Alcott.

Brandon chooses a different quote to write about: “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” At the end of the period, King invites the students to share what they’ve written. Brandon hesitates, then picks up his paper: “If you didn’t make your goal, it’s not too late to start. It doesn’t matter how old you are…”

Words to live by, for all of Kentucky’s young readers.


Faye Deters, president of the Kentucky Reading Association, offers these tips:

  • Limit TV and video game time and don’t overcrowd kids’ schedules with activities. Make sure they have plenty of time available for reading.
  • Seek out books with movie tie-ins, or children’s books written by celebrities. Billy Crystal, Madonna, and Henry Winkler have all produced popular children’s books.
  • If your kids have a favorite book, seek out other books by the same author, or ask the children’s librarian at your library to recommend other books they might enjoy.
  • Listen to books on tape in the car while driving to the kids’ activities. It gets them familiar with the stories, builds their vocabulary, and sparks their interest.
  • Look for reading opportunities at your county’s public library. Get library cards for your children, and sign them up for the summer reading program.
  • Most importantly, act as a model for them. Let them see you reading for enjoyment, even if it’s just sitting down with a magazine or the daily newspaper. Kids will read when they see their parents read.


For reading resources and 10 tips for reading to your child, click here: reading

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