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Learning to read is a lengthy process—so joy and curiosity are important ingredients.

1-year-old Jeremias

On Mondays, 1-year-old Jeremias and his mom, Elizabeth Merino Salvador, attend Read to Me’s early literacy program in Greenfield.

Celia Jiménez here, remembering how listening to my mom read stories before bedtime was a ritual we had growing up. Every time she went to the big city—Tepic, Nayarit’s capital—she brought my sister and I a couple of comic books. 

These early experiences of reading are some of my favorite childhood memories, and reading is an activity I want to share with my nieces, especially after learning how important it is to cultivate pre-literacy skills. “The whole notion of teaching reading or a child learning to read isn’t something that just starts when they enter the school system,” says Caryn Lewis, assistant superintendent of educational services at the Monterey County Office of Education.

While reporting for the cover story in this week’s print edition of the paper, I interacted with people from different backgrounds and who have different literacy levels. The story is about how Monterey County students are lagging in literacy skills, but only in part—it’s also about the work various nonprofits and educators are doing as they step in to help. While conducting interviews, one thing I wondered was how non-English speaking parents can still help their kids learn to read in English. Aldo Ramirez, assistant superintendent at Salinas City Elementary School District, says it doesn't matter if kids learned how to read in a different language first—the more important thing is that they are reading at all. “When children learn in their parents’ primary language, they learn [to read in English] a lot faster,” Ramirez says. 

For us readers, reading can seem second nature. It’s also an essential element of our everyday lives: through reading we know which highway exit we need to take, we can decipher whether we are taking the right medicine or what’s happening in our county when we flip through the newspaper.

Most of us have forgotten the lengthy, sometimes arduous process of learning. Our brains aren’t wired to automatically know how to read. Children have to learn about what the letters look like, what sound they make, and how to pair them together to form words and sentences and pronounce them fluently. Once they know how to piece all these elements together, they have to understand what those words and ideas mean. When kids achieve that they turn a switch and move from learning to read to reading to learn. It sounds simple, but it’s a skill that takes years to master and that impacts kids’ success in and out of the classroom for the rest of their lives. 

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I asked Luke Samuels, a teacher in North Monterey County School District’s Center for Independent Study, how he gets his students interested in reading. The key, he says, is allowing them to read about a topic they are interested in—it can be almost anything. “It can be about art, sports, history,” Samuels says. Genuine curiosity is important—“If adults won’t keep reading boring books, kids won’t either.” 

What Samuels says is so true. And it’s something I will keep in mind as I read to my nieces—if fun is part of the game, I have to show my joy when I’m reading to them.

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