- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 13, 2002

Books are main characters in the Schenaker house.

Every night and at any time of the day on weekends Fairfax City parents Debra and Michael curl up with their three children to lose themselves in the smooth pages. They sip hot chocolate, perhaps passing the book around, the adults and older children each reading a few pages aloud.

Together they have read books that are worlds apart in style and content: Kipling novels, children's classics such as the Winnie-the-Pooh stories, C.S. Lewis fantasies, adventures by Jack London. Some have been better loved than others, but all enrich on some level, Ms. Schenaker says.

"Books fire the imagination, unlike watching the screen, where it's someone else's imagination," she says. "When you're reading a book, you have to fill in all the blanks, and I think it does more for your synapses to fill in the blanks."

There is supreme power in the written word, reading specialists and educators agree. Reading presents children with a wealth of ideas and experiences and can model correct use of language and expressive, efficient writing. It is a cornerstone of school success, a skill and passion worth nurturing and supervising.

"There's no way students can be academically successful without having the skills of reading, because reading is a piece of every content area," says Sophie Kowzun, program supervisor for reading and language arts for Montgomery County public schools. "There's nothing children do in their course work that doesn't involve reading even math."

In fact, reading ability accounts for 90 percent of success in content areas, says Reid Lyon, a National Institutes of Health research psychologist and an adviser to President Bush on early childhood development and education. After grades three or four, Mr. Lyon says, "children's vocabulary is much more reliant on written interchange rather than oral interchange, and most of your vocabulary on college tests [ACT and SATs, for example] comes from reading."

In addition, he says, children who don't read "not only fail in school, but also drop out in substantially higher rates and tend to get in trouble with the law."

That dropout rate, emphasized in a 1993 National Longitudinal Transition Study conducted by SRI International in a granted program, for example, was 38 percent for children with a learning disability but only 25 percent for children who experienced no compromise in reading skills.

"If, by the end of high school, children are not reading, then they are at much greater risk of not completing high school or of graduating than their non-reading-disabled peers," says Sheldon Horowitz, director of professional services at the National Center for Learning Disabilities, a nonprofit education organization headquartered in New York.

Beyond the tangible benefits, reading is a profound source of pleasure that can be shared between parents and children, book advocates say.

"Reading can take you places that you could never go for real," Ms. Schenaker says. "We just always were readers that's just what we do. It's some of our best times."

In between the boys' sporting matches, church activities, library visits or park outings, the Schenaker family often heads to a favorite weekend destination: a bookstore, frequently a used-book shop.

Family members hang out for a couple of hours, perusing the shelves, each indulging his or her own interests.

Ms. Schenaker might look at the romance or parenting books. Mr. Schenaker, a major in the Air Force, often goes for World War II or Civil War books. Kate, 3, gravitates toward horse books. David, 10, heads for texts on marine animals, and Matthew, 12, looks for anything with birds in it.

"The children are collecting old books, so we nearly always bring something home," says Ms. Schenaker, who estimates the family owns a couple hundred pounds of books.

It's a hunt Mr. Schenaker takes rather seriously.

"The pursuit of knowledge and vicarious adventure through the written word has always been a part of my life since an early age," he says. "I have attempted to foster that desire to read with my children by surrounding them with a wide variety of books too bloody many, just ask Deb covering many subjects."

Such bookish saturation can serve as a strong motivator to children.

"Kids value what they see their parents valuing when they're little," says Lee Galda, a University of Minnesota professor who specializes in children's literature and language arts. "If you really want to make sure your children value reading, you have to spend time on it. Read with them, not just to them. You're choosing to turn off the TV, not talking on the phone. You have a book, they have a book."

Reading takes priority in the Arlington home of Andy and Laurel Vogelsang. Ms. Vogelsang says she and her husband loved books in their childhoods. Now, she says, they are determined to share the pleasure and power of reading with their two boys, Bennett, 6, and Will, 5.

"I can legitimately say I love to read, so that, in turn, gets them excited about it," says Ms. Vogelsang, the development director for the Capital Children's Museum. "Reading is an escape, really; it's information-gathering."

Every night as well as frequently during the daylight hours Ms. Vogelsang sits down with the boys to read.

"It's a staunch routine," she says. "It's pajamas, brush teeth, and books. I really get into it. You need to sort of make it alive. I really enjoy engaging them in it."

Bennett, an emerging reader, is able to navigate some texts on his own, his mother says. They have tackled chapter books, including some of her childhood favorites, such as E.B. White's "The Trumpet of the Swan" and Roald Dahl's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "James and the Giant Peach."

The family also has cultivated several contemporary interests: Rosemary Wells, for example, who writes the Max and Ruby series, and Janell Cannon, author of "Stellaluna."

In addition, the couple have introduced their boys to the children's page of the newspaper. The library also is a frequent destination, although Ms. Vogelsang says the children's response is lukewarm.

"We don't go as much as I'd like, and I can't say we go there and the kids are enthralled," she says. "They will gravitate toward Pokemon and Star Wars [books]. I let them do that, but I'm always gravitating toward the good books. I don't think it matters what the content is it's getting the books out that counts."

It takes all kinds

Many times, not-so-cerebral titles can serve as bread crumbs that lead children to better books.

"We're so demanding of children in a very well-intentioned way, but books should be fun," says Kathleen Odean, a contributing editor for children's literature for Book magazine and author of "Great Books About Things Kids Love."

"A lot of kids will end up reading good and not-so-good ones," she says. "In the same way, adults don't just sit around reading classics. A lot of kids are attracted to lighter reading. Also, a lot of kids, like adults, choose books by the cover, so there's a big visual element."

However, better books have more meaning and help children look at the world in a slightly new way, says Ms. Odean, who was a children's librarian for 17 years and was chairwoman of the 2001 award committee for the Newbery Medal, presented annually by the American Library Association to the author of the year's most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.

In addition, she says, better books more skillfully showcase vocabulary and more elegant use of grammar which, she emphasizes, children absorb.

For older children, she says, "I'm not dead-set against the series books the Goosebumps or Baby-Sitters Club because a lot of times those are the books that get kids to like books. The goal for parents and educators is to not let the kids stop there."

Clearly, many parents make a practice of steering their children toward books remembered fondly from their own childhoods.

"Yes, parents choose books they enjoyed themselves," Ms. Odean says. "Parents can convey the feeling to the child, so it has a high chance of being a book the child would like. I also think it's very difficult to choose books today because there are thousands of books coming out. It's easier to choose books you're familiar with."

Publishers are answering the call, she says, bringing back into print books that baby boomers knew, loved and continue to seek: "The Moffets," for example, "Gone Away Lake" and "Magic or Not," to name a few.

This practice of returning to the familiar is reasonable, says Ms. Galda, the University of Minnesota professor.

"If you love something, you want to share it with your children you want your kids to experience the same thing," she says. "But I think if you're stuck there and that's all you do, that's too bad, because each year thousands of books are published, and children's literature is so rich these days."

For help in choosing quality literature, Ms. Galda suggests parents turn to children's librarians or teachers who are knowledgeable about children's books. In addition, she says, independent children's bookstores can be wonderful resources.

"The people who work there know the books they're not just hired as sales clerks. If you have one near you, you will get more help than you ever knew you needed," she says. "And get to know authors and illustrators that your children like. Make sure you offer a wide range of books nonfiction, story and poetry and watch to see what they choose and spend their time on."

If you have the money, Ms. Galda adds, "having a child own a book that he can call his own is a wonderful gift. It's a way of showing children that you value books because you spent your money on them. You just don't know when a book is going to be a prize possession. By all means go to the library, but having a book that you've loved is a wonderful thing for a kid."

Most important, say these educators and specialists, parents must make a conscious effort to ensure that reading is a family activity.

"We have to grasp the moments because of everyone's busy schedules," Ms. Kowzun says. "You've got to maximize on everything."

She suggests that parents always have a bag of books at the ready. Pull one out at the pediatrician's office, the restaurant. Keep a pile in the car. Just keep reading.

"If children are not practicing reading outside of school, then how are they going to get better?" Ms. Kowzun asks rhetorically. "You have to practice just like the piano in order to get really good at it."

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