Literacy Education

Executive Skills in Reading and Learning!

By Omar Jawdat, Blog Intern

An image of two children exploring a book with their parent in our Family Literacy Program.

An image of two children exploring a book with their parent in our Family Literacy Program.

Executive skills are a set of skills and “brain tools” used to manage tasks, behaviors, and one’s own thoughts in order to achieve and accomplish goals. From an early age, executive skills play an important role in cognitive functions, such as reading comprehension and overall learning. According to Kelly Cartwright, (author of Executive Skills and Reading Comprehension: A Guide for Educators [2015, Guilford Press]), students who have difficulties with reading comprehension, ‘despite having age-appropriate word reading skills, have lower levels of executive skills than their peers with higher comprehension’. In addition, students may not be able to fully understand or gain sufficient knowledge from information taken from vital core subjects in school, which include science, math, or social studies, especially if they cannot comprehend what they read.

The key components of executive skills for reading comprehension can be broken down into three main categories: Cognitive Flexibility, Working Memory, and Inhibition.

Cognitive Flexibility is the ability to shift from one activity to another, or back and forth between important components of a task. It relies on how you think about a situation, as well as what you think about it. Other skill sets that pertain to Cognitive Flexibility include:

  • Open-mindedness in terms of different opinions and perspectives. 

  • Willingness to accept and risk mistakes.

  • Considering different methods for problem solving.

  • Engaging in learning, discovery, and innovative creativity.

When reading, all these factors included with cognitive flexibility allow for a student to actively shift focus between many important parts of reading, such as word and text meanings, letter-sound information, and sentence grammar. 

Working Memory is the capacity to hold information in mind for a period of time and use that information for the particular work/task to achieve goals. In reading, working memory is necessary to comprehend the meaning of a text by keeping in mind what you have already read. As you read, you update your understanding of the written text. Children use working memory to sound out words in order to memorize and remember different letter sounds, then put them together to figure out what the word is. Working memory also helps with: 

  • Following instructions.

  • Reading an unknown word.

  • Paraphrasing/Summarizing written information. 

  • Answering questions, as well as asking them.

  • Organizing words or sentences. 

Inhibition refers to one’s control of stopping automatic and impulsive responses, while at the same time, ignoring irrelevant distractions that would otherwise interfere with one’s main focus for a certain goal. To be a good inhibitionist, one must think before acting. This skill is also necessary when trying to comprehend reading. People who are good at comprehension will leave out the irrelevant words or text that do not connect with the main themes, ideas, messages, or instructions being brought out by the reading. Inhibitionists will be able to point out and locate the most effective sources of the text, while leaving out the irrelevant ones.

Teach Them at an Early Age 

According to research, children with better executive function skills perform better on literacy exams. Children who begin to learn how to read and write acquire their executive skills through pre-literacy training, such as recognizing and sounding out letters. Once they are able to master pre-literacy skills, their executive skills will increasingly continue into reading comprehension and other more complex abilities. 

Cognitive flexibility, working memory, and inhibition are also obtained from an early age when children are learning to read and write. For children, working memory has to do with helping a child keep a main topic or a goal on paper while writing, as well as helping them with remembering the spelling and grammar rules. 

Cognitive flexibility helps children think of different ways to say things, especially in writing. It encourages kids to think more about what is being read, by putting what is written into different sentences, or explaining it in different ways. 

Inhibition control is the process of brainstorming: to gather thoughts and ideas for planning before the writing process. ‘It is needed when encountering words with multiple meanings, by choosing the correct meaning in the context of the story and ignoring its other meanings’. An example of this could be when differentiating between words that have different meanings, such as “bat”, which could be used to either describe a baseball bat or the animal.

Long Term Benefits for Building Executive Skills 

These three skills (cognitive flexibility, working memory, & inhibition) for executive function are crucial for academic performance. It helps students organize their work more efficiently, and engage with learning through a wider variety of options, rather than just glueing one’s eyes to a book and reading through the text just once. These skills and methods help young students absorb the actual information given by the text, and helps their minds process it in a more successful manner.

In addition, students will not only have better reading comprehension, but it will allow them to effectively manage and control their own behavior, regulate overall thinking and learning, regulate emotional processes, impulses, and develop peer relations through friendship and strong communication.  






The 30-Million Word Gap

By Omar Jawdat, Blog Intern

An image of a child and parent reading together in our Family Literacy Program.

An image of a child and parent reading together in our Family Literacy Program.

The 30-Million Word Gap? 

Does poverty affect a child’s vocabulary and grammatical skills? According to studies conducted by education researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley, “the average welfare child had 1/2 as much experience per hour (616 words per hour) as the average working class child (1,251 words per hour.), and less than 1/3 as much experience as the average professional class child (2,153 per hour).” From their study, they also concluded that the word-gap between children in upper income households and those in low-income households was 30 million words. In addition, the qualitative aspects of these children’s language environments were also measured. Nonetheless, the 30 million words became a popluar statistic in literacy and education circles, but in recent years has been questioned more and more.

In 2017, another study was conducted by Senior Director of Research and Evaluation, Dr. Jill Gilkerson. Her method involved using technology, rather than Hart and Risley’s method of intrusive observers. The study collected 49,765 hours of recording from 329 families by using the LENA (Language Environment Analysis) system, which automatically generates an estimate of the “number of adult words in the child's environment, the amount of caregiver–child interaction, and the frequency of child vocal output”’: (

The results seemed to be more effective, and it concluded that the word gap was much smaller than 30 million words. According Gilkerson, only a ‘4-million word gap was present between those highly educated, high socioeconomic status (SES) parents and those with a lower SES.  

How Did This Idea Begin?

One of the first studies that introduced the notion of the ‘word-gap’ began in the 1980’s with Hart and Risley. The study was mentioned in their book, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, which wasn’t published until 1992. The study was composed of 42 families at four levels of income and education, from low income to “professional class” families. From infants to toddlers up to age 3, the number of words spoken by these children, which included engaged communication activities with their parents (such as questions and commands), and the growth in words produced by the children were recorded.

Their hopes and aims were to help improve student outcomes of academic progress later on in school by catching onto the problem of the ‘word-gap’ from an early age. However, the word-gap study is not as simple as it may seem.  

Ethnic Considerations 

Another reason for speculations regarding this statistic is due to the fact that many children come from different ethnic backgrounds. This means that the study must also include data based on early development of different languages spoken (children who become bilingual), and whether or not children are being taught more than one language as they grow. This abstracts the number of words spoken in a household. Anya Kamenetz says that “Sperry (Lead author of Child Development) and his co-authors fall into a camp that criticizes the ‘word gap’ concept as racially and culturally loaded in a way that ultimately hurts the children whom early intervention programs are ostensibly trying to help.”  

Around the 1980’s, 10.68% of the U.S. population was bilingual. Since 2016, the percentage has risen to 20%. Today, it is estimated that 22% of the nation is bilingual. Some children grow up learning the native language of their parents, then English, or vice versa. Professor of Education at the University of California, Los Angeles, Marjorie Faulstich Orellana, mentions the idea of learning a second language as ‘word wealth’. Children who grow up learning a different language or even a different dialect other than English, (the dominant/most common language spoken in school), actually shows more experience in children at an early age. “This would describe not only recent immigrants, but also anyone whose background isn't white, educated and middle or upper class. When they get to school, they must learn to ‘code switch’ between two ways of speaking”.

The Truth Behind the Matter

While it is important to keep a steady statistic or well-formulated theory about the ‘word-gap’ amongst children, it is also important to realize that a child’s environment and socioeconomic status may not always be the main reason for a child’s vocabulary skills. There are several other factors at play. 

These factors include how effective parents, preschools, and other related learning programs are in helping children develop their language from an early stage of their adolescence. Children who are prone to hearing and witnessing verbal abuse, a lack of communication, and distracting language from their parents, siblings, and other relatives could also interfere with a child’s normal appropriate learning speech. Roberta Golinkoff calls this type of language ‘ambient’, which may also have an impact on early language development. Other ambients could include television, radio, and adult conversations where kids are not directly spoken to, but are in the midst of the environment where the child could hear. 

Other Speculations

Hirsh-Pasek adds, “the sheer volume of conversation directed at children, not just spoken in their presence, is fundamental to language learning and later success in school.” While this may be an important asset in early language development, Douglas Sperry points out that in other cultures, such as the Mayan Culture in Central America, for example, it is uncommon for adults to address children directly, and yet these children still learn to speak adequately. 

Orellana also disagrees that there is a “variation of speech” depending on how much adults speak to children. Instead, she believes that “other values, like using language to entertain or connect, rather than just have children perform their knowledge” can be effective with the process of speech and language development.   

Although the word-gap study may not be necessarily accurate, the key intention is to investigate and understand what is beneficial for students in order to achieve greater success in school. Learning how to communicate effectively in the household is the first step to learn how to engage with the outside world. 








Dyslexia Awareness Month!

An image of blocks of letters all mixed up. People with dyslexia experience difficulty with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and poor spelling and decoding abilities.

An image of blocks of letters all mixed up. People with dyslexia experience difficulty with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and poor spelling and decoding abilities.

What is Dyslexia?

October is Dyslexia Awareness Month, a time to bring more attention to what dyslexia is and how best to work with those who are dyslexic. The International Dyslexia Association characterizes the learning disability as difficulty with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and poor spelling and decoding abilities. Consequences from dyslexia can include problems with reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge. Unrelated to a person’s cognitive abilities, dyslexia has many positive consequences, including helping individuals become highly resilient and adaptable, articulate and expressive of thoughts and feelings, empathetic, and having the ability to think outside of the box and see the bigger picture.

Who Is Impacted By Dyslexia and What Is Being Done About It?

The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity states that dyslexia effects 20% of the population and represents 80-90% of those with a learning disability. Due to the prevalence of dyslexia, thirty-nine of the fifty states have introduced dyslexia related legislation, which are outlined on . The National Center on Improving Literacy website in detail. California, as one of these states, has a bill that requires guidelines to be prepared to assist teachers and parents in identifying dyslexia as well as provide improved educational services to these students. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) also provides the accommodation for students with dyslexia to have additional time to take exams, believed to be one of the most critical accommodations that allows students to succeed alongside students without the learning disability.

How Best to Teach Those With Dyslexia?

Structured Word Inquiry (SWI) is a method that is frequently used to teach individuals with dyslexia. Also termed Scientific Word Investigation, describes one of the guiding principles behind the method to be: the conventions by which English spelling represents meaning are so well-ordered and reliable that spelling can be investigated and understood through scientific inquiry. The Nueva school, a California-based school, summarizes the method into a few simple steps: The method starts with students brainstorming a way to define the word, using knowledge they already have. From there, they look at the structure of the word before diving into the etymology of the word as well as what the prefix, suffix, or base word is. Then, the students explore if there are any related words, before visually representing them in what has been termed a “Word Sum”. Lastly, the students debrief about what they learned about that particular word family. By going through this inquiry process, students learn more about the background of the word and are given the tools to learn new words on their own.

If you believe your child or student has dyslexia, but aren’t sure where to start, many of the websites listed below have additional resources. Another resource that is frequently cited by national and international dyslexia organizations is Overcoming Dyslexia by Sally Shaywitz.

Events such as Dyslexia Awareness Month helps to bring attention to the 20% of our population who have dyslexia. Through this additional time and recognition, students are given the opportunity to learn to read and succeed alongside their peers.


Learning English as a Second Language

An image of four students in one of our Read Aloud Program sessions looking through a book together.

An image of four students in one of our Read Aloud Program sessions looking through a book together.

In 2015, there were 4.8 million students, or 9.5%, of students in the United States public school system reported as English language learners. This means they are people who are going through school learning English in addition to their native language, often times without any additional support other than immersion. This statistic from the the National Center for Education Statistics has increased by over 25% since 2000. Furthermore, California has the highest percentage of English language learners, at 21% of students in public schools -- this is more than double the countrywide average.

These English Second Language (ESL) learners have their own individual sets of challenges, beyond those that monolingual students face. In an article on, Judie Haynes, an ESL teacher with more than 28 years of experience and several publications, discusses the various challenges she has seen bilingual students face in literary environments. A main challenge she referenced is the fact that literature is culture bound, meaning that there is a certain set of stories and literary genres that English speakers are expected to know from an early age. These stories are then built upon in later learning, leaving those that were born into a different culture lacking the background knowledge to understand the author’s intent. Some other challenges that can also be overlooked for ESL students is understanding our metaphors, idioms, and other forms of figurative language, that also tend to be culture bound. Beyond that, word order, syntax, and sentence structure differ in English compared to other languages.

ESL students also experience some amazing benefits to being bilingual. Not only is this a plus for future employment opportunities, but school-age children have a different mindset about learning language in general. In an article published for Lamar University about the benefits of ESL, the following cognitive tasks, among others, were cited to be easier for bilingual students: developing strong thinking skills, using logic, focusing, memory, and making decisions. The article also discussed that these students utilize a blocking technique to focus on choosing words from one language while blocking the matching word from the other language. This same blocking technique is employed to ignore distracting information, allowing them to have a stronger focus. This can also be translated into social situations, allowing bilingual students to block out what they already know and instead focus on two different dissenting perspectives to have a better understanding of an overall issue.

As a Southern California based non-profit, many of Words Alive’s participants have learned English as their second language. We work with these students to ensure that they are able to further their critical thinking and literary analysis skills while using their personal experiences to help relate to the books and deepen their understanding of the text.

If you are interested in funding or volunteering for our hands-on literacy programs, visit our website here for more details on our upcoming Author’s Luncheon & Fundraiser!


What is Student-Led Education?

By Jennifer Van Pelt

What is Student-Led Education?

Teachers from the school site 37ECB stand in front of posters about facilitation tips that the students created together. Their semester culminated in a project in which the students were in charge of facilitating discussions.

Teachers from the school site 37ECB stand in front of posters about facilitation tips that the students created together. Their semester culminated in a project in which the students were in charge of facilitating discussions.

In the 21st century, we have access to millions of pieces of information in less than a second. This shift in immediate availability of information changes not only how the workforce operates, but also how we prepare students to enter the workforce. One of the ways in which some districts and schools are addressing this is to place less emphasis on the traditional teacher-to-student lectures and instead focus more on building skill sets of students that allow them to succeed in the demands of a technologically-savvy workforce.

By changing the focus from the typical teacher-to-student led classrooms, and instead focusing on empowering students to discover their own hurdles, find their own answers, and teach others their findings, students are being taught important life-long skills. In a publication by eSchool News that focuses on how to make the shift to student-led learning, the top 10 skills that are needed in 2020 as identified by the World Economic Forum were listed, including complex problem solving, people management, negotiation, and critical thinking, among others. However, these skills cannot be taught from a teacher, they need to be observed, practiced, and given feedback. The ability to learn from peers and find resources is the key difference in student-led education versus traditional teaching formats.

What are the Benefits and Challenges of Student Led Education?

Image of former ABG student, Daimeon, facilitating a book discussion with current ABG students at La Mesa Community School.

Image of former ABG student, Daimeon, facilitating a book discussion with current ABG students at La Mesa Community School.

There are multiple reasons why more of an emphasis is being placed on student-led education. As discussed in an article on that outlines the benefits of student-led learning, when students take the lead in teaching, they focus on ideas that interest them more, which paves the way for a deeper understanding and more enjoyment and fulfillment from the topic. Students also tend to relate to their classmates more, meaning they may pay more attention and even understand them better than they might a teacher. In this teachaway article, a pilot study from a university was cited in which students were given autonomy on how to structure the classes themselves in an effort to increase class attendance and exam performance. Student involvement and class attendance increased, which in turn improved the grades of the students in the pilot study. Similar teaching styles are being implemented across the world and to students of all ages to empower them to take more control over the learning process.

In the workforce, teachers are not readily available to answer questions and lead employees to the right resources. It is up to employees to find resources themselves from peers or online. Allowing this skill to develop while also enabling students to discover what interests them is becoming more important, as more schools shift to this methodology of teaching.

The Words Alive Adolescent Book Group includes book discussions, activities, and projects that are often times led by the student participants. This allows them to get comfortable speaking in front of others and encourages more involvement amongst their peers. If you are interested in funding these student-focused literacy programs, visit our website here for more details on our upcoming Author’s Luncheon & Fundraiser!


Sponsor Highlight: Voice of San Diego

Words Alive's signature fundraising event is the Annual Author's Luncheon & Fundraiser. Celebrating its 15th year, the Author's Luncheon has featured world renowned authors such as Salman Rushdie, Jodi Picoult, and Isabel Allende

Taking place each fall, the Author's Luncheon is attended by over 600 patrons that include book lovers, philanthropists, educators, civic organizations, and people invested in creating a more literate and thriving San Diego. This intellectual, elegant, and fast-paced fundraising event helps Words Alive raise over $200,000 annually, funds that make up a considerable portion of what Words Alive needs to continue serving thousands of children and families each year.

This event would not be possible without the support of our sponsors, the generous people, companies, and organizations who know how important literacy is for a successful and thriving community, and support our mission of opening opportunities of life success by inspiring a commitment to reading. 

Voice of San Diego (VOSD) is is an award-winning nonprofit news organization based in San Diego, California, and the Media Sponsor for the 15th Annual Author's Luncheon & Fundraiser! Laura Kohn, Words Alive Board Member and co-host of VOSD's Good Schools For All podcast, had this to say about both organizations:

"Words Alive and Voice of San Diego are both about helping San Diegans engage with the community through words and knowledge. The children and youth who benefit from Words Alive’s programs will hopefully grow up to be civically active community members who vote and participate in our democracy. And our local democracy will be healthier for them thanks to VOSD’s intrepid reporting."

Hear more from Voice of San Diego:


Want to know what’s really happening in San Diego?

Concerned about how local agencies operate and make decisions about education, the environment, housing, or public safety?

VOSD's Morning Report logo, sign up here!

VOSD's Morning Report logo, sign up here!

Then check out Voice of San Diego’s Morning Report to learn more. As a Words Alive supporter and someone who cares about San Diego, we think you’ll enjoy reading it. 

Voice of San Diego is an award-winning nonprofit news organization that digs deeply into local issues and organizations that affect the public. Our mission is to deliver ground-breaking investigative journalism for the San Diego region and to increase civic participation by giving residents the knowledge and in-depth analysis necessary to become advocates for good government and social progress.

VOSD’s stories spurr officials to act, catalyze change, and enhance the lives of our fellow residents. Below are a few examples of how VOSD made a difference in our community in 2017.

PUBLIC HEALTH: VOSD Coverage Spurs City and County to Act on Hepatitis A


Within a day of Lisa Halverstadt’s story describing county and city officials’ foot-dragging on a response to the Hepatitis A crisis, both entities announced they would take swift action. The story prompted public responses from elected officials and attention from national media outlets.



SANDAG Executive Director Gary Gallegos stepped down following a nearly yearlong investigation by Andy Keatts, that culminated in a brutal report from an outside law firm.

Legislation to overhaul the San Diego Association of Governments, written by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown earlier this month. The bill was spurred by our reporting on SANDAG’s faulty revenue forecasts.



A San Diego Superior Court judge sided with Voice of San Diego and found that San Diego Unified improperly withheld documents related to our investigation of former trustee Marne Foster. The case sets an important check on public agencies who try to keep public records from the public under the guise of exemptions to the California Public Records Act.


The San Diego County Taxpayers Association gave two awards to Ashly McGlone and Andy Keatts to honor their coverage of the Field Turf contracting issues and the SANDAG scandal, respectively.

San Diego Society of Professional Journalists recently announced Andy Keatts as 2018 Journalist of the Year for his investigation into SANDAG.

We have many sponsorship opportunities still available! If you, or the company you work for, believes in the importance of literacy and is interested in helping Words Alive foster a more literate community, check out sponsorship details here. We have benefits available from social media promotion, to recognition on centerpieces, to the opportunity to announce our featured author, Mary Kubica, at the event!

Is Literacy a Constitutional Right?

By Jennifer Van Pelt

A Words Alive graphic that says, "Literacy is the foundation of community and economic development. When everyone can read, whole communities thrive. We read to live full, independent lives. We read to...." The following list includes statements such as "apply for jobs that pay a living wage", "advocate for our families", and "vote or write to our elected officials."

A Words Alive graphic that says, "Literacy is the foundation of community and economic development. When everyone can read, whole communities thrive. We read to live full, independent lives. We read to...." The following list includes statements such as "apply for jobs that pay a living wage", "advocate for our families", and "vote or write to our elected officials."

A lawsuit filed in 2016 to establish literacy as a U.S. Constitutional right was struck down by a federal judge last month. The suit argued that Detroit students are excluded from the state’s education system, thus violating their rights under the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. These clauses say that no state can deny any person life, liberty, or property without due process of the law and also prevents states from denying equal protection of the laws to any person.

An article from the Detroit News details the fact that though the Constitution does not explicitly guarantee the right to education, the Supreme Court has not confirmed nor denied it either. The judge also wrote that the case needed further supports to prove their case, which leaves room for this case to come back and be tried later to help support students from Detroit and across the nation.

Why Is This Case So Important?

In 2017, the US Department of Education found that 65% of fourth-grade children nationwide were not proficient in reading. When so many children have fallen behind before they are halfway through their schooling, it is difficult for them to successfully continue and complete their education. When looking at the high school completion rates, the National Center for Education Statistics states that for the 2015-2016 school year, 1 out of 6 students failed to graduate with a high school diploma within 4 years of starting 9th grade.

Without a high school diploma, finding a job that pays a living wage is increasingly difficult. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2017 data, a full-time worker without a high school diploma earns a median weekly wage of $515, while a worker with a high school diploma earns $718. When these individuals are successful in high school and have the skill set to pursue higher education, they earn a median salary over double that of someone who didn’t complete high school: $1,189 weekly wages for those with a bachelor’s degree. This demonstrates how the literacy skills that are taught in early years of school can lay the entire foundation for the future of a child’s life. Currently, about 20% of adults in the United States are not earning a salary considered to be “a living wage.” Furthermore, applying for jobs and filling out employment forms also require reading and writing skills, making it difficult for these individuals to improve their situation.

A picture of a child in our Read Aloud Program holding the book "Are You My Mother?" while smiling.

A picture of a child in our Read Aloud Program holding the book "Are You My Mother?" while smiling.

By failing to provide the proper education for these children, the government may experience higher costs in healthcare as well. Literate adults have the knowledge and skills to seek out more preventative forms of healthcare including contraception use. According to, it is estimated that $18 billion could be saved annually if patients who have non-urgent/avoidable medical concerns were to take advantage of preventative health care instead of relying on emergency rooms for their medical needs. Emergency rooms are required by federal law to provide care for all patients, despite if they have insurance or are unable to pay, meaning that it is a popular choice for those who are disadvantaged.

There are countless more studies that show that illiteracy is connected to other undesirable life outcomes, including incarceration and reliance on public assistance programs. To illustrate, 3 out of 5 people in American prisons can’t read, and once they do leave the prison system, there aren’t any programs that allow them the opportunity to learn how to read in order to properly apply for a job. According to an article on The Observer, arming inmates with a solid education is one of the surest ways of reducing the rate at which they end up back behind bars after being released. The prison system is beginning to make moves to address these issues, but the real change needs to happen before these individuals are incarcerated by providing them with the education and tools to develop a healthy, independent lifestyle.

At Words Alive, we’ve created a “Why Literacy Matters” graphic (included above), illustrating how literacy is present in daily life and how necessary literacy is for living a full and independent life. Declaring literacy as a constitutional right would make these day to day tasks possible for everyone, allowing them to create a life for themselves that they are able to choose. Providing high-quality literacy education and opportunities at the beginning of these children’s lives is the start to building a generation that is able to accomplish their goals and achieve heights their parents were not able to. Because literacy tends to be “passed down”, meaning that it is difficult for an illiterate guardian to help a child read or do homework, it is important that the children today have the proper education and the right to break this cycle of illiteracy.

If you are interested in helping the literacy cause closer to home in San Diego, visit our volunteering page here.


Share Your Love of Reading With Words Alive This May!

By Max Greenhalgh

A picture from last year's Share Your Love of Reading campaign! The VIP reader had students get up and dance!

A picture from last year's Share Your Love of Reading campaign! The VIP reader had students get up and dance!

May is here, and that means it’s time to #ShareYourLoveofReading! You can make an impact on society just by sharing what you love to read and why. Reading is a vital skill to have, and one that isn’t as common as you might think. According to conservative estimates, approximately one-fifth of high school graduates are functionally illiterate. This means that while about 20% of our high school graduates may be able to read and write at basic levels, they cannot do so well enough to succeed easily in jobs or other day-to-day activities.

This epidemic isn’t just affecting high schoolers. Problems with illiteracy start before elementary school does. According to a 2015 Department of Education report, six out of 10 kindergarten students enter their new classrooms unprepared. With this many students starting out with a disadvantage, it’s no wonder that about 40% of fourth graders aren’t reading up to grade level standards. This fourth grade number is especially significant, as this is when reading starts to be used to learn about other subjects, severely hampering those who struggle with reading in all other subjects going forward.

This is why it is so important to #ShareYourLoveofReading! If you can make a mark on one mind, old or young, you're working to improve the state of literacy, and this effect can snowball. Kids often unintentionally push their classmates to do better in school by leading by example, and adults can push the children in their lives to pick up a book. 

Reading aloud is one of the keys to creating enthusiastic, skilled young readers. A University of Kansas study has concluded that consistently reading to children can increase their I.Q. test scores at age 3, as well as improving overall vocabulary and fluency of language. While talking to kids is still a great way to increase intelligence, reading is even better, as we tend to speak more lazily (and with more grammatical mishaps) when not reading from a page. In a survey run by Scholastic, a shocking 83% of kids said that they loved it or liked it a lot when their parents read aloud to them, while merely about 20% of children aged six to 11 said that they still get read to at home.

Literacy is vital in all professions, even in jobs you might not expect. Those working in more physical occupations need to be functionally literate in order to safely operate equipment, follow detailed instructions correctly, and prevent workplace injuries by following safety manuals and regulations. Furthermore, engineers, scientists, and mathematicians all need to communicate their potentially game-changing ideas to their peers and all of the world, so neglecting reading due to an expertise in another subject isn’t a viable way to prepare for success in this other field.

The bottom line is this: reading is important for everyone, not matter your occupation, and reading aloud to kids is one of the best ways to inspire a love of reading. These are the reasons why this May, for our #ShareYourLoveOfReading campaign, we are inviting very special "VIP" readers of varying professions into our elementary school classrooms to read to students! This will truly help drive home the message to young kids in our Read Aloud Program how important reading is and how fun it can be!

A #shelfie from last year's Share Your Love of Reading campaign! The picture features a young baby surrounded by books! You're never too young to start reading!

A #shelfie from last year's Share Your Love of Reading campaign! The picture features a young baby surrounded by books! You're never too young to start reading!

A lone drop of water can make a rippling effect dozens of times that drop’s size, and your efforts this May can be a drop of water with a huge effect. Who knows who you might inspire without even realizing it? If you’d like to chime in and share your love of reading with us, here’s what you can do:

  1. Take a #shelfie. Take a picture of yourself in front of your bookshelf or with your favorite book, post it on social media (while tagging #ShareYourLoveofReading and #Shelfie), and encourage your coworkers, friends, and family to do the same. This will help Words Alive get the word out about the importance of literacy, and maybe even inspire some fruitful, book-based discussions in your comment sections! Don't forget to tag @WordsAliveSD in your post!

  2. Donate! Throughout May, we're looking to increase our number of sustaining donors! Monthly donations provide consistent funding for our programs that we can count on. For as little as $5 a month you can sponsor a new set of books for a classroom! Find out more here.

  3. Keep following those hashtags! Words Alive will be bringing in some surprise VIP readers to read aloud to classrooms in the San Diego area. We'll also be posting images of our incredible Board, Staff, and volunteers throughout the month, with quotes explaining why reading is important to them! Sharing these images will help to spread awareness about the importance of literacy.

  4. Volunteer! Words Alive is always looking for those willing to work towards improving literacy in San Diego. Check out your options here.

We can't wait to see how you #ShareYourLoveOfReading this May! 

For more information about Words Alive, please click here.

What is Kindergarten Readiness and Why Does it Matter?

By Jennifer van Pelt

In the years leading up to a child’s first formalized schooling experience, parents play an important role in laying the foundation for future schooling success. With kindergarten being required in 30% of all states and 52% of all states requiring a Kindergarten Entrance Exam, making sure children have the cognitive skills to prepare them for kindergarten is an important step in ensuring early literacy success and continued development.

A picture of some children in our Family Literacy Program! They are posing with puppets they made during the FLP session.

A picture of some children in our Family Literacy Program! They are posing with puppets they made during the FLP session.

What is Kindergarten Readiness and Why Does it Matter?

“Kindergarten readiness” is a term that outlines what many education experts tend to agree will help a child succeed in kindergarten. With kindergarten being the first schooling experience for many children, it is important that they are comfortable, confident, and eager to learn in the classroom in order to set the tone for what the next several years of their life will revolve around: school.

Recently, Common Core Standards have been introduced into classrooms nationwide. These standards establish clear guidelines of what a student needs to know at the end of each grade. These standards have been fully implemented in 41 states and help to establish expectations for what your child should be prepared to learn in kindergarten. A few notable literacy-related Common Core Standards for kindergarten are:

  • Identify major characters, setting, and basic plotline of a story.

  • Recognize different types of text, including poems and storybooks.

  • Recognize what an author's and illustrator’s roles are in a book and how to identify them.

  • Identify the parts of a book including the front, spine, and back.

  • Understand the way in which we read and write: From left to right, in strings of sentences, and spaces between words.

  • Identify the letters of the alphabet and the sounds they make.

By understanding what your child needs to know by the end of their year in kindergarten, you can work backwards, determine where the biggest gaps are, and ensure that your child is prepared for school.

How Can You Help Your Child Become Kindergarten Ready?

As summarized in the  “Early School Readiness” report by Child Trends, the following four skills are indicators of early literacy and cognitive development: ability to recognize letters, count to 20, write their first name, and read words in a book. While these are not an official or universally agreed upon measure for determining if a child is “kindergarten ready”, these competencies appear to be referred to most frequently in literature surrounding the topic and they are also supported by the Common Core Standards.

Children in our Family Literacy Program practice skills like counting, rhyming, and color recognition by participating in fun activities!

Children in our Family Literacy Program practice skills like counting, rhyming, and color recognition by participating in fun activities!

You can  prepare your child for kindergarten by integrating the following into your family time:

  • Practice reading/writing the letters used in their name. This helps develop both the motor skills used to hold a pencil and their familiarity with the alphabet.

  • Start counting with them. This can include animals in a book or carrots on their plate. Focus on incorporating numbers and counting into their daily life.

  • Point out numbers that surround them. This can be page numbers, office numbers, road signs etc.

  • Expand their vocabulary by using diverse language during conversations. Marianne Hillemeier, PhD, completed a study on 8,700 two year olds and the amount of vocabulary they knew. Those who used more words at age two had better math and reading skills and fewer behavioral problems when starting kindergarten.

  • Teach them about books -- the front, back, spine, and how we read from left to right. This initiates a knowledge of books and prepares them to read books themselves.

At Words Alive, we understand that parents are their child’s first teacher because they have the best opportunity to prepare them with the tools needed for success in school. Our programs at Words Alive not only aim to instill reading and literacy habits in young children, but we also hope that parents leave our programs with the foundation and motivation to build these habits at home!

Learn more about our Family Literacy Program, in which we teach parents how to prepare their children for school and introduce literacy education into their homes, by checking out this page. If you are interesting in supporting these efforts, please consider donating here.


The Intersection of Art and Literacy Education

By Jennifer van Pelt

All of our programs aim to help students not only understand the importance of literacy but also fall in love with reading themselves. Our Words Alive Adolescent Book Group takes many different approaches to this, from hosting book club style discussion sessions to working on projects to writing workshops. Each year, we also hold an Arts Component that focuses on connecting a book, theme, and art medium into one exhibit created by the students. As an organization that focuses on increasing literacy in our community, part of our mission is to inspire a commitment to reading. Art brings that opportunity to inspire by allowing the conversation to be more accessible to those who may lack the confidence or interest in reading.

Case Study: Learning Through the Arts

A study was done on students who participated in the “Learning Through the Arts” (LTA) Program at the Guggenheim Museum. Over 200 students and teachers participated in the program and were later tested and interviewed to monitor their progress. For the study, an equal number of individuals did not participate in the program and were also tested at the end of the year, serving as the control group. A few notable outcomes came about from this program, as noted by ArtsEdSearch:

  • There were increases in critical thinking and literacy skills among students who participated in the LTA Program.

  • LTA students provided interview responses using language associated with higher grade levels and with more words than those who did not go through the program.

  • Teaching artists felt that their participation in LTA led them to change their teaching practice by trying new things with students, especially finding strategies to reach below average students.

This study, which included over 400 students in the state of New York, echoes the studies of others that indicate that art education teaches more than just art: it helps to expand critical thinking and language development. Additionally, with classroom sizes steadily increasing, it is important to note that bringing in supplemental forms of learning, such as art education, can appeal to those who are visual or kinesthetic learners and may be overlooked if they learn in different ways compared to their classmates.

How Can You Help Bring Art Education Into The Home?

Parents don’t need to be artistic to encourage art education in the home. As noted by Art Therapist Anna Reyner, there are a few simple ways to bring the arts into your home that will help to encourage and develop the same skills that are important for reading and writing.

  • Make art a family activity.

  • Have a corner dedicated to art activities (This can be the same as your reading corner!).

  • Create homemade art journals.

  • Relate drawings/art projects to books you’ve recently read.

These tips, though more so applicable to young children, develop habits and interests that can prove helpful throughout the child’s future schooling experience.

The Words Alive Annual Arts Component

Looking at the last tip in the list above (“relate drawings/art projects to books you’ve recently read”), this is exactly what we aim to do in our annual Arts Component. As mentioned previously, each year we have our students focus on a different book, theme, and art medium. This year, our students are going to be creating murals based on the novel The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, and using the theme “duality” as inspiration. Through this process, students learn how to connect the text to themselves and the world through art and, in the end, have the chance to see their art professionally displayed in a local gallery.

In many American schools, standardized testing is emphasized to the extent that art education can fall to the side as an extracurricular activity. By understanding the benefits art has on the reading, writing, and overall literacy skills of an individual, we can bring that same awareness back in to the classroom and home. Partnering art and literacy education serves as a multi-faceted teaching tool that can create a bigger, more meaningful impact.

For more information on our upcoming Arts Component, or any of our other programs, visit the main section of our website.