Educators know that children learn to read in grades one through three, but by fourth grade the reading emphasis changes. At that point, children... Just read to them! Program aims to make reading enjoyable for kids
Brittany Altadonna reads to her niece Hailey Luck, left, and daughter Bella Altadonna outside when the weather is nice (Diane Merryman photo).

Educators know that children learn to read in grades one through three, but by fourth grade the reading emphasis changes.

At that point, children read to learn. If a child is not proficient, he or she falls behind. If the child lives in poverty, statistics show that it is even harder to catch up.

More than 20 years ago, Richmond school psychologist Gary Anderson noticed that boys were particularly impacted by the reading skills they developed by fourth grade. If they struggled in reading, they began to lose interest in school, which often led to dropping out early. The results led to a life of low-paying jobs and a lifestyle of poverty. Something needed to change.

Anderson surmised that the key to preventing “third grade slide-out” was to get parents more involved. If reading occurred only in school, it didn’t transfer to everyday life. Further studies have verified Anderson’s theory by tracking students’ academic progress through middle and high school, reporting that students with parental involvement in reading activities at early ages show greater academic progress throughout the remainder of their school years. The research was there, but the practical application was missing.

The Read to Them concept originated in a single school in Richmond by Bruce Coffey, a dad who wanted to make a difference. He was aware of the statistics and wanted to get his son more engaged in reading. He took a book to the classroom and read it to the students, one chapter at a time. The students became excited about the story in anticipation of what was going to happen next. As a result, they began reading more on their own, and their reading levels improved.

Anderson was impressed with the results and, with Coffey’s input, created the Read to Them program so that other schools could benefit too. Now, Read to Them is a national nonprofit with a simple concept: Children who are read to (by someone else) learn to read more easily and become better readers.

“We want children to understand that reading is something you can do for joy and not just for an assignment,” RTT program director Cathy Plageman said. Once they start enjoying reading the learning begins.

The project was so successful that other classes adopted the practice too and saw the same improvement. The idea took off and spread throughout the school, then throughout the city. Now RTT is in 48 states. Five Chesterfield County schools participated in 2018-19 with 2,708 students involved. Twelve Chesterfield schools have participated since the program started. All Richmond City schools participate in the program.

“We get the whole school involved,” Plageman said.
The program is no longer limited to the third grade. Every student in every grade gets a copy of the book selected by the school. The books have about 15 chapters, and readers read one chapter a day for three weeks. Readers come from all walks of life and are community leaders, politicians, businessmen-women and celebrities. NFL football players from the Washington Redskins training camp have jumped on board in Richmond as readers too.

RTT has created a package to guide schools through the program. The program provides a book for each child and teacher and bookmarks and posters for the school to promote the book. They also have an electronic version of support materials.

“Everyone gets involved,” Plageman said, “the principal, the lunch lady, the resource officers and the janitors. Everyone starts talking about the book. And the excitement builds. There are no reward incentives for reading. It is about pride not the prize.”

RTT grew from a single classroom project into a community event called One School, One Book where parents participate by reading a chapter a night to their children and the book is discussed at school. Some school districts have taken it a step further with the One District, One Book approach.

“When the whole district gets involved, it is really exciting,” Plageman said. There are assemblies, parades and special events created around the book and its theme. In some locations, the middle and high schools have put on plays centered on the characters in the book. Public libraries also get on board. Some schools read one book each year, others read two books.

RTT provides all of the resources. They look for donor support to cover the costs of the books and marketing materials. Often parent-teacher associations or corporate sponsors fund the program. Plageman said it works so well that RTT spends very little on advertising. The program has grown mostly by word of mouth.

For more information, email programs@readtothem.org or visit readtothem.org.