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Marcia Hughes, guest columnist

When I wrote the tagline, ‘Reading Is Contagious,’ I was searching for a catchy phrase to help build enthusiasm for what was then a new literacy celebration in our Cedar Rapids schools. Twenty years later, AMERICA READS: Reading Is Contagious has become an annual event across six school districts and is a fall tradition for some 2,500 community volunteers. The longevity of the program testifies to the power of collective involvement and partnership. That catchy phrase has proved to be true!

AMERICA READS: Reading Is Contagious is a collaborative initiative focusing attention on the importance of reading to young children to improve literacy. Each October, elementary schools across our community host events that celebrate reading to children, promote reading as a lifelong skill, focus attention on literacy in the schools, and demonstrate the joy of reading through community involvement. Last year, guest readers shared their enthusiasm with some 16,000 preschool through fifth grade students.

Our community can certainly be proud of this unique collaboration of public and private schools and agencies, and area public libraries. Participating school districts are Cedar Rapids Community, College Community, Linn-Mar Community, Marion Independent, Summit, and Xavier Catholic schools. Other partners include Grant Wood Area Education Agency and five public libraries: Cedar Rapids, Ely, Fairfax, Hiawatha and Marion. Readers range from middle, high school and college students and parents to school neighbors, senior citizens, business people and community “celebrities”. The volunteers share their love of reading by doing just that — reading a favorite story to a child, a small group of children or to an entire classroom of students.

This community reading activity is not a frivolous activity. Numerous studies indicate that children who have been read to on a regular basis are the ones who become good readers. The 1985 National Commission of Reading cited reading aloud to children is “the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading.” That data has stood the test of time. Another study by the Carnegie Institute showed that “more than 50 percent of American children aren’t read to on a daily basis and maybe not at all.” Reading aloud to children is critical. The United States Department of Education’s research indicates that reading just 30 minutes a day with a child significantly increases a child’s reading ability, stimulating cognitive skills; building motivation, curiosity, and memory; and also giving children the opportunity to practice listening.

We appreciate the support of the many area businesses, both large and small, who release employees to participate in this program. In that way, students learn how community workers value reading and how it is essential to their particular job or profession. The cost of illiteracy is high in the business world. The National Institute for Literacy cites that American businesses are estimated to lose over $60 billion in productivity each year due to employees’ lack of basic skills.

This two-day event is not a quick fix to improve reading. Schools and libraries have and will continue to conduct special reading activities throughout the year. Volunteers visit schools to read to children on a regular basis, classroom teachers design special reading incentives, and media specialists offer enticing reading activities to complement learning. The public libraries offer story hours for children, special programs to encourage reading, and summer reading programs for children. There are also families reading to children on a regular basis. This event is an opportunity for you to be part of the effort, however. By sharing a story, AMERICA READS Reading is Contagious volunteers celebrate their love of reading with students. That special book might just become someone else’s favorite! After all, reading is contagious.

The 20th annual AMERICA READS: Reading Is Contagious will be held Oct. 20-21. Volunteer readers can register through Oct. 1 by calling (319) 558-2124.

• Marcia Hughes is the community relations supervisor for the Cedar Rapids Community School District. She serves as chairwoman of the AMERICA READS: Reading Is Contagious Metro Committee.

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