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Educators hope snow days encourage reading, family time

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia education leaders are hoping some snow days will spark a new emphasis on reading and learning in the home.

More than 40 of the state's 55 counties closed or abbreviated school hours Tuesday in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. State Superintendent of Schools Jorea Marple wants parents to use the time off to shift kids' focus from technology to reading -- especially in homes left without power from the severe weather.

"If the electricity isn't working because of a storm, reading a book is a wonderful option to occupy a student's time. Reading well is one of the most important skills a child needs to learn. When children become good readers in the early grades, they are more likely to perform well in other subjects and all through their school days," Marple said.

Nearly 75 percent of children in West Virginia are not reading at a proficient level by the fourth grade, according to a study released in July. That's a dangerous statistic because it's the age students are supposed to go from learning to read to reading to learn, said Mary Kay Bond, executive director for Read Aloud West Virginia.

"This is very distressing because we know third- and fourth-grade reading levels are critically important to a child's development. If you're not reading at a proficient level, the hill is going to get steeper," she said. "Children who aren't reading at grade level are more likely to fall behind and have a greater risk of becoming substance abusers and being incarcerated. The correlation is shocking."

As increased dependence on technology pushes kids further away from reading, snow days are a perfect opportunity for students and parents to affirm the value of reading a good book, Bond said.

"This can be a magical time for families. There's something very fantasyland-like for children when the power goes out. Gather around a fire or grab a flashlight and read together. That is a lifetime memory they won't forget," she said.

"Ideally, this power-off time can be used as a time for families to engage in conversation. But, once the lights come back on, don't resort back to that dependence on TV. That human-to-human contact without electronics can be the best way to build vocabulary."

Read Aloud West Virginia, an organization working to get more books in the hands of children, encourages parents to emphasize reading with their children in unique ways by offering them age-appropriate materials they have interest in or by simply turning on the captions for their favorite TV shows, Bond said.

Bond said a child's experience at home can be just as influential on their education as their time in the classroom.

"Parents are the key. They have more time and opportunities to instill a love of reading than professional educators do. All family members have an educational influence on children, so set the tone," she said.

"Children tend to monitor the behavior of the people they love and admire. Sadly, I've had kindergarten teachers tell me that on the first day of school, some students physically don't know how to open a book."

The state Board of Education is also encouraging families who have access to the Internet during snow days to utilize the state's Learn21WV website. The site was created by West Virginia teachers about three years ago and offers a variety of educational resources for every grade.

Marple hopes the snow days will serve as a reminder that those resources are always there, and parents should take time after school to play fun, educational games with their children.

"With today's technology, learning can occur anytime and anywhere, so that is why we encourage students to log on to www.learn21wv.com especially when school is closed," she said. "The [West Virginia Department of Eeucation] pulled together some of the best online learning resources from around the globe and placed them on the site."

Carolyn Wesley, director of the East End Family Resource Center, said while snow days are a great opportunity for stay-at-home parents, working families can learn something from the time off too.

"Encourage your kids to read or write in a journal in their downtime. Go make a science project out of playing in the snow," Wesley said. "The most important thing for parents to do is know what lessons their children are learning in school. Snow days, after-school time and summers are great opportunities for parents no matter the situation. Finding ways to implement the lessons they learn at school into their everyday lives can have a great affect on a child's development."

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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