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.