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Raising Readers and Building Leaders

We need Indiana’s children to become lifelong learners who are able to think critically, solve complex problems, work collaboratively, make informed decisions, and contribute meaningfully to their communities through economic and civic engagement. Success in each of these areas is tied to their ability to learn. And the ability to learn relates directly to their ability to read.

Building literacy and language skills starts in infancy and continue for years, switching from learning to read to reading to learn. It is encouraging to see our state launching important new efforts in support of early literacy. There are also many steps we can take to prepare our youngest Hoosiers so that they enter school with a love of books and reading.

In August, the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) and Lilly Endowment Inc. announced an unprecedented investment of $111 million aimed at increasing our state’s early literacy rates. The ambitious initiative rests on four correlated strategies aligned with the state’s goal of having 95 percent of Indiana’s students pass our reading assessment, IREAD-3, by 2027. The funded Science of Reading strategies can help all students learn to read better and address equity gaps in reading.

Achieving these laudable goals will mean significant progress in a short period of time. According to IDOE, currently nearly one in five Hoosier students (18.4%) have not yet mastered foundational reading skills by the end of grade three. Also, in 2022, only 40.7% of Indiana third graders and 41.1% of Indiana fourth graders passed the English/Language Arts portion of the state’s ILEARN assessment. Worrisome disparities also are reflected in the disaggregated data about our state’s youth literacy, which reported only 17% of Black students, 24% of Hispanic students, and 24% of students from low-income households scored proficient or better on the 2019 NAEP assessment (which measures deeper proficiency).

While we are encouraged by the scale and scope of this impactful initiative, we also know that the development of language and literacy skills begins long before kindergarten. There is much that can and should be done to ensure that students start school prepared to benefit from our state’s educational initiatives. Family engagement, coupled with high-quality early childhood education, can launch young children on a path to becoming confident readers.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the first three years of life is a child’s most intensive period for speech and language development. Reading and talking to babies stimulates brain development, helping them connect sounds to items. Most infants that have been read to can understand that pictures in books are reflective of items in the real world, such as animals or toys.

Experts from the National Association for the Education of Young Children highlight that between 15 and 20 months of age many children notice the print that accompanies pictures in books. And by around three years old, a child can use their fingers to follow the print, often memorizing text of stories that have been repeatedly read to them.

Ways to increase literacy with very young children:

  • Talk to babies. Make eye contact and talk with expression and emotions. Name items as you go through the day.
  • Build a connection between reading and security, warmth, and love. Babies and toddlers like to sit on laps and be read to, cuddling with their caregivers.
  • Avoid baby talk. Using correct pronunciation and a wide variety of words helps build language and reading skills.
  • Help develop an awareness of the alphabet by surrounding a child with visual images of letters through books, magnets, and posters or signs.
  • Rhymes are helpful. Rhyming songs, poems, and books help young children with listening to the sounds that make up words.
  • Encourage active reading and storytelling. It can be helpful for children to change the storylines and act out parts of books. Encourage the child to anticipate what’s going to happen next as they turn the page.
  • Prep for outings or new experiences by reading about the things or places you will see. Reading about visiting a park, zoo, or new location can help prepare children for new adventures while also shaping their reading skills.
  • Reading as a bedtime routine can build lifelong positive habits, serving as both a literacy tool and a stress reliever.
  • And don’t forget to visit local libraries. Indiana has an abundance of libraries with many having children’s areas, story times, activities, and summer reading programs.

Early literacy centers on helping our youngest children build a broad vocabulary along with sound, letter, and reading comprehension. We must recognize that many children in our state, most often children living in under-resourced areas, do not have access to early literacy efforts. Comprehensive, high-quality pre-K is an important step in closing the literacy opportunity gap. Building early literacy and language skills help children be kindergarten-ready, preparing them with a love of books and ready to learn.

As we celebrate the state’s incredible school-based literacy initiative, we also want to support its success by taking steps to build a strong early literacy foundation for each Hoosier child. Equipping our children with the ability to read, write, learn, and comprehend sets them up for a lifetime of learning.

Additional early literacy resources include but are not limited to:

  • The Indianapolis Public Library – This is a great way for parents and children to enjoy stories together from anywhere, even without a trip to the bookstore or the library. View the collections.
  • Story Mentors – Created by the Barbara Bush Foundation, Story Mentors is a digital classroom focused on early elementary school-aged children who are struggling readers. The first-grade resources were developed with support from the AT&T Foundation. Access the digital classroom.
  • Scholastic Learn at Home – This extensive free online library includes leveled books; highly engaging reading activities; and tips for parents, educators and students. Access the resources.
  • Unite for Literacy – The Unite online library provides free access to more than 400 original picture books—1/4 of which are written in Spanish. The digital books provide audio narrations in more than 40 languages. Visit the online library.
  • Storyline Online – This free children‘s literacy resource features the world’s best storytellers reading books out loud. Each video includes an activity guide with lessons for K-5 students to do at home. Visit the site.
  • Reading Rockets – A multimedia project that offers a wealth of research-based reading strategies, lessons, and activities designed to help children from birth to age 8 learn how to read and improve their reading. Access the resource now at this site.
  • Reach Out and Read – Helps build a child’s literacy basics by incorporating books into pediatric care and encouraging families to read together. Visit the site.
  • PBS – Find more than 125 fun and educational activities and games that support parents of 3-8-year-olds to help their child(ren) boost their literacy. Scroll to the bottom of the PBS Parents’ Page to select age-specific literacy tips and activities for children aged 2-8.




About the Indiana Youth Institute :

For over three decades, Indiana Youth Institute (IYI) has supported the youth services field through innovative trainings’, critical data, and capacity-building resources, aiming every effort at increasing the well-being of all children. To learn more about IYI, visit www.iyi.org, follow us on Facebook or Twitter.