Here's an alarming statistic: did you know that nearly half of Canadians are semi-literate? 42% of our population has low literacy skills and by 2031, more than 15 million Canadian adults will join that group.
People of colour and people of low income are particularly at risk and there's no surprise that there's a direct link between reading levels and poverty. So when I met a black mother who was determined not to become a statistic, I had to tell her story. I found Jenine Lafayette on Instagram under the @500books handle. She set an incredible goal with her daughter when was in kindergarten to read 500 books together in one year. I sent her a message dying to know more about this. Here's what she told me.
When my daughter Amie was 5 years old and in Junior Kindergarten, she was learning to read. As an anxious parent, I watched her sound out letters and piece sounds together. She stuttered and stumbled over words, got frustrated and lost patience. She was mad at books. I didn’t know anything about teaching a child to read but I did know that reading aloud was a good thing.
One Fall night we were in bed reading a bedtime story. An idea hit me. What if we challenged ourselves to read more books together? We needed to say our goal out loud, set a deadline, and tell the world to keep ourselves accountable. Should our goal be a hundred books or 200? No, since my daughter was five we were going to read 500 books together in a year. We had a library card and motivation.
We started an Instagram account to keep track of the books we were reading, surprised that the @500books handle was available. I searched for other accounts and hashtags to see if anyone was doing a similar reading challenge. There were others reading a book a day, many book clubs, and book review bloggers. I followed other accounts for recommendations and they offered a ton of encouragement.
Throughout that year we made a commitment to reading. As a working mother, I would get home from a long day feeling absolutely spent but we made our bedtime reading non-negotiable. When I traveled for work, which was very often, we kept the momentum going when I got back. We didn’t include books that were assigned from her classroom or books that we read again and again for our @500books challenge, so we hauled big book stacks from the library. Sometimes picking all the books we could find on a topic, and getting lost in stories.
Amie just blossomed during that year. She loved being read to and we bonded during our quiet reading time together. For fun, she was writing stories and creating little books. Her confidence as a speaker blossomed. She was asked to make presentations in front of her whole school. And, her reading took off. Partway through our challenge, Amie mentioned that her teacher was getting her books from the Grade 1 classroom for her work. By the end of the challenge, I posted a video of Amie reading to me. She was assigned Grade 2/3 level books in Kindergarten and reading early chapter books.
Amie is now in Grade 2 and reading before bed is still a big part of our day. She is in French immersion so our library hauls still include a ton of books, now in two languages. We now have an 8-month-old son who laughs and claps during storytime. I have hosted reading circles for children from 4 to 11 throughout the past year at birthday parties, summer camps, and cultural events. I review kids' books as part of an Instagram collective called #BlackHistory365Books, highlighting books about black history or the black experience. Our family recently gave away new and gently used books along with candy to Trick or Treaters for Halloween and we’re hoping to work with families in low-income communities in Toronto to get more books into more homes.
We stopped officially counting the number of books after 500 but I know we have read about double that amount by now. We still try to read together every day. Sometimes our family sits on the couch together with a big book stack on our laps. I keep kids' books in our living room, kitchen, our car, everywhere. Amie usually has a chapter book that we're reading together in addition to picture books or graphic novels.
There is so much that I have learned through reading aloud with my daughter, and I know that she has gained a lot also. Reading has opened up a world both on and off of the page for us.
And our family and friends are so supportive and encouraging. The challenge taps into everyone's inner book worm. Amie's grandmother joined Instagram and only followed our @500books page for ages. She's often the first one to like our posts and talk with Amie about what she's reading.
Here’s a quick note from Amie herself:
Hi, my name is Amie. I’m the one who reads the books posted on @500books. I have a lot of experience with books. I am getting my friends in class excited about books too. I often bring in books that I really like from the library to share (they are a lot funnier than the ones my teacher chooses). I love books, especially chapter books. Even though I’m not liked by everyone in my class, I’m proud of myself. So I recommend that you read it too (a lot). By the way, my little brother’s name is Zackary.
Click here for some tips on reading aloud to your child.