Reading fundamental to success: Literacy should be everyone's concern, from Wisconsin Dells Events

From Wisconsin Dells Events

Had Vince Lombardi been a literacy advocate instead of a football coach, he probably would have said “reading isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” – and he would not have been far off the mark.

While knowing how to read may not be “the only thing” important to the average person’s well-being, the ability or inability to read can and usually does have a profound effect on just about everything else in life.

For children, whether they are newborns just learning to sense the world around them or teenagers starting to find their way as young adults, learning and using the buildings blocks of reading are essential, and experts say that learning and practice should never stop, no matter how young or old one is.

“Reading is the most important skill that we can teach our children because in school today you need reading for math and you need reading for science,” said Sara Ketterer, executive director of Kids Ranch, the Rock Springs-based literacy and support camp for children from four school districts in this region. “To quote Dr. Louisa Moats (vice president of the International Dyslexia Foundation), reading is the foundation upon which all formal education occurs. As educators, it should be our number one goal.”

“Reading, writing, speaking and listening are even more prevalent nowadays with technology and the business world,” said Clair Fedderly, reading/curriculum specialist with the Cooperative Educational Service Agency 5 (CESA 5) in Portage that provides services and support to 35 public school districts in Adams, Columbia, Dodge, Green Lake, Juneau, Marquette, Portage, Sauk, Waupaca, Waushara and Wood counties. “Very few jobs exist where you are isolated; communication is paramount.”

Universal agreement

Search for an answer to the question “why is literacy important?” online, and that answer is amazingly universal, whether the source is a technical college in central Georgia or a business publication in Albany, New York.

Literacy – or the lack thereof – “can be connected to almost every socio-economic issue in the United States,” said Ketterer, echoing that aforementioned, universal response. “Low literacy rates not only directly affect the trajectory of individual lives, but they also place a tremendous burden on society. According to data from ProLiteracy (a non-profit, international literacy advocacy foundation), low literacy can be connected to almost every socioeconomic issue in the U.S.”

Among ProLiteracy’s findings regarding those connections are the facts that “more than 65 percent of all state and federal corrections inmates can be classified as (being) ‘low literate;’ ‘low-literacy’s’ effects cost the U.S. $225 billion or more each year in non-productivity in the workforce, crime and loss of tax revenue due to unemployment; and low ‘health’ literacy costs between $106 billion and $236 billion each year in the U.S., (with) 77 million Americans having only a two-in-three chance of correctly reading an over-the-counter drug label or understanding their child’s vaccination chart.”

Low literacy rates can actually bring down the nation’s Gross Domestic Product, according to ProLiteracy, and the inability to read hinders people, their communities and their states from being “competitive in the new global knowledge economy” because “many positions remain vacant for lack of personnel adequately trained to hold them.”

Key to self-esteem

As startling as those facts and statistics may be, the toll of illiteracy upon the individual and his or her self-esteem and overall ability to function in the world – especially when that individual is a child – can be profound, even devastating.

“Individuals with low literacy tend to have lower income and lower-quality jobs, experience two- to four-times higher unemployment rates than among those with bachelor’s degrees, more precarious financial management, intergenerational transmission of illiteracy within their families and lower self-esteem,” Ketterer said, again reflecting a consensus among educators, librarians and literacy experts locally and nationwide.

These facts help to explain why extracurricular efforts to augment those by reading educators in schools – ranging from the summertime programming at Kids’ Ranch to the year-round efforts of the numerous youth services librarians to such community reading programs as Read to Succeed in Portage and Little Free Libraries – exist throughout the region and are so important.

“Events are on the rise, schools want families involved. Reading in the home is extremely important to school districts, and they recognize that access to books is part of that story,” Fedderly said. “Not only do the children need books they enjoy to read, but the caregiver being a reader/role model is important too.”

It takes a community

From community libraries and reading rooms, after-school tutoring sessions to week-long sojourns at Kids’ Ranch, a regionwide literacy brigade helps to keep kids reading – and support them while they learn.

“Our districts are filled with caring, hard-working, passionate teachers and staff that do all they can, but literacy and learning is a hurdle that the entire community has to come together for,” Fedderly said.

A shining example of this holistic, community-inspired approach is Kids’ Ranch, which this summer marked its 18th year helping to build regional youngsters’ self-esteem and self-respect, with literacy as a central component.

Nestled among gently rolling hills in Rock Springs, Kids’ Ranch serves children from the school districts of Baraboo, Reedsburg, Sauk Prairie and Wisconsin Dells with week-long camp sessions that include reading, hiking, horseback riding and other summertime activities.

Kids Ranch was founded in 1998 by the late Ann Rakos, with the goal of building children’s self-esteem, especially children who seemed to be in danger of falling through society’s cracks.

“She said she was tired of meeting with young people in her office and seeing how discouraged they were and that they hated school, and she knew reading was a big part of that,” said Mary Bowers, the Kids’ Ranch education coordinator who joined Rakos for the initiative’s pilot effort and has remained with the organization. “She realized that a lot of children who had low self-esteem happened to be those kids who could not read.”

Thus Kids’ Ranch was born, and the organization has been helping children between the ages of 6 and 10, ever since. More than 125 children came through the camp’s program this summer, and they were assisted by approximately 20 adult counselors and a dozen or so junior (i.e. middle- and high school-aged) counselors.

Within the four school districts served by Kids’ Ranch, “anyone can refer a child for any reason,” according to the Kids’ Ranch website. “Over 90 percent of the children are referred by teachers, principals and guidance counselors.”

Summer at the library

Summer library programs can sometimes serve a helpful, esteem-building role as does Kids Ranch, with one strong example being the Youth Services program at Hatch Public Library in Mauston.

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Hatch Youth Services Librarian Debby Ennis is in her 24th year of running the program, and her efforts in attracting and engaging young readers has ranged from holding a prom dress exchange to conducting “wild worm races.”

“The whole point is to get kids into the library,” said Ennis, who more than once has sacrificed a good night’s sleep in order to conduct library all-nighters with scores of early teens. “That’s the whole thing – the hard part sometimes is getting the kids in, and once you get them in you have to keep their attention.”

“I think it (reading) takes you out of your everyday life – you can be a princess, you can be knight you can be a ninja,” she said. “They have imaginations, they can go anywhere and do anything they want.”

“Last Friday, we had 130 show up for a wild worm race. Once in a while I’ve had a vet come and he’d check and make sure none are on steroids. We have a lot of fun with it – we bought them at the bait shop, and I tell the kids they are racing worms,” said Ennis.

Reading to infants

Similar programs exist at libraries across the region, including Wisconsin Dells and Portage. At Kilbourn Public Library in the Dells, infants have gotten into the act during “Baby-time Lap Sit” sessions that include “a few short stories, nursery rhymes, songs, parachute play and familiar flannel mother goose stories,” according to Jody DelaGardelle, youth services librarian.

“Parents also have time to read board books that we provide as one-on-one time with their children,” DelaGardelle said. “I use a doll or puppet so caregivers can imitate the rhymes, tickles, finger plays and bouncing along with the songs and verse. We shut the doors for some of the older babies who like to toddle off toward the doors.” “Events are on the rise, schools want families involved. Reading in the home is extremely important to school districts, and they recognize that access to books is part of that story. Not only do the children need books they enjoy to read, but the caregiver being a reader/role model is important too.

Never too late to learn

A number of programs exist for people of any age seeking to improve their literacy – from infant reading sessions at Kilbourn Public Library in Wisconsin Dells and Hatch Public Library in Mauston to numerous programs at the Portage Public Library.

Literacy programs exist in libraries and other locations across the region, including Baraboo, Montello, Prairie du Sac, Richland Center and Wisconsin Dells, and they can be accessed directly at

The Wisconsin Reading Coalition (WRC) calls itself a “grassroots movement of parents, educators, advocacy organizations, health professionals, and business leaders committed to bringing scientifically-based reading instruction and intervention to all Wisconsin students.”

The WRC points to the state’s fourth-grader test scores in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which shows that general reading abilities in the state have remained flat for more than 20 years, with the state’s one-time lofty national ranking of third in reading comprehension abilities now has fallen to 25th in the U.S.

The results of the NAEP reading assessment present a broad view of what our nation’s students know and can do in reading. The assessment is designed to measure students’ reading comprehension by asking them to read selected grade-appropriate materials and answer questions based on what they have read.

As discouraging as those facts may be, the region’s literacy professionals say there is hope – both the plethora of youth services programs at virtually every community library in the region to cutting-edge teaching methods.

“Our services are free, and they are providing this community benefit,” said Shawn Brommer, youth services consultant for the Madison-based South-Central Library System. “We are supporting literacy skills for kids of all ages as well as entire families. Everything is free, and everything we have goes to help kids do better in school.”

“Kids who don’t read in the summer can lose up to two months of their reading comprehension, so when they return to school in the fall they are two months behind their classmates who have been reading,” she said. “It’s cumulative, so by sixth grade they could be behind by a year. All curricula really depends upon reading comprehension – all the regular classes we think about are so dependent on kids being literate and being able to read, and they often times fall behind in other subjects.”

That summer and non-school time reading can be anything that piques a youngster’s interest, and can be on their own or as part of the strong youth reading programs in libraries across the region.

“It isn’t about reading textbooks – it’s allowing children to read whatever they want to read,” Brommer said.

Cutting-edge reading education techniques also are starting to crop up in the region, with a strong potential growth in that regard considering that Ketterer – the Kids Ranch executive director – is an advocate for such techniques.

Ketterer, a long-time literacy advocate and former director of the Children’s Dyslexia Center in Milwaukee, hopes also to increase Kids’ Ranch’s efforts in that regard, utilizing a “multi-sensory” approach known as the Orton-Gillingham technique.

Ketterer already has trained a couple of Wisconsin Dells School District teachers in the method, she is set to train a few more this school year, and she is working with Reedsburg School District to launch a pilot training program open to all teachers across the region. (For more information, contact her at Kids’ Ranch,, 608-393-1037.)

“Parents think the schools are going to do it all, and that’s why we want the community to know we’re another resource, and it’s got to start with the parents – there has to be community involvement in helping to raise these kids,” said DelaGardelle at Kilbourn Public Library.

At the end of the day, it isn’t a “literacy” thing – it is a life thing,” Fedderly of CESA 5 said. “Exercise, diet, exposure to learning opportunities and patient people that care about them, are all part of the picture.”