"In the end, there is no program or policy that can substitute for a mother or father who will attend those parent/teacher conferences, or help with homework after dinner, or turn off the TV, put away the video games, and read to their child."

- President Barack Obama, Address to Joint Session of Congress, Feb. 24, 2009

This week’s Snowmageddon has reminded me how truly awful “screen time” can be in our house. In fact, as I write this, I have a 5-year-old on the computer and a 2-year-old in front of the TV, and now they’re fighting over playing a game on the phone.

At this moment, we’re the perfect picture of what not to do with your children. But, I promise, it’s not always like that. We read and play board games as much as possible, but it’s not always easy. Turning on the TV and popping in a Disney movie is much easier, especially when there is laundry to do, clients to be called, and blog posts to be written. But when we take the time to turn off the TV, open a book and read, I can see an immediate difference in my kids. Not only do they love to hear the story, they love curling up beside us, getting much needed mommy or daddy time.

Even though snow days may be less-than-perfect parenting days around here, we make sure that reading is part of our daily routine. For us, that means bedtime reading each night. We have done this since both children were infants, and it’s truly a special time. On the rare nights that we go straight to bed with no book, everyone notices. There’s something missing from the day!

I’m guessing that this scenario is pretty typical for most everyone reading this blog. You, like us, probably have shelves filled with all kinds of interesting books and favorite bedtime stories. But did you know that less than half (44 percent) of Arkansas children are read to every day? In fact, the daily reading rates for non-white children in Arkansas is the lowest in the nation.

Nationally, more than 13 million children under age 5 go to bed every night without a bedtime story. The percentage of children read to daily drops even lower (to 36 percen) among low-income families, whose children face the highest risk of literacy problems. Even among high-income families, however, more than 2 out of every 5 children are not read to daily.

Parents aren’t reading aloud to their children because of several reasons -- mainly economic (families living in poverty lack the money to buy new books and don't have access to libraries) and a time reason (with so many demands on them, parents are often struggling to carve out the time to sit and read a favorite book with their child).

So why is reading aloud to young children so important? Many reasons! Here are just a few, according to more than 14 studies conducted by Reach Out and Read, a national organization that promotes literacy among children 6 months to 5 years old.

  • Children who live in print-rich environments and who are read to during the first years of life are much more likely to learn to read on schedule.
  • Reading aloud to young children is one of the best activities to stimulate language and cognitive skills. It also builds motivation, curiosity, and memory.
  • Early language skills, the foundation for reading ability and school readiness, are based primarily on language exposure resulting from parents and other adults talking to young children.
  • Research shows that the more words parents use when speaking to an 8-month-old infant, the greater the size of their child's vocabulary at age 3. The landmark Hart-Risley study on language development documented that children from low-income families hear as many as 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers before the age of 4.
  • Books contain many words that children are unlikely to encounter frequently in spoken language. Children's books contain 50 percent more rare words than prime time television or even college students’ conversations.
  • The nurturing and one-on-one attention from parents during reading aloud encourages children to form a positive association with books and reading later in life.
  • Reading aloud is a proven technique to help children cope during times of stress or tragedy.
  • Reading difficulty contributes to school failure, which increases the risk of absenteeism, leaving school, juvenile delinquency, substance abuse, and teenage pregnancy -- all of which perpetuate the cycles of poverty and dependency.
  • 20 percent of U.S. workers are functionally illiterate.

OK, so after reading over that list, I’m going to quickly wrap this up so I can turn the screens off in this house and sit down and read something. Anything!

But before I do, here’s a plug to support our local chapter of Reach Out and Read Arkansas. On Feb. 12, any purchase you make at the Barnes & Noble in Little Rock will support RORA. You must mention RORA at checkout for part of your purchase to benefit the nonprofit.

Clifford the Big Red Dog will be at the event, posing for pictures and signing autographs, and you can enter to win a Nook. If you miss getting to Barnes & Noble tomorrow, make your purchases online any time between Feb. 12-17 and use this code to benefit Reach Out and Read: 10414530.

For more information about the event and how you can support Reach Out and Read visit www. reachoutandreadarkansas.org.