How My 5 Year-Old Learned to Read in Two Weeks!

I owe it all to the Wilton Education Foundation, which also raised more than $40,000 for the town’s schools at the same time.


Good thing you too know how to read—I counted on that so you’d click on my story to learn my magical technique to get my daughter reading so fast. Okay, it’s a slight exaggeration. But I will say that the Wilton Education Foundation’s (WEF) recent “Reading Rocks” program definitely had a lot to do with her recent improvement in reading ability and skill.

Right off the bat, I need to let you know that I am a board member of WEF, so I am admittedly proud of the work this organization does to support the schools with fundraising and educational programming. But since I wasn’t a direct part of planning this year’s inaugural effort of “Reading Rocks” (a team of other amazing people did put in great effort into making it a success), in a way I was a regular bystander just like you, able to marvel at it in a (mostly) impartial way.

What’s to marvel at? Not only did the program—in its first year—raise more than $40,000 for the schools, it created an outpouring of interest amongst the town’s students and their families in literacy. Overall, between and schools, there were more than 1,200 K-5 students who participated in Reading Rocks.

The Read-a-Thon program was designed to get kids to commit to increase their reading for a 12-day period, by setting their own goals for how much and what kind of reading (outside of homework) they wanted to do—reading by themselves, reading to someone else, or having someone read to them. Before the reading period started, they could get pledges from family and family friends to support their efforts.

“The impetus was to find a program that not only raised much needed funds for the school but also provided something that fits within WEF’s mission statement, in providing out-of-classroom experiences for our students,” said Julie Steckel, who is in charge of major gifts and grants for the foundation.

"We asked ourselves, ‘What does WEF do that’s embraced by the community?’ One of those things is ‘Read Aloud Day,’ so the initial idea was to take something we do and really believe in and build on it—and that’s literacy.”

Something important to both the schools and the foundation was making sure that the kids didn’t get the impression they were being paid to read.

“The fundraising was in support of a child’s desire to do more reading, there was no direct tie between how many books were read and money—there was no per book, per page, per minute designation. In fact, the dollars had to be raised before the child did any reading,” Steckel explained. “We wanted them to read because they wanted to read. If they happened to get some donation support ahead of that, that was okay.”

And boy, did the kids get excited. My children immediately started talking about how reading rocks! In fact, I don’t think they ever talked about the money component. They were just eager to get started on the reading. My kindergarten-aged daughter, who up to this point in life would easily tire after attempting just the first or second page of a book with a sigh, saying, “Mom, you read it now,” suddenly was pulling the book out of my hands—“Mom, let me. It will be one of my Reading Rocks books!” she’d say.

Of course, the more she tried, the faster the reading fluency happened.

I was surprised and impressed with how much of a hit it was with the kids—especially since this was the first year of WEF’s program. I heard ‘Reading Rocks!’ so much from my kids and their friends, and I distinctly saw improvement in my daughter’s reading. She stuck with the commitment to read, and each night as her reading got stronger, so did her desire to keep reading to me.

Steckel reported that there were many stories similar to mine. “I can’t tell you how many times I heard from parents saying, ‘My daughter doesn’t like to read, but I’d come home from work and I’d find her reading at the kitchen island. I would say to her, “you don’t have to be reading yet, the reading period hasn’t started,”’ and the daughter responding, ‘“Mom, I’m just practicing for it.”’”

One of the other great things about the program was that it wasn’t competitive—there was no award for the child who read the most books, for example. It was strictly about each child setting his own goals and reading the way he wanted to read.

“As a parent of a child who has some special needs, it was important to me that every child walked away from this program feeling really proud of themselves, and hopefully reading more and participating too,” said Steckel. “But most importantly I wanted each child to feel good. I didn’t want anyone walking away saying, ‘I can’t do this, it’s too hard, I’m embarrassed. Johnny’s reading more than me, why can’t I read as well as him?’

For the skeptics out there, we’ll admit that, yes, there were incentives to motivate the kids—every participating student got a bookmark, and there were challenges between the Cider Mill houses and the Miller Driscoll grades awarding homework-free days or extra recess for the groups with the highest participation.

Best of all, one student participant from each school was randomly selected to win a Kindle Fire.

“It was definitely a big incentive for kids. We chose it because, again, it ties into reading and literacy, and to be able to download books encourages a different way of going about reading. One boy come up to me and said, ‘This is really cool and I want to try and win that Kindle Fire.’ If that’s the motivation for even one student to do more reading than they typically would have, then it’s all good.”

Oh, yes, there was one more, ahem, fun element to Reading Rocks:  Dress Like a Rock Star Day! That’s right, both schools encouraged every student (even those not participating in the Read-a-Thon) to dress up like rock stars. Everywhere you looked you saw spray-painted mohawks, sequins, temporary tattoos and rock star duds.

“I was at both schools that morning and I saw kids just pouring off the school buses screaming, ‘Reading Rocks!’ and very proud of themselves that they were doing something to help their school,” recalled Steckel. “Just that message being put into their heads, that reading rocks, it was very moving. That, and that my team had created it, that the parents and the schools supported it.”

This was a program that worked at every level—for the students, their families, the teachers and the administration, which Superintendent Gary Richards emphasized. “As a lifelong teacher I always try to encourage kids to read so we’re very pleased that students participated in such great numbers. I hope such an enjoyable experience will lead to more reading outside of any school program and that it becomes a pleasurable experience for them.”

That the students walked away from “Reading Rocks” having had fun, reading more, and empowered to actively help their schools—what more could you ask for. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that this WEF program rocked as well.

Amo Probus May 08, 2012 at 01:23 PM
Compare and contrast the successful contribution of WEF/Reading Rocks to the Miller -Driscoll PTA debacle. Reading Rocks was implemented at low cost and produced superior, memorable results.
Brian Kesselman May 08, 2012 at 02:11 PM
Kudos and Thankyous to WEF, and to Julie Steckel in particular for giving us this "brain-child", and working so that it could grow and benefit the "child-brains" in our community. $40K is a fantasic infusion to the outside fundraising that supports our schools. Programs like this one and the others that WEF spearheads benefit our kids and our community. When families go house-hunting in the area, I hope the local real estate brokers are talking up these programs. A discussion about $40K in donations and happy students becomes an increased desire to join the community, pushing up values and supporting our tax base. It's a pebble in the pond with ripples going out in all directions. And the water that brings to our shores replenishes us in many ways, all good. Thanks again to WEF, to the students who participated, to their parents who helped and to the people who pledged support.
Deb May 08, 2012 at 03:34 PM
Reading Rocks, timed nicely with the library book sale I must add, was a wonderful opportunity to get the kids excited about reading. Great work, WEF!
Eustace Tilley May 23, 2012 at 03:31 AM
Somehow I missed this article during my travels. Reading Rocks is an innovative approach to encouraging children to read and have fun doing so. Julie and friends deserve enormous credit for introducing the program to Wilton. It is tangible evidence of the superior volunteers we have and value in this town. I am hoping the program will continue and wonder if there is something in the works for math?! I also agree with Amo's comments. But more importantly thank Julie for doing so much for Wilton in the relatively short time she has been here.


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