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United Way of Utah County: Supporting early literacy is simpler than we realize

By Bill Hulterstrom - Special to the Daily Herald | Feb 17, 2024

Courtesy photo

Reading to young children helps lay a strong foundation for future literacy.

There’s nothing more inspiring to me than seeing how our community members come together to meet urgent needs. There’s really nothing else like the compassion and camaraderie that comes from working together for the good of others.

Here at United Way of Utah County, I’ve seen countless examples of such camaraderie and the impact it has on our community. Over the last few months, as we’ve celebrated our 60th anniversary and everything that has been accomplished during those six decades, I’ve been thinking a lot about one particular example of such impact: the development of the EveryDay Learners initiative and how it has affected so many people for good.

The EveryDay Learners initiative, which United Way started more than 10 years ago, was developed in response to a clear need in our community. The research was showing an obvious gap in our children’s literacy skills during their early elementary school years. Third grade reading scores were not where they needed to be, which was very troublesome. Learning to read in those early years is crucial; after the third grade, children are expected to read to learn rather than learn to read.

Children who are struggling to meet reading standards by the end of third grade risk falling behind as they progress through the next grades. National researchers, such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation, have found that children who can’t read proficiently by the end of third grade are at increased risk of dropping out of high school. The implications of early literacy are vast, and United Way was extremely concerned that our kids were not getting enough support as they learned to read.

In order to address this issue, United Way worked with several amazing partners to develop an initiative that focused on supporting literacy efforts for all our kids. These partners, which included schools, churches, universities and parents, were incredibly dedicated. They saw a need and took action, realizing that all parts of the community needed to get involved in order to make a difference.

Courtesy United Way of Utah County

Bill Hulterstrom, president and CEO of United Way of Utah County.

At first, EveryDay Learners focused on recruiting 10,000 people to join the initiative by promoting literacy in small ways every day. That initial push to recruit 10,000 people to make literacy a more significant part of their lives yielded great results. We saw significant increases in the third-grade reading scores in our community. Thanks to such passionate, dedicated participants, we saw how children who were at risk for low reading scores started to thrive.

Since those early days of EveryDay Learners, we’ve learned even more about how early literacy impacts child development. We’ve learned we need to start supporting literacy earlier and earlier in our children’s lives.

Research has shown that literacy development begins even before children start school. From their earliest days, children can recognize sounds. Toddlers can learn words and mimic the sound of their parents’ voices as they read. Playgroups and other social activities can help young children start expressing themselves verbally. All of these experiences help lay a strong foundation for future literacy.

Over the past few years, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve started to see some more troubling trends in education. More of our kids are struggling to keep up with schoolwork, including reading and literacy development. Our teachers are working incredibly hard to help our kids succeed, but this is a challenge that requires all of us to help. We all need to be promoting literacy more.

When we think about literacy, we often think about things like reading tutoring, phonics lessons and perhaps even grammar. But supporting literacy and reading development is so much simpler than we realize. Things like reading a picture book aloud to your grandchild, helping a young neighbor learn how to read a recipe, and pointing out interesting road signs while driving in the car with your children all help promote literacy. Even letting your children see you read can help inspire their own interest in reading.

We know that through coming together, we can make a difference. We can help our kids learn to read and learn to love reading. We can help prepare them for future success. We know we can do it because we’ve done it before.

Today, I invite each of us — parents, siblings, neighbors, leaders and friends — to find ways to promote literacy in our daily lives. I invite all caring adults, especially grandparents, to make sure that all the children in your circle of influence have lots of chances to read. Start early and read often! Now is the time to come together from all parts of the community and refocus on early literacy. You can make a difference in the lives of the children you love.

For more information about EveryDay Learners, visit unitedwayuc.org/our-work/everyday-learners/.


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