Improving Family Literacy with Robert Munsch

In honour of Family Literacy Day on January 27, who better to talk about kids and books than beloved children's-lit author, Robert Munsch

Improving Family Literacy with Robert MunschImagine growing up in world without books, or not even understanding what a book is. You might be thinking this only takes place in some developing countries, but according to best-selling children’s author Robert Munsch there are too many kids in our own nation for whom reading is a serious struggle.

“I’ve worked with kids who have no idea what a book is,” says Munsch. “Most kids at least know that a book is a story that can be decoded in some way. But that’s not necessarily there.”

Munsch is the author of best-selling books for children, such as Love You Forever, The Paper Bag Princess, and Thomas’ Snowsuit. In his line of work, early literacy is the name of the game. That’s why, for the past four years, he has served as Honorary Chair of Family Literacy Day, an initiative of the ABC CANADA Literacy Foundation aimed at promoting family reading and literacy in the home.

Illiteracy: Canada’s silent problem

It seems unthinkable that a country with a free education system could struggle with illiteracy. But according to ABC CANADA, the statistics are sobering. Four out of 10 adult Canadians — nine million people — have low literacy. Anywhere from 18 to 38 percent of youth between the ages of 16 and 25 do not attain a minimal proficiency in reading. More striking is the correlation between wage levels and literacy — each additional year of education a person receives adds over $2,000 to his or her annual pay. And, having low literacy means one is twice as likely to be unemployed.

It’s never too early

If there’s one thing Munsch knows, it’s how to tell a story. But you don’t need to be the author of over 50 children’s books to light up the hour or so before your child falls asleep. All you need to get your child hooked on reading is a selection of library books and some quiet time before bed. “It’s sort of one of the nicest parts of having kids, you know that nice reading time going to bed,” he says.

But how important is it to read to a child from a very young age? Very, says Munsch. One of the keys to fostering a life-long love of reading is the fun factor. “Some kids only read what they have to in school and, well, that’s kind of limiting,” says Munsch. While many kids find that playing video games and watching TV are more fun than reading, a strong reading culture at home can do a lot to reverse that perception. This means parents should be providing a good example for their kids. “If parents never read, it’s going to be hard for their kids to think it’s a neat idea.”

When reading is a problem

For some of us, we can remember picking up a dog-eared copy of Dr. Seuss and — suddenly — the words made sense. But learning to read doesn’t always happen magically. Some children have difficulty reading, even with diligent parents doing all the right things. This was the case for Munsch’s son, Andrew. Despite being bright, Andrew inexplicably failed the first grade two times. Doctors began to run tests on Andrew, which lead to a startling discovery — he suffered from Central Auditory Processing Deficit, a condition making him deaf in any background noise. Doctors warned that because of the problem, Munsch’s son would never become a fluent reader.

What happened to the son of a children’s author who struggled with reading? “Andrew’s 25 now,” Munsch explains. “And he has a degree in engineering.” Despite the bleak prognosis of the doctors, Andrew is doing just fine. “If we’d tried to make him be a fast reader, we would have totally alienated him…But he’s grown up, and he reads well enough that nobody knows the difference. He can do all the stuff he has to do for work, but he’s never going to read a lot of books. And that’s okay.”

Literacy is a family affair

In 1999, the ABC CANADA Literacy Foundation co-produced a made-for-TV drama entitled Penny’s Odyssey. The movie told the story of a teenage girl from a middle-class family who hides her reading difficulties from her family and friends. The reaction to the broadcast was so powerful, that ABC CANADA, along with its founding sponser, Honda Canada, worked to turn Family Literacy Day into an annual event held on January 27.

Family Literacy Day is dedicated to helping increase awareness of the importance of developing literacy skills. Events are held throughout Canada to encourage families to read, write and sing together throughout the year. Munsch describes Family Literacy Day as an opportunity to “celebrate what families do for literacy. There’s nobody [else] doing that.”

For more information about how your family can get involved with Family Literacy Day activities in your area, or to find tips to help improve literacy skills, visit www.abc-canada.org/fld.

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