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Helping South Dakota Kids Become Proficient Readers
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Brianna Venkamp
Brianna Venekamp, program coordinator at REACH Literacy. 

Sixty-four percent of South Dakota fourth graders are not proficient in reading. That’s according to the latest national KIDs Count. It ranks states on how well children are doing on a number of important metrics.   

The number of kids who cannot read at grade level is dropping. Xanna Burg is the KIDSs Count coordinator for South Dakota. 

“So, they're at 64% now, a decade ago was at 67. So that's trending in the right direction. And South Dakota does do better than the national average. So, you know, 64 in South Dakota versus 66 nationally.”

But - that’s still about two-thirds of kids who can’t read proficiently. The data comes from a national study published every year by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. This year’s data is from 20-19 so it does not include any impacts the pandemic may have had on reading levels. 

Fourth-grade reading proficiency data comes from standardized tests.  Burg says it’s not a perfect measure since some kids don’t test well. But the data does show demographic information that explains who’s being left behind. 

“We could be doing better as a state to support educational opportunities for all children, but also specifically for lower-income families and children of color.”

The data shows that 79 percent of African American fourth-graders are not proficient in reading. For Latinos, the number is 80 percent and 86 percent for American Indian students.  

One program focused on improving reading skills is the Black Hills Reads campaign. It’s part of the United Way. 

Kayla Klein directs it and says they partner with other groups to provide access to books and reading materials. They work with the Dolly Parton Imagination Library and the One Book program. One Book gives a book to second graders across the state and then brings the author or illustrator into the classroom.

Klein says because of the pandemic they are using more web-based options to connect with more teachers and parents. They now have a weekly email newsletter that provides resources for early learning education. 

Klein says their main goal is to help children reach reading proficiency by third grade. 

“From birth to grade three, children are learning to read. And from third grade on their reading to learn.

Klein says it’s important to start building basic reading skills at an early age.  

“And if you can't create this strong foundation, there is struggle after struggle from that point on it is so, so difficult for children to catch back up if they have not made those important connections in those first few years of their lives from zero to age eight.”

Of all the programming Black Hills Reads provides, Klein says their most important work is advocating for early childhood education. 

“We understand that this is a state, that isn't all things being mandatory. So, but if a parent wants an early childhood ed early education for their child, they should be able to access it. And it should not cost them college tuition rates to get that education for their child.”

On the other side of the state, in Sioux Falls, REACH Literacy works to improve reading levels in kids and adults. The non-profit runs a used bookstore to provide better access. Each family gets five free children’s books per visit. 

A mother with three young boys and a baby comes into to the store. The boys are immediately drawn to the books and start taking them off the shelves to read. 

“I found ninja turtles”

“I found a snake book”

“You found a snake book. Oh, gross. Oh that’s cool.”

Brianna Venekamp is the program coordinator at REACH. She says this is just the reaction they want from young readers. Unfortunately, she says as kids get older, reading becomes more of a chore especially when they enter third grade.

“They’re becoming more self-aware. They're becoming more sensitive to the world around and people's expectations and pressures. And, um, and so then that motivation is so key. And I think there we need to understand that more and be conscious of it. 

REACH uses a summer reading challenge to encourage kids. They mark on a calendar how many days they will read each week. At the end of each month, they bring in their calendar to get a free book. 

This is the first year for their summer reading challenge. Venekamp says it’s been a big success. They’re seeing more kids in the bookstore as parents try to ween them from their electronic devices. 

Another REACH effort, called Bee a Reader, pairs reading mentors with second graders. Venekamp says the program provides books AND creates an experience around reading. She says it’s important to give young readers support when they need it.

“So, if you’re stuck, you need someone that helps you that doesn’t criticize for not being able to do it at a young age.” 

Venekamp says it really helps when children have a choice about what they read. She says adults often try to steer kids towards certain types of books.  But to foster a love of reading, kids need to find books they can connect with.

“If someone likes baseball and they only want to read baseball books, that’s ok, like they’re reading. Or you know if they like graphic novels – keep reading graphic novels.”

Venekamp says if kids enjoy reading, a book will compete more successfully against electronic devices. She says even when they read for fun, they are gaining skills that will help them for a lifetime.