It's no secret that parents who read with their kids can improve children's attitude toward reading, which can translate to larger vocabularies, better grades, higher reading scores and a more promising future.
But there's someone else who can affect how well youngsters read: older siblings.
"You guys have a tremendous amount of power and influence over your little brothers and sisters," principal Joel Hudson told a room full of West High School students recently.
"They watch you all the time. . . . They look at you and look up to you and love you, and they're looking for what you're doing. And they're like sponges; they're learning all the time."
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Jim Granada, director of the College Readiness Partnership Initiative at Wichita State University, figured one way to improve literacy among elementary school students would be to reach out to older brothers, sisters and cousins — the cool high-schoolers young children admire even as they fight over who ate the last Oreo. Teach older siblings some basic read-aloud strategies, Granada's theory goes, and you'll see little siblings become better readers.
About two dozen West High students will put that to the test after spending time learning about fluency, storytelling and how to read books to younger children. Three members of WSU's Department of Curriculum and Instruction offered literacy instruction during a class fueled by free pizza and open to any West High student with an elementary-age sibling.
"We know that family structures are changing, and older siblings often are co-parenting, helping with child care duties after school or on weekends while parents work," Granada said. "It makes sense to talk to high-school students about the importance of reading to younger children."
Seventeen-year-old Jose Sixtos said he planned to use the strategies with his younger sister and brother, who are in first and third grades at Gardiner Elementary.
"They're still learning English, and I think this will help them," Jose said as he crafted a stack of storytelling prompts with labels and index cards. He said he doesn't read with them much at home, but hopes to do so more often.
"I want to read more with them and make more stories with them, and just spend time with them, too."
Gayla Lohfink, an assistant professor at WSU's College of Education, read a picture book aloud to the high-schoolers, demonstrating how she changes her voice for different characters and pauses during the story to ask questions. The book — "Flight School" by Lita Judge — tells the story of a tenacious penguin with "the soul of an eagle," who learns to fly, if only briefly, with the help of his friends.
"That's kind of a nice lesson for all of us, isn't it?" Lohfink said.
The high-schoolers smiled and nodded.
"These are not hard things to do," Lohfink said. "One of the students told me her younger nieces and nephews really look up to her. 'They want to be like me,' she said. So if they want to be like you, then this is a great way to be. To be a reader is a good thing."
Cassius Williams, a freshman and one of eight children in his family, said he hadn't thought before about encouraging his younger siblings to read. Then he learned that reading just 20 minutes a night from kindergarten through sixth grade translates to about 1.8 million words and increases the likelihood that a child will score in the 90th percentile on reading assessments.
"It helps them gain knowledge and . . . it helps their brain develop," he said.
Danajia Williams, a freshman, said her 13-year-old sister still asks her to read her bedtime stories. Now she's going to do it more often, she said.
The high-school students chatted about books they loved as children, including "Pete the Cat" and "Junie B. Jones." They also got to select four books to take home and read with their younger siblings.
Granada and Hudson, the West High principal, said they plan to continue the project next year.
"Whatever we can do to help kids be more successful, we want to do it," Hudson said.
This content was created with support from Impact Literacy, a strategic initiative of the Wichita Community Foundation.