KNOX COUNTY, Tenn — Flipping through the pages of a book is like transporting to another world.
To help students experience those journies and develop love for reading, Knox County is aiming to improve literacy rates for students, and literacy leaders say reading starts in the home.
Staying on top of reading proficiency was especially emphasized during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Knox County mayor's Read City USA initiative, only 40% of Knox County third graders are considered proficient readers.
Mary Pom Claiborne, the Director of Marketing, Development and Communications for Knox County Public Library, has tips for what parents can do at home to keep their kids on track.
The standard thinking is that from kindergarten to third grade, kids are learning to read. In the third grade, students shift from learning how to read to reading to learn lessons.
"The schools do a great job of teaching reading, but it starts with the family at home early," Claiborne said. "So if we don't get reading right early, then the rest of education going down the line is just more of a struggle."
No concrete data is available yet on how the COVID-19 pandemic is really affecting literacy levels for kids in grades K-3, but there are things parents can do to encourage their kids to read at home.
"To encourage reading, most kids need to read high-interest books, or material that interests them," Claiborne said.
Scholastic describes books that are at a "third-grade reading level" fictional chapter books, like Captain Underpants, Charlotte's Web, James and the Giant Peach and Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
If you're having trouble figuring out what they would like best, the county offers a free resource to help parents encourage reading: the library.
"What the great thing is about the library, you can come in and check out anything you want and sample it," Claiborne said. "It doesn't cost you a dime."
The Knox County Library is offering curbside pickup and the option to choose what you want beforehand, so the staff can bundle it up and have it ready for you.
The library offers an online and virtual selection, in addition to the tangible books in the various branches.
It's recommended for students to get 20 minutes of reading per day. Reading aloud or listening to audiobooks while following along on a page can be an effective aid, officials said.
Claiborne encouraged parents to take the time to cuddle up with their children and read with them because it encourages healthy habits, emotional connection and is "precious time together."
Every child is different, and parents should "cut themselves some slack" during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Claiborne. She said it's helpful to view reading as a reward and as a way to de-stress from daily anxieties.
According to a 2020 state study, Knox County has 40.2 percent of students with at least a third-grade reading proficiency. That's higher than any other county in the Tennessee study, including Davidson, Rutherford and Shelby.