Young Iowans discover joy of reading while learning about food, agriculture

Sara Nelson, 4-H STEM specialist and director of the NASA Iowa Space Grant Consortium and NASA Iowa EPSCoR (left,) and Constance Beecher read children's books included in the Read Across America kits for 2022. Photo by Ryan Riley/Iowa State University.

Sara Nelson, 4-H STEM specialist and director of the NASA Iowa Space Grant Consortium and NASA Iowa EPSCoR (left,) and Constance Beecher read children's books included in the Read Across Iowa kits for 2022. Larger image. Photo by Ryan Riley/Iowa State University.

AMES, IA — Since its launch in 2019, Read Across Iowa has helped kids discover the joy of books while learning about food and agriculture. The program offers educators free kits with four to five books, one of which is available in Spanish, and complimentary lesson plans and activities throughout March.

In the coming weeks, volunteers will assemble 1,000 kits for elementary classroom teachers, librarians and educators with Iowa State Extension and Outreach, after-school programs and homeschool associations. All kits for March 2024 have been claimed since the request link went live mid-January. But the supplemental materials online are publicly available.

Fitting with this year’s food science theme, several of the books focus on bread baking, making ice cream and turning grapes into jelly. They’re accompanied by links to simple recipes and video recordings with the authors. Multiple virtual events, including tours of an Iowa dairy farm with Extension specialists and the Bread Lab at Washington State University, will be available, as well.

Program organizer Constance Beecher and her colleagues Sara Nelson and Cathryn Carney estimate Read Across Iowa last year impacted more than 72,000 young Iowans from 99 counties.

An Iowa Farm Bureau volunteer packs Read Across Iowa kits in February, 2023. Photo by Cathryn Carney/Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation.

Melissa Anderson with Iowa Ag Literacy Foundation packs Read Across Iowa kits in February, 2023. Larger image. Photo by Cathryn Carney/Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation.

Beecher has a dual appointment at Iowa State as an associate professor in the School of Education and the family literacy state specialist through Human Sciences Extension and Outreach. She spearheaded Read Across Iowa and continues to organize the annual, month-long event with the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation and Iowa 4-H Youth Development.

“The feedback we’ve received from the last three years shows that this program really resonates with people,” says Beecher. “Teachers say they like having a package of materials ready to use; the kids are interested in food and agriculture, enjoy the books and want to learn more.”

It takes a village

Beecher emphasizes that fostering literacy skills and a love of reading early in life should not fall to parents and teachers, alone.

“The whole community can come together to support this,” says Beecher. “We encourage educators to bring in guest readers, like a local dairy farmer for one of the books, ‘My Family’s Dairy Farm,’ and we have plans with Iowa State’s Science Bound program to have high schoolers read the books to elementary students.”

In the kits and online, Read Across Iowa offers bookmarks in English and Spanish with recommendations for reading aloud to young children. These include:

  • Previewing the book on your own before reading.
  • Pausing and asking children if they know the meaning of words that may be unfamiliar.
  • Emphasizing words and being dramatic.
  • Asking what they learned from the book and how it relates to their lives.

Engaging with the material and drawing connections helps kids understand and remember what they’ve read — and inspire them to learn more.  

Building “super highways”

Read Across Iowa focuses on early elementary students, but Beecher says preparing kids to read starts much earlier. Her research in the School of Education focuses on early childhood language and literacy development, from newborns to 8-year-olds.

“People often have the impression that they don’t need to read to children until they are old enough to sit in their lap when, actually, they should start at birth,” says Beecher.

Reading aloud exposes infants to a wide variety of words, which has a direct impact on a child’s language development, the foundation for reading later in life. The key here is that it happens face-to-face. Beecher explains the brains of children under the age of 3 are wired to learn through interactions with other people. Only when they're older can they make sense of TV shows, audio books and podcasts.

She emphasizes that language has a sensitive window of development that is unique to other types of cognitive developments. The neuro-connections laid down in early childhood start to slow around age 6.

“We have this opportunity in early childhood to create this superhighway with lots of connections that will later make it a lot easier to get to reading. If children missed out on that, we can still build on-ramps and supports, but reading will be more effortful and require more repetition,” says Beecher.

Recognizing that parents often have limited time, Beecher says talking and reading to infants and young children doesn’t require lengthy sessions. Rather, they can be broken up over the day. Similar to walking, small steps add up to provide long-term benefits.