By Reginald Stuart

Thinking of getting a costly gift for the holidays may seem out of reach for many people, especially during the persistent health pandemic and normal scrambles to make household financial ends meet. 

There is a special gift to give, that will only take time, effort and determination, some say, adding it will last forever and can’t be taken away. 

Learning and boosting language skills pays countless earnings that help you and others, say reading advocates.

“Without reading or the inability to read, it is difficult to exist,” says LaMona Prince McCarter, language teacher and author of the children’s book ‘Tyler the Turtle.’

“If you can read, you can do anything you want,” adds Montaya Townsend, librarian at the Nashville Public Library Watkins Park Branch on 17th Avenue North, across from The Martin Luther King Jr. Magnet High School. 

Townsend, a librarian and reading advocate for more than 15 years, and McCarter say the public library system has many kinds of books on an endless number of topics for people of all ages. They say the city, known as the Athens of the South, has several groups organized to help beginning readers become great readers, speakers, understanders and articulators.  

Getting started in learning basic reading skills would be a holiday season winner, say reading advocates, suggesting getting in a reading program sponsored by the Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) programs or the Nashville Literacy Council’s adult reading program would become an unusually great gift for anyone.

“We are all individuals with unique strengths and needs,” said Mary Beth Harding, vice president for development at the Nashville Adult Literacy Council, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. “We are encouraged to ask for what we need so we can make progress,” she said.

One in five Nashvillians is at the lowest level of literacy,” said Ms. Harding, noting people need not fear being embarrassed if they have a reading challenge.

“Adult literacy rates impact every part of Nashville: employment and poverty levels, health care costs, K through 12 grade school performance, community and family relations and general dependence on systems for support.  Being a reader makes the difference for all, she said. 

The adult literacy council’s work aimed at adults, is a compliment to the long-established Reading Is Fundamental national program, known as RIF, whose Nashville chapter was one run by the Women’s Junior League of Nashville.

The RIF program’s Book‘em reading and books program was merged in 2006 to the Metro Schools System efforts and expanded.

“Book‘em is one of RIF national’s Books for Ownership grants,” said Melissa Spradlin, executive director of the MNPS Book‘em program for elementary school students.

At this time, 15 Title One elementary schools participate in the RIF program, said Ms. Spradlin. The school system now has close to 300 reading role model volunteers who visit their schools about five times a year for about 30 minutes per visit during which time volunteers red aloud to students and students are given a book to take home and keep, she said. 

Last school year, the Book‘em program provided more than 34,000 books to students through the system’s RIF program.

The adult reading program had more than 350 learners enrolled in its programs, including 201 of whom were ELL (English Language Learner) enrollees, said Ms. Harding, noting several students are learning their second, third, fourth and fifth languages. She said the world opens for many people who take the step toward learning and improving their ability to read.

Ticking off a list, echoing others, Harding offered several things learners can do after participating in the free adult reading programs: 

• Read books like The Polar Express or The Snowy Day to their children

• Completing health questionnaires at the doctor’s office

• Reading heirloom family recipes.

• Understand utility bills and rental contracts

• Understand notifications from their children’s schools.

• Speak with their children’s teachers in English at parent teacher conferences.

• One learner’s goal was to be able to write all her grandmother’s recipes out.

“We have students that complete higher education, receive higher paying and safer jobs and whose children do better in school once they improve their literacy,” said Ms. Harding. “We also have students who become sober, healthier and more confident,” she added. “When you can read you can learn anything.”