In the words of Dr. Seuss, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go.”

A word from Phyllis Nichols, Knoxville Area Urban League President and CEO

Growing up, my favorite thing to do was read. In fact, when I hadn’t cleaned my room or done other chores around the house, my mother would spur me into action by saying, “You can’t read until you’ve…” You can fill in the blank. I was more than willing to do whatever needed to be done so that I could pick up a book and explore new people, places and things.

On Tuesday morning, I had the pleasure of reading to about 200 preschoolers at Sam E. Hill Preschool as part of the Urban League’s “Read and Rise” early literacy initiative. It was such a treat to share my love of reading with these enthusiastic 3 and 4-year-olds and to watch their faces as they immersed themselves in the story before them.

As a former educator I felt comfortable being “back in school,” and it was a pleasure to visit Sam E. Hill – a vibrant, engaging learning facility that makes you feel good as soon as you enter the doors. The day I was there they were holding graduation ceremonies, and the building was full of proud parents and grandparents.

While reading to the children at the preschool, I couldn’t help but think of my granddaughter, Bella, a 14-month-old with a voracious appetite for learning and a remarkable vocabulary. Bella loves nothing more than being read to. She has a basketful of books and already makes the connection that a thicker book means extra time for reading and staying engaged. I always love it when she comes to me with a thick book.

I have no doubt that Bella will enter kindergarten at or above reading level, but far too many children don’t. In fact, national research indicates that 40 percent of 5-year-olds begin kindergarten unprepared to learn to read. Of those, 74 percent never catch up. The same holds true in Knox County. Why is that?

Pointing fingers and placing blame won’t solve the problem. Instead, we must work together as a community to engage parents in teaching their kids to value reading and to get parents reading to their children at an early age.

Early reading experiences are now recognized as being of such importance that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that pediatricians prescribe reading activities along with other instructions given to parents at the time of well-child visits.

So, as I stand on my soapbox I’ll close with these words:

Parents, put down your cell phones and iPods. Turn off your TVs. Schedule a few less activities. Spend time reading to your kids. It’s an investment with lasting returns that you’ll never regret.