ccpl storytime

Children enjoy a storytime at the newly opened Baxter-Patrick James Island Library. Provided/Charleston County Public Library System

South Carolina has struggled to improve dismal reading and writing scores for young children, with state spending failing to fix the problem. For many parents of reluctant readers who are unable to meet school standards, it's an issue of how to make reading fun.

Local libraries have taken up that charge, offering almost non-stop programming, coupled with electronic resources, in an effort to keep children coming back.

"In schools, they have to read certain books. Here, they can read what they want to read," said Sharon Fashion, children's coordinator and deputy director for the Berkeley County Public Library System. 

In her 37 years at the library system, Fashion hasn't noticed a drastic decline in children using the library's resources. Still, it can be hard to retain their interest as they grow older. Once children age into middle and high school, they become less "gung-ho" about reading, she said.

To counter this, children's and teen's sections shifted from only having books to offering crafts, games and electronic access, Fashion said. This appeals to parents, as well. "What they want is some type of entertainment for free," Fashion said.

The Berkeley County Library System offers frequent children's programming to that end: weekly story times for preschoolers, after-school games and crafts and summer reading challenges, among many others. 

In January, they plan to introduce a program for reading 1,000 books to a child before kindergarten, which many parents have asked for, Fashion said.

The library system also tries to assist schools in helping children read at the expected levels. Since the Berkeley County School District uses Lexile levels to measure children's reading abilities, Berkeley County librarians added Lexile labels to books in the children's section to help them and their parents match interest with ability.

As technology becomes more integrated into the educational system, libraries are also striving to increase their electronic offerings. The Berkeley County Library System has made Launchpad tablets available for check-out for three years, Fashion said. They also offer Vox books, which have a built-in print reader that allows a child to listen to the book.

The librarians have mostly kept technology out of the regular storytimes, however. "A lot of the parents don't want technology involved. They think children get enough of that," Fashion said.

The Charleston County Public Library system now works closely with the schools to combine resources. In 2018, they started a partnership with the Charleston County School District to merge their summer reading programs; now, every child in the district is pre-registered for the program.

It's been especially beneficial to reach middle and high school students who typically lose that interest in reading, said Devon Andrews, programming and outreach manager for the Charleston County Public Library.

Even during the school year, the library system can help cultivate a curiosity in reading. "We can match the book to the child. We tell parents, don't just focus on what reading level a child should be at. If a kid's excited about reading a book, let them read that book," Andrews said.

Librarians encourage parents to ask what interests their child, and not to limit them to the expectation of a chapter-book, said Jackie Peters, the system's children's coordinator. Parents can also teach by example. If a child sees their parents or other adults reading for pleasure, they'll associate it with a fun activity instead of a chore.

Noriko Ishibashi said she often takes her two children, a third-grader and a first-grader, to the James Island Baxter-Patrick branch of the Charleston County Public Library.

"We try to go there as often as possible to make it a part of our daily life," Ishibashi said. 

As a result, her daughter "couldn't live without the library," Ishibashi said. Her son, still in the process of learning to read, enjoys the audiobooks.

Ishibashi homeschools her children, and the library's programming attracts her because it allows her kids to socialize with others their ages, such as in a "Magic Treehouse" book club they've often attended.

Kim Bloomer, who has an 8-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son, said she's been taking her children to libraries across Charleston County since they were toddlers. She regularly checks the library's schedule to see what events they have planned.

Bloomer said she enjoys how much libraries have changed. "They made it fun," Bloomer said. "When I grew up, libraries were hush-hush, you had to whisper."

Now, it's aimed at the children, she said. "It's about picking whatever book you want," Bloomer said. 

And if her children see she went to the library without them, it's like she brought candy home instead of books. "They're immediately out there on the floor, looking through them," Bloomer said.

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Reach Fleming Smith at 843-937-5591. Follow her on Twitter at @MFlemingSmith.

Fleming Smith covers breaking news for the Charleston area. A native Georgian, she previously covered breaking news and features for The Wall Street Journal and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.