OCOP: Words on paper, relatively new thing

Elaine Yamamoto wants people to love to read

People take for granted plowing through a page-turner of a novel, or perusing the prose in your favourite local paper. But if you’ve missed out the critical learning-to-read years, a gap in literacy could last a lifetime.

It could be a troubled family life where quiet times were rare, maybe it was a learning disability such as dyslexia or simply not being able to get to school. The causes of literacy gaps are multiple and the proportion of people with a reading difficulty of some sort hovers in the 45 per cent range, according to the literacy support group Decoda.

Now, if only Elaine Yamamoto could get everyone who has such difficulties to drop into the Community Education on Environment and Development centre on 223rd Street in downtown Maple Ridge.

“There are so many reasons.”

Yamamoto offers a raft of reading programs to reach out to anyone struggling, at any level, with the skill.

But realizing you have a reading disability, then taking the step to overcome the stigma and get help for it are the biggest challenges.

“This is why we have a challenge with adults coming forward. It’s a big step.”

Yamamoto runs The Learning Room, a small space lined with books on shelves and books in boxes, with a comfortable chesterfield, and notes and pamphlets on a myriad of programs to help people figure out words on print.

Most of the focus, though, is on the practical, such as helping people with low literacy skills to apply for rental assistance or figure out their way through an online income tax return, as much as helping people enjoy Chaucer or Shakespeare.

A key part is the community literacy support program where volunteers work one-on-one with people to upgrade skills.

Yamamoto points out that over the entire course of human history, being able to read has been an essential skill for only a thin sliver of time. Before that, the most successful people were probably those who could figure out how things work, or how to make things, instead of trying to decipher two-dimensial images on paper.

She adds that dyslexia is the most common language learning disability, with about 10 per cent of the population struggling. “It is definitely not tied to intellect. Famous dyslexics include Pablo Picasso, Richard Branson, director Steven Spielberg, and actors Tom Cruise and Henry Winkler.

“Brains just work differently,” she adds.

In the online age, it’s even harder to teach literacy, even though reading is required for travelling through cyber space.

Yamamoto figures that kids are still learning to read, but the quality of reading may be slipping.

“Reading, it’s more of a challenge to get young people to pick a book up and read it because more information is online.”

The key is to get kids interested in books when they’re young. The way to do that is to make it an alternative to looking at a screen, because parents have put a limit on the latter. Reading a book is a different experience because it involves the imagination.

“For young people, I think the key is if they have limited screen time, they will find other ways to entertain themselves,” whether it’s playing outside or cracking a good book.

If parents aren’t sure how to start, The Learning Room offers a program for that as well, called Come Read With Me. The next session for that goes on Sept. 30. Parents at the course will get some tips on how they can get their kids reading well, and get a good-start in the education system.

There’s also the Raise a Reader program, and the Book Bin project where donated books are left around the community where people can borrow and leave books to share. Reading courses for English as a second language students are also given, but there’s less stigma to that because people can already read in another language.

Thanks to the program Read: First Book Canada, residents can tap into new books that are being discounted by publishers, provided they book ahead and accept they may not get what they wanted. This year, seven Maple Ridge organizations were given 7,728 free new children’s books by First Book Canada.

The Learning Room is operated by the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows Katzie Community Literacy Committee and is open Tuesday to Thursday mornings, except summer time.

While she’s an administrator and organizer, Yamamoto says the better part of her job is connecting directly with people and helping them.

“I find it’s a privilege to work in the community. I don’t go shopping without meeting someone I know.”

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