Dr. Sally Ann Zoll is CEO of United Through Reading, which has kept military families connected and reading through video-recorded storytime for 32 years, serving 2.5 million military family members. She is an Army spouse of more than 30 years.
That might be the most accurate word to describe this last year. And it’s a word that military families, and especially military children, know intimately, if subconsciously, with or without a global pandemic.
While all American students faced significant challenges, with their academic lives and norms upended overnight, military kids added the challenge of COVID-19 to the pile of everyday challenges they face simply by being part of a military family.
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April is the month designated to celebrate the sacrifices these kids have made, letting the U.S. military borrow their parents, as well as facing moves mandated by military service or long separations due to deployments, mobilizations and, now, quarantines.
Three decades of working with military children and their families at United Through Reading have illuminated the path toward resiliency in the face of such challenges. The answer is so simple it tends to be overlooked and undervalued: literacy.
From the piers of San Diego where, in the early days of our organization, our founder recorded sailors reading stories on VHS tapes as they boarded a ship for deployment, to our mobile reading app launched in 2019, we have seen firsthand the benefit of reading together, no matter the distance, to keep families connected.
Research shows that reading aloud together has enormous benefits not only for children, but for families and the military mission. Our participant surveys echo the data.
Through the read-aloud experience, we’ve learned to successfully foster resilience in military children and their families — resilience to meet whatever challenges they face, be it global pandemics or a parent’s deployment.
Storytime recordings made by parents have reduced stressors for their children and caregivers, helped service members feel connected to their families even when deployed to some of the most remote locales, and made reintegration after deployments easier for families. These recordings have also helped families develop crucial literacy skills, helping children stay on track for learning no matter what disruption military life throws their way.
Today, nearly all families face challenges to children’s educational development due to the impacts of COVID-19. Military families are not spared; in a recent survey, 57% of military parents said COVID-19 had already negatively impacted their children’s education. For the third year in a row, their children’s education is a Top 3 concern for active-duty families.
The challenges of military life on children, exacerbated by the pandemic, make the importance of literacy as a building block for educational development even more apparent. While we consider how our nation can work to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on learning environments, the military community should make family literacy a priority to strengthen these foundational skills in children and protect their future educational development.
In other words, when we focus on reading aloud with our children, we lay the foundation for academic achievement by focusing on the most crucial aspect of education, and we support military readiness by reducing stressors at home. We support the social and emotional well-being of military families by creating structure and routines in an otherwise oft-disrupted life, both for the children and caregivers.
A year into the pandemic, we have questions to ask ourselves: How will we honor the families of those who volunteer to serve our nation, those who did not have the option of remote work, and those who moved mid-pandemic and, consequently, still don’t know their neighbors? What will our legacy be to the military children who now carry the additional weight of online learning on top of multiple moves and deployed parents? And how, especially during times of global crisis and upheaval, do we give all children a chance at equal footing, opportunity and stability?
At United Through Reading, we know the answer: family literacy.
Resiliency through reading is attainable, accessible and adaptable for every child in our diverse military community. It’s our duty to protect the children of those who protect the nation. Through literacy, we can.