Any one who has spent time with babies, toddlers and preschoolers knows that imitation is an important aspect of how small children learn. When a child sees a significant adult in her life engage in an activity, she often follows suit, and, if encouraged, soon comes to love that activity herself.

Imitation and modeling often plays a large role a child’s love of, or disinterest in, books. Children who live in homes with books, who regularly see parents, grandparents and other caretakers engaged in reading books, magazines and newspapers are more likely to pick up books, pretend to read, or ask for a story to be read to them than other children. Yet still, the National Institute for Literacy (NIL) estimates that only 46 percent of parents read to their kindergarten age children everyday.

When parents don’t read or don’t read well, their children can be at a disadvantage, primarily failing to do as well in school as children who come from reading families. This however does not mean that parents who either can’t, don’t or don’t like to read don’t care about their children’s literacy. There can be a variety of reasons parents avoid helping their children to read.

First, a parent who does not read to their children may not feel “qualified” to help them learn. In fact, according to NIL, the percentage of parents who read to their children regularly and engage in literacy building activities with their children seems to increase with the parents’ level of education. Only 61 percent of parents of 3-5 year olds not yet in kindergarten, with less than a high school diploma, read to their children at least three times a week. Yet 91 percent of mothers with a college degree read to their children at least that much.

Second, parents who do not feel comfortable with language themselves will often avoid literacy related activities and reading. This is particularly prevalent in families where English is the parents’ second language. A NIL study of public elementary schools found language is a barrier to involvement in their children’s education for 12 percent of parents.

Third, many American adults simply can’t read. A recent article in Parade Magazine stated that about 13 percent of American adults (about 30 million) have literacy skills below the basic level. Additionally, millions of Americans suffering from dyslexia have trouble processing word sounds.

For adults, there are many complications to admitting they cannot read. Some fear losing employment, others fear the strain the revelation could place on current relationships. Non-reading adults with young children need encouragement from other adults to get involved with their children’s reading, and find solutions to their own literacy problems.

In the meantime, parents experiencing their own barriers to reading can still take an active role in their child’s development. Other family members or friends with stronger reading skills can be employed to read to a child. Most public libraries have story hours or reading activities for young children. Many communities offer programs that give books to children for their own libraries, and also have family programs related to storytelling and reading. Parents can also become involved by telling stories orally and asking their children to help craft the story.

By developing literacy skills at a young age, children often achieve early success in school. However, many children are at a disadvantage. Encouraging parents to overcome their own literacy-related issues and fears gives them the confidence to get involved in their children’s educations, while offering the children a lifelong advantage. In turn, helping adults deal with their own literacy problems builds stronger schools and a more educated population.