The holiday season is here, and many families and caregivers across North Carolina are planning festive activities to engage kids while they are home from school this month. Reading is a great way to spend quality time together, making memories and building holiday traditions while also improving children’s literacy skills.

One of the main indicators of children developing strong reading skills is at-home literacy. The holiday break offers an opportunity for parents and caregivers to encourage continued reading at home — strengthening and developing literacy skills in a fun way that creates connection.

Developing strong readers involves the participation of everyone in a child’s life and requires practice both inside and outside of the classroom. At a time when our children are reading for fun less, and literacy proficiency levels are concerningly low, the holidays offer fun and festive ways to inspire a love for reading.

In North Carolina, fourth graders’ 2022 NAEP scores dropped five points in reading, the average consistent with the rest of the country at 216 points. Testing also indicated that 39% of North Carolina fourth graders scored “below basic” achievement levels in reading, a 15-year high for the state. This continual decline in student literacy is concerning, especially at the threshold of fourth grade, where it is critical that students are reading at grade level.

Long-term studies show that if a student is not reading at grade level by the end of third grade, they may never read at the appropriate grade level. After third grade, literacy instruction shifts from learning to read, to reading to learn. We know that learning to read by grade three is essential; however, the current approach towards teaching student literacy proficiency has allowed many to fall behind or slip through the cracks.

As schools across the country are now re-evaluating their literacy programs, North Carolina is ahead of the game and already implementing changes to improve its students’ literacy proficiency. In the 2021-2022 school year, as part of the Excellent Public Schools Act of 2021, North Carolina teachers were trained in instruction that focuses on the basic building blocks of literacy and comprehension, taking a phonics-based approach to teaching reading.

The act also modified North Carolina’s Read to Achieve programs, aimed at ensuring all third grade students are proficient in reading before moving on to fourth grade, with changes that included a focus on phonetic instruction, reading camps, data collection, individualized reading plans and other student interventions — most notably the establishment of an Early Literacy Program.

These changes are an important step towards improving literacy proficiency for students, but we cannot rely on teachers alone to develop strong readers. Research shows that the earlier children are introduced to reading and the basics of comprehension and phonetics, the better. As we emphasize early literacy in our classrooms, it is also critical to bring books into the home and encourage continued practice and skill-building outside of school.

Over the holiday break, while students are away from the classroom for extended periods of time, it is essential to keep them engaged with reading and encourage them to practice and strengthen their literacy skills. The holidays are also a great time to foster a love for reading. Introducing holiday books and making reading a part of the festivities can make it a fun activity for kids, increasing the potential to instill a life-long love of recreational reading in the future. Spending time with a favorite holiday classic book can be a wonderful way to develop young learners’ interest in reading while forging new family traditions.

If a child never learns to love reading, they will likely have little desire to strengthen the skills they need by the time they reach third grade. No matter the medium or topic, what matters the most is helping young learners find a love of reading. This holiday season, consider picking up a book and spending time with the child in your life as you make memories together, enriching one of the most important skills a child will develop — a love and ability to read.

BeBethlam Forsa is the Chief Executive Officer of Savvas Learning Company, a global next-generation learning solutions provider for K-12 education.