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T.J. Kirkpatrick, Deseret News
Jesse Barajas, a second-grade student, gets a helping hand from Alaina Wilcock, a reading specialist, during a reading exercise at Stansbury Elementary School in West Valley City, Utah, on , March 16, 2010.

Written words have magic, as anyone who has ever read a book that has transported them to a different time or place can testify.

Written words have power, as anyone who has been enlightened, encouraged or moved by a book or story can tell.

Written words spark the imagination, expand the mind, deliver knowledge and evoke feelings in ways that can last a lifetime.

They do all this and more — but only if you can read them.

Everything you always hear about books is true, says Mark Willes, president and CEO of Deseret Management Corp. "They open the world. They provide insight. Reading is essential."

Even more essential, he says, is that kids learn to read at a young age. "Research shows that if kids don't learn to read at grade level by the third grade, they will never catch up."

And that has tragic consequences not only for them, but for everyone. "Kids who can't read obviously can't study other subjects. But study after study show that those who grow up not being able to read are less likely to get a good job. They are more likely to go on drugs. They are more likely to go on welfare. They are more likely to go to prison. The imperative to help kids learn to read is real."

For that reason, the Deseret Management Corp.'s Deseret Media Companies — Deseret News, KSL Television and Radio, Deseret Book and Deseret Digital Media — are launching a literacy initiative called Read Today.

These companies are already doing a lot of work in this area, Willes says. "This initiative helps us to line up our resources, reinforce each other, leverage one set of actions against another so that combined results will be greater than the individual parts."

There is also a lot going on in schools and the community in this area that Read Today hopes to enhance, Willes says. "We are not going to reinvent the wheel. We are not looking to replace any of these programs. We hope to be able to connect the dots. With our media outlets, we are in a position to increase awareness."

The initiative has goals that are measurable, among them increased test scores and a boost in national rankings, says Nadine Wimmer, KSL anchorwoman and chairwoman of the Read Today action committee.

"But the only way to get there is with everyone's help. Everyone in the community needs to be focused on the importance of reading. This is a challenge not just for us, but for teachers, parents, sisters and brothers, grandparents, community leaders, business leaders. We all need to come together, to streamline our resources," she says.

"We in the media are in a position to send a strong message to parents and to schools; we can help people get excited. But to have kids read at grade level benefits so many in so many ways. We all need to work together."

The action committee will work with school boards and PTAs and community programs such as Ken Garff's Road to Success, the state's Read With a Child, books-for-charity bin drops and others. The Deseret News' Newspapers in Education program and its Connect 123 reader, which is sent into the schools and reaches some 200,000 students, will be heavily involved, says Brenda Smith, NIE director.

Deseret Book will offer meet-the-author events and school assemblies with some of its most popular writers for children and young adults. "Last year, our young-adult authors spoke to more than 50,000 students," says president and CEO of Deseret Book Sheri Dew. "We want to build on that."

There will be public service announcements, as well as news stories on radio and television. There will be a website with schedules, activities and information.

A summer program will include reading challenges, calendars with incentives and other activities, Wimmer says. The back-to-school initiative will include a major book fair, among other things.

If you want evidence of why it is so imperative to focus on reading, look around today's world, Dew says. "I'm a huge fan of technology, but if technology pushes out reading, as it is doing for many kids, we are in trouble."

She has seen evidence of this in her own extended family. "I've noticed that the children who read the most not only get the best grades, but are the most articulate, the most confident. One of my nephews started reading the newspaper at age 5 or 6. Now at age 15, it is unbelievable how conversant he is."

But most kids today spend less than 25 minutes a day reading, she says. "If ever we've needed an emphasis on reading, it's now. It's a grand irony that this is a time when information is more available and prevalent than ever before. But fewer kids are reading. I'm a deep convert of lifelong learning, of active involvement in continuing education. How can you do that if you are not a good reader?"

It doesn't matter what you read, whether it is online or on paper, whether it is newspapers, magazines, novels, biographies, she says, "but hands down, the ones who do the best are the ones who read."

Jim Wall, publisher of the Deseret News, has also seen that in his own family. "We had a son who was struggling in school, really having a hard time, in danger of failing. He had a teacher who said all he had to do to get a grade in her class was to read 25 books. My wife sat down with him, and he read those 25 books."

It made a huge difference, Wall says. "All his other grades went up. He began to do well in school. He discovered a love of reading. It changed his life forever."

But these things don't always just happen, he says. "It is important to have a commitment. At the Deseret News, our commitment goes back a lot of years. Our Newspaper in Education program has been named the top one in the country. For us, it's always been less about building future newspaper readers and more about using our resources to help kids deal with what is going on in the world."

The way the DMC companies will come together is very exciting, he says. "I think we can be really helpful in focusing on literacy, not just in the schools, but in families, for individuals. Reading is such a critical skill in learning to navigate the complex world. This is a community issue."

It's not fair to say that teaching reading is the responsibility of the schools, Willes says. Schools do a lot, "but it can't just be left to the schools. The better readers are those who also read at home. Parent involvement is a critical piece in helping kids learn to read and to love reading."

When Olene Walker was governor, she encouraged spending 20 minutes a day reading with a child, Wimmer says. "That concerted message has made a difference. We want to build on that momentum. It's true that everyone is busy. And if you can't do 20 minutes, do 10. If you can't sit down and read together, read the menu at McDonald's. Read the list of ingredients on a cake mix. Make reading a part of your daily activities in any way you can."

And start early, she says. "If you wait until first or second grade, that's too late. The gap begins to show up in kindergarten. Parents are the first teachers; those first few years are so important. We have to constantly remind parents that nothing less than their children's future is at stake."

Never doubt the importance of reading, Dew says, or its ability to change lives. "But this is really a campaign for lifelong learning that begins with reading. Reading is not the end-all. It's what reading does for you and will do for you throughout a lifetime — how it will transport you, how it will empower you."