Reintroducing the love of reading with a Saddleback student

Sofia Lanning sits with an attendee from the reading group. Alena Hernandez | Lariat

A Saddleback College student’s volunteer work is integrating earlier reading habits in adolescents and hopefully furthering these habits in Hispanic communities.

Sofia Lanning enters the assigned children’s reading room in San Clemente’s local Beachtown Bookstore carrying a container filled with stickers, books and stuffed animals, just about everything you would need in case of a distracted toddler. She enters the room to be greeted by a 10-month-old baby and her mother who are regulars of the weekly reading group.

Lanning is a part-time Saddleback College student who volunteers weekly to host the reading group with any child-level entry reading placement welcome to attend. Lanning didn’t start reading heavily until her early twenties, but she realizes how big reading can play in child development. 

“It goes back to reconnecting,” Lanning says. “Hearing the soothing voice of a parent, you start establishing good things. If you incorporate it early, it’s a learning tool, and it’s about patience because you have to get to the end of the story.” 

Lanning had originally attempted to start a Spanish reading group for children at various locations including the San Clemente Public Library and Dana Hills High Community Center, but those ended up at dead ends. As a shopper at Beachtown Bookstore, she proposed the idea to the store’s manager and was amazed that they were eager to support her proposal. 

The bookstore has also allowed her to host the 3:30 reading group for English-speaking as well as a 4:30 time slot for Spanish-speaking children or bilinguals who want to read. Unfortunately, since the Spanish reading group began there have been zero attendees.

“I just want to read, and I want them to love books,” Lanning said. “Reading is so precious. Especially in the Hispanic community, many parents don’t read to their children because they’re working.”

Although the room is fairly small it is covered in vast amounts of books wall to wall all organized by genre and more tediously sorted alphabetically by the author’s last name. This immerses any nostalgic reader by recognizing series names like “The Hardy Boys,” “Nancy Drew,” “Harry Potter” and even the infamous “Captain Underpants.”

She engages in conversation with the mother and mentions that the past couple of reading groups have dwindled in attendance but are still eager for the opportunity for reading time and to talk among themselves.

The space is limited with only one chair to sit in but instead of Lanning sitting in the chair she offers it to any of the adults, but everyone decides the floor is a better place. Once everyone is acquainted the real challenge begins: how do you get a 7-month-old baby to engage in reading? 

Lanning recognizes that some people might think infants seem too young to comprehend reading, but the baby before us recognizing words is proving otherwise. She sees the baby mesmerized by a more interactive book about space and shuffles between a few different books in the room. The child picks the book with numbers after Lanning proposes a few different books.

Applauding and cheers come from the child’s mother and Lanning as the infant starts to count along with Lanning all the way up to 10 and she also starts to applaud along.

At one point in the reading group, one of the two children in attendance lost interest in all reading activities. Lanning decides to grab the tiny children’s book that includes pictures and sounds of farm animals, knowing that’s one of the infant’s sweet spots. When that doesn’t work, the mother suggests singing a song. 

The singing turns into a full-on choir with multiple lullabies that engage the infant enough for her to request multiple encores, which she agrees to perform after her mom bows out. She recognizes the mother is exhausted from trying to corral her child from escaping the reading room and that’s when Lanning continues singing and lets the mother take a breather.

The multiple encores can only keep a baby occupied for so long, so the child resorts to tears. Lanning reaches into her box of supplies to pull out the simple solution: a dinosaur sticker. The tears dissolve. All is well again, and she continues reading.

Lanning realizes that the child benefits from the reading group but also allows the parent to take a break from the many different roles they play whether that be a wife, single mother or working mom and she is okay with that.

 Lanning continues to come back each Thursday in hopes of seeing the same and new faces of children and parents who want to help introduce reading to their children at a young age, whether in English or Spanish.