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Erica Rodriguez: Keeping it REAL (Read Everything and Learn)

Erica Rodriguez

Erica Rodriguez, the founder of REAL, The Canadian Kids Magazine, became interested in education while completing a bachelor’s degree at York University. Following graduation, she earned her Montessori teaching diploma and began what turned out to be a decade of teaching.

After retiring to raise her family, Mrs. Rodriguez directed her attention to children’s literature and the acquisition of reading skills. REAL is the culmination of those years and the embodiment of her dedication to literacy, literature, and education.

Q: As the editor of Real, the Canadian Kids’ Magazine, what’s your charter and vision for the publication?
A: REAL stands for Read Everything And Learn. Our goal is to help children discover the joys of reading and become life-long learners. As children read, they make connections with the world around them and experience not only personal growth but also intellectual growth.

This is vitally important in an age in which literacy skills are declining. According to a recent international survey, only 14% of the adult US population scored “high” on literacy tests; and Canada didn’t do much better with only 20% of our population achieving that score.1 In fact, a staggering 44% of adult Americans2 and 40% of adult Canadians3, possess only basic, or below basic, literacy skills.

There is overwhelming evidence that the ability to read is the single biggest determining factor in educational success. REAL was created to get kids reading and keep them reading — the first and most important step on their road ahead.

Q: Beyond size of type and difficulty of words, what differences are there between the younger (K-3) and older (4-8) editions?
A: As well as the difference in reading difficulty, there are marked differences in tone and style between the two editions. The Elementary edition, for children in kindergarten to grade 3, presents concepts in a clear and simple manner and uses familiar themes for stories, poems, and all other content. It is designed to make reading fun and interesting, but not intimidating.

The Junior edition, for kids in grades 4 to 8, incorporates a wider view of the world and includes topics and concepts that are interesting to pre-teens. Though it can be read by the entire family, the junior edition is specifically designed to capture the attention of kids aged 8 to 12.

Q: What percentage of your content is Canadian specific, and what amount is universal? How do you keep that in balance from one issue to the next?
A: We view Canada in a global context, and so the vast majority of our content is universal. We have many subscribers in the US and Europe, so when there are pieces specifically about Canada we ensure they are also of interest to readers elsewhere in the world.

Q: You publish a mixture of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and games. Can you talk about that a little bit? Do different kids gravitate to different parts of the publication?
A: Absolutely. We get emails from kids who love the puzzles, or the stories, or the animal articles. Some love the ‘sciency’ pieces and others look for the jokes. The reason we include so many genre is precisely because not everyone likes the same thing all the time. Interestingly, we find that by being exposed to so many different styles, kids end up reading things they would not normally have chosen, and end up really enjoying themselves.

Q: With television, video games, and other distractions, is it hard to engage young people in reading?
A: Television and video games are visual media At REAL, we focus on this as well. We incorporate stunning photographs and a wide variety of illustrations because most children are visual learners. Many times, kids will leaf through the pages of our magazine, not intending to read anything. They just want to look at the pictures. But then they find a photograph or an illustration that captures their attention. It only takes a minute for them to glance at the title of the piece, and before they know it, they’ve read the entire thing and have turned the page to see ‘what’s next’. I think if visually compelling material is available, kids will read. And as their reading skills improve, they rely less and less on the visual component and more and more on their imaginations.

Q: Conventional wisdom suggests boys lose interest in reading earlier than girls. From your experience, do you think that’s correct?
A: I think boys can lose interest in reading earlier than girls, but they don’t have to. That is another reason we focus on creating visual impact, particularly in the Junior edition of REAL. Short, highly visual content is a great way to grab boys’ attention and get them practicing their reading skills. The more they read, the easier it becomes, the easier, the more satisfying, and the more satisfying, the less dependant they become on purely visual triggers.

Q: Knowing that developing literacy skills is important to your publication, how do you challenge kids while still keeping them interested in the content?
A: As I mentioned, the initial interest is generated visually. Kids look at the pictures and want to know what they are about. The challenge is built right into the structure of the magazine. Each edition has some pieces that are targeted at specific skill levels, intended for individual reading, and other pieces that are set at a higher level and may need to be shared with an adult.

Q: Were you a strong reader as a child? When/how did you get excited about reading?
A: No. I was not a strong reader as a child. I was very slow and found it frustrating. At the end of grade three, however, I discovered my first ‘easy reader’ mystery novel. I really wanted to know what was going to happen next, so I kept trying. I would ask my parents to read me every word I couldn’t figure out, and bit-by-bit I got better. For the next year and a half I read mysteries almost as fast as my parents gave them to me. As my confidence in my reading ability grew, I began to branch out and read different sorts of material. Now, helping other kids learn to read is my greatest joy.

Q: What advice would you give to parents who are interested in helping their children develop their reading skills?
A: I think the most important thing you can do is read to your children. And it doesn’t matter how old they are. If they are struggling with reading, then figure out what interests them, sit down together, and read. Show that you are interested in what you read together. When they are ready to branch out and begin reading alone, sit beside them so they can just point at the words they don’t yet know. Make it easy for them to get your help, and be patient. Let them read whatever interests them. It might be a genre you don’t normally read, or a topic you wouldn’t have chosen; but if your children are interested in what they are reading, they will want to keep reading—and that’s every parent’s goal.

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