The BOOK IT! Beginners¨ early childhood read-aloud program, created and sponsored by Pizza Hut, Inc., starts its third year in March. The project targets children too young to participate in the chain’s popular Book It! program for elementary schools.

A study conducted in 1985 by the Commission on Reading found that the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children. The BOOK IT! Beginners Program is an eight-week program for children in preschool and pre-k which encourages teachers and parents to begin reading to children when they are very young. “Pizza Hut is deeply committed to devoting more funds and accepting larger responsibility to make this happen,” said Eunice Ellis, Director of BOOK IT! Beginners. A recent survey shows that 17 percent of young children are rarely read to, and 28 percent are never read to.

BOOK IT! Beginners makes reading fun. This year’s interactive classroom poster shows a squirrel sitting on the branch of a tree reading a book. Each time the teacher reads a storybook or poem to the class, he or she writes the title on an acorn or leaf cutout. One of the children then places the cutout on the poster. The class can keep track of their reading while they watch the tree leaf out and the pile of acorns grow. Parents are invited to participate by reading to their children at home and adding more leaves and acorns to the poster.

There’s more fun—and reward—for the children at Pizza Hut¨ restaurants. After each four-week period, during which teachers are asked to read to children at least 60 minutes a week, the teacher gives every child in the class a certificate to take to a Pizza Hut restaurant for praise, a free one-topping Personal Pan Pizza¨ and a fuzzy sticker.

“Praise is even more important than the pizza and sticker,” explains Ellis. “It tells children that they are special and that reading is special.”

This year’s BOOK IT! Beginners Program will accommodate approximately 1.5 million children in 24,000 preschool and pre-kindergarten facilities. That represents about 12 percent of the children in managed child care.

“We planned a 20 percent increase in our program’s enrollment this year,” said Ellis. “Because the program has been so well received, we expect growth to continue at this pace in the future. Our long-term goal is to reach as many of the estimated 13 million children in managed child care as we can to help them develop a love of books and reading at an early age.”

This year, Pizza Hut has joined several early childhood learning and reading initiatives. One is a national media campaign called Child Care Reads. In a second initiative, Pizza Hut will be a sponsor of the Scholastic Early Childhood Today magazine’s Early Childhood Professional Awards, recognizing Infant Teacher, Toddler Teacher, Preschool Teacher, Kindergarten Teacher, Family Child Care Provider and Director. The awards will bepresented at the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) annual conference in Atlanta in November.

Pizza Hut also sponsors the BOOK IT!¨ National Reading Incentive Program, which began its 15th year in October 1999. More than 20 million students in 50,000 elementary schools are enrolled in this award-winning program.

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