AUSTIN (KXAN) — At a Wednesday South By Southwest EDU talk, actor and acclaimed host of the PBS program ‘Reading Rainbow’ spoke about child literacy and what can be done to encourage it.

The discussion, “A Gift of Literacy,” was hosted by Alicia Levi, President and CEO of Reading is Fundamental, an organization that aims to help children develop a passion for reading by putting books in their hands. During the discussion, Levi posed many questions about reading at Burton — also known for his acting roles in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and the famed TV miniseries “Roots.”

Burton began the discussion by talking about his mother, who sparked his passion for books. “I was raised by an English teacher,” Burton said. “I grew up in a house where reading was expected — mandatory. You couldn’t opt-out of reading. My mother not only read to me she read in front of me. You just read because you did.”

“Every human being deserves to be literate in at least one language because in my view if you’re literate, you’re free,” he continued.

According to the presentation, 37 percent of high school students graduate reading proficiently. Burton commented: 

“It shouldn’t be accepted that our kids can’t read.”

Throughout the discussion, the literacy advocate referenced Skybrary, his curated digital library of books and videos aimed at engaging young readers. The collection includes selections from diverse authors, in an effort to appeal to readers of color and/or the underserved. “Skybrary allows children to relate and see themselves.”

He elaborated on the need for diversity in children’s literature and how it can help shape the world for the better, including as it relates to the way the government runs.

“Literacy is critical to a functional democracy.”

The actor also addressed the role of legislators in helping preserve and fund public libraries, which he said are one of the most under-utilized resources in the country. When asked how the public can advocate for the preservation of libraries, Burton said simply, “Change the lawmakers.”

Burton also announced the partnership between Skybrary and RIF at the event, a merger which will help expand and manage the collection and get more books in to the hands of children. According to the presentation, only one in 300 children own a book. Burton’s lifelong efforts work to change this.

When asked by Levi about his role in inspiring literacy and a love of reading to children, Burton teared up, saying: “I’m two generations removed from slavery. Had I been born earlier, it would’ve been illegal for me to know how to read. I’m reminded of a quote “You are your ancestors’ dreams.’ They were thinking of me as they were dying and bleeding. They were dying and bleeding for me. They laid down their lives for me. I’ll be damned if I’m not going to capitalize on it.”

Program at SXSW Edu Expo aims at improving literacy in kids

Kinestem, a program that originally started in Spain to help kids become literate in Spanish, had a booth at SXSW EDU promoting how it encourages learning how to read by breaking down the five senses. 

“All early learning is through movement,” said Maria Vaso, a consultant for Kinestem.

Andres M. Marin, a neuro-psychologist from Spain, has 18 years of research that supports Kinestem’s program. Vaso said students are shown how to truly remember and internalize a letter through different gestures and shapes. Using paint to make the shapes out of those gestures is part of the process. 

“We remember only 20 percent of what we hear, but we connect each sound to a movement and a gesture so you don’t have to remember that ‘m’ sound just by listening to it.”

Vaso said Kinestem’s program is an innovative way to show kids they can use their other senses during learning.

“Kids do not have to rely on just what they are hearing or seeing,” she said. “They also can feel.”

You can learn more about Kinestem here.