It's February and that means love is in the air! Wait, did you think I meant that lovey-dovey holiday last week when people in relationships exchange sappy cards, fragrant flowers and chocolates in odd-shaped, decorated boxes?

No, I don't mean Valentine's Day - that is so over . . . It is, however, I Love to Read Month!

One's affection for reading should be celebrated all year long, but during the month of February, our local schools hold special programming to encourage students to read. Since the Olympics are being held this month as well, most of the schools have opted to use the international sporting event as a theme for their own programming.

Kids can "medal" by meeting their reading goals and earn prizes as rewards for each goal they can complete. Each school has special festivities planned and from what I have seen, it's a great time to celebrate books and the students who read them!

Encouraging reading in young children is so important for future academic and social growth. Parents who read aloud to their children from birth have likely witnessed greater vocabulary, improved attention spans and the child's ability to concentrate on a subject or task.

Reading to a child and helping a child learn to read at a young age really does lead them to greater academic success in their futures. Building a love of books at an early age will likely influence a child to become a lifelong reader and imparts a love of learning.

When children learn to read at an early age and are encouraged to devote time each day to reading, they will have a greater general knowledge, better vocabulary and spelling skills and will be more fluent readers than their peers who do not read as frequently.

As children read more, their ability to comprehend what they are reading also becomes more proficient. They are better able to do research, study effectively and determine what information is necessary and relevant to their own lives.

According to www.teachreadingearly.com, "It is interesting to note that early readers not only become lifelong readers, but also lifelong learners. Longitudinal studies have shown that early readers continue to get higher grades than their peers through grade school."

In addition to academic benefits, reading proficiency also leads to psychological benefits, social benefits and language development skills.

Just a few examples from the website include reading promotes greater maturity, increases discipline and lays the basis for moral literacy. It sparks curiosity about people, places and things and also satisfies the child's curiosity by providing explanations of how things work. Children who read are also more likely to develop efficient problem-solving skills. Early reading inspires a child's creativity and helps develop imagination.

Early readers have the opportunity to relate to their peers with more confidence and educational success can lead to increased personal confidence and greater self-esteem.

Finally, children who can read independently have more opportunities to learn vocabulary and grammar. The sooner children learn how to read, the more books, knowledge and ideas they will be exposed to. In the long run, this means students will have improved language skills in the form of a richer vocabulary, correct grammar, improved writing, better spelling and more articulate oral communication.

In essence, good readers become good writers - a fact we at the newspaper have experienced time and time again.

So, there are many wonderful reasons to encourage young readers to spend time with a book this month and to promote the love of reading throughout their lives. I hope many young children find a new love of books this month and I am sure it will make their lives "golden" in the process!

If you are out of school and still want to celebrate "I Love to Read Month," never fear, several public libraries in the area are also holding special reading programs through their "Hot Reads for Cold Nights" adult reading programs that have been running since January. Older readers can also get prizes for each book they read, review and share with others.

Many libraries have hosted authors to share their books and others will welcome writers in the weeks to come. Make sure to watch our calendars for information about these upcoming visits!

In the meantime - make sure to pick up a book today and find a new love or rediscover that relationship with a book or character you may have set aside. If you want to throw in some chocolate and flowers for good measure, I won't dissuade you.

Happy reading.