Recently, we at Springbok hosted a parent seminar on the topic of early childhood literacy. One of our parents, who is a public school librarian, led the seminar. She shared many resources for the parents interested in boosting their children’s literacy skills. But Sarah shared with me some alarming statistics about what happens when we don’t boost our children’s literacy skills. It’s almost frightening how quickly children can “fall behind” in today’s world.
I remember an old Readers’ Digest “joke” about a woman who came to a great educator and asked what she could do to ensure her child’s success. When the educator asked how old her child was, the woman answered that he was five. “Don’t’ bother,” the great man replied, “ you’ve waited too long to start.” Perhaps this is truer now that when I read it long ago. Children’s literacy skills at earlier and earlier ages predict their future success—from probability of high school graduation to likely success in the world of work. And remember, parents are the key—children don’t “get literate” by themselves.
A 3 to 5-year-old who is read to three times a week:
Is twice as likely to recognize all letters.
Is twice as likely to have word-sight recognition.
Is twice as likely to understand words in context.
The information Sarah sent me points out that as literacy spread world-wide people used to learn to read at about third-grade age. Today, by that same age, teachers expect children to be past “learning to read” and ready to “read to learn.” The texts are more difficult and will continue to become even more so. A fourth-grader who does not read at grade level is already endangered as far as his potential for employment, earning power, etc., is concerned. He/she is well on the way to being “a problem,”
A group of frightening statistics coming from articles by Juel, Wilson and Hughes, and others suggest that first grade reading scores are reliably predictive of future scores. A low-scoring first grader will most likely be that low-scoring fourth grader mentioned above. More students are being held back in school for their reading skills than for their IQ levels. A poor reader/retainer in third grade is less likely to graduate from high school than a third grader who is a good reader/retainer.
As parents, we all want what is best for our children. We often think of that in terms of physical skills or socialization opportunities, but what we may be missing is that their reading ability more accurately ensures their future success than any of the other factors. Good jobs, advancement, higher pay are all attached to reading skills in ways we can’t possibly imagine when we look at our babies. Like the poor woman in the joke, if we wait until our babies are toddlers, we have waited too long.
So what can we do to improve our children’s odds? First of all, talk to them. You can carry on almost any conversation with an infant—talk out the grocery list, your weekly schedule, recite Mother Goose rhymes or sing little songs. The important thing: they are hearing words. The more words they hear, the more they will recognize and use later on.
Second, engage your children. Take them to the grocery store and talk about what they see there. This is a banana, this is a pear, this milk is white. Matching words to concrete objects and concepts (colors, shapes) builds neural pathways.
Most important, read to your children. Repeating—read to them. Every little reading experience, from Pat the Bunny to Harry Potter creates (as my grandmother would say) a star in your crown in heaven—and builds those important literacy skills. And don’t stop reading to your children once they can read independently. My goddaughter could read when she was about three, but she didn’t want us to know because she was afraid we wouldn’t read to her anymore. Children love the time spent being read to by their parents and grandparents. Not only do you get a chance to know what “everybody’s talking about” at your children’s school, but you can introduce them to the your childhood favorites. You might be surprised at how much they enjoy them.
One overlooked “help” parents can provide is to let your kids see you read. Sit at the table with them when they do homework and read your own book. If you value something, your child is more likely to value it, too. And, yes, read a book. (It can be an e-book or magazine—I don’t just mean a physical book.) Read for pleasure; don’t read work papers or reports. Let them see that reading for pleasure, or to learn something of interest to the reader (and not just teachers) is a life-long exciting experience. And then talk about what you read. Even if all you say is, “This was a cool mystery about a woman who raises bees. The victim gets stung to death,” you share an interest in the printed word.
Books make great presents. In every Easter basket, stocking, and birthday box, my grandchildren can count on finding books. Sometimes they get a book because Mimi went to the bookstore and couldn’t resist something just for them. Sometimes they get books celebrating that it’s Tuesday. Whatever the occasion, books fit everybody.
In many ways it is sad that our world is evolving so that we do things by hand, make things, manufacture things less and less. There are fewer and fewer manufacturing jobs to be found. That means that the jobs that we can find rely more and more on our intellectual abilities—the foremost of which is reading ability.
Don’t wait until it’s too late. Read to lead.
Betty Kay Seibt, PhD