Pediatricians’ Group Finally Jumps on Early Literacy Bandwagon

For the first time, the American Academy of Pediatrics (representing 62,000 doctors nationwide) is recommending that parents read to their children beginning at birth. The only question is why did it take them so long?

Research supporting reading aloud to children has been around for at least 20 years. The first three years of a child’s life are critical to brain development; synapses are formed at a faster rate during this time than during any other time of life, and neural connections are created and strengthened. You’ve heard the phrase “Use it or lose it;” in early childhood, this translates to mean that those neural pathways being used (strengthened) will likely stay with a child for the rest of his or her life. In 1995, Betty Hart and Todd Risley published their first book, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children, which outlined their findings that children from low-income homes heard up to 32 million fewer words than their wealthier counterparts in their first three years of life. This research study is the basis of programs such as Providence Talks, the innovative new intervention program just begun in RI and funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies, which aims to close the “thirty-million word gap.” As a former teacher, I can assure you that lack of exposure to a broad vocabulary leads to obvious differences in children’s attentiveness in the classroom as well as in their understanding of basic directions and concepts.

Jim Trelease published The Read-Aloud Handbook in 1982; that book is part of the education curriculum in over 60 colleges and inspired a nationwide campaign in Europe called “All of Poland Reads to Kids.” In 2001, well-known children’s author Mem Fox published a guide for parents titled Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever (second edition published 2008). This book explained the reasons why reading aloud to an infant (yes, even when he or she can’t talk yet!) will help the child’s brain development and emotional development. Unfortunately, the main audience for both of these books was middle to upper income, well-educated parents and teachers. Parenting is not taught in our schools, and it is a skill that one generally learns through modeling. If children are not brought up in homes where they are read to or talked to, they generally will not read to or talk to their own children. In many homes, parents work hard all day (or night) and they are exhausted; they often don’t hear that they are expected to read to their children until those kids attend Kindergarten at age 5.

When I taught first grade, a parent came in for a conference with her 9-month old tucked into one arm. I started talking to him, saying hello and asking him questions: “Hello there! How are you? Are you having fun with Mommy?” The mother looked at me as if I had three heads and replied, “He don’t talk yet.” Had she received any guidance on child development from her pediatrician? If we do not convey to parents the critical importance of talking to (and reading to) children from the time they are born, we as a society are the losers.

Imagine what might have happened if pediatricians had stressed the importance of language acquisition to all parents for the past 20 years. Envision a whole generation of young people who grew up with books and the intimate face-to-face interaction that reading aloud promotes. The structure of their brains would quite literally be different. Would fewer of today’s high school seniors have qualified for remedial reading courses and special education services? I applaud the American Academy of Pediatrics for their endorsement of early literacy; I only wish they’d done it sooner. The question for us now is whether our society will recognize and commit to the importance of early childhood experiences. Universal Pre-K (for 4 year olds) is great, but it starts too late. Should initiatives that have the ability to close the achievement gap, such as Providence Talks, be left to charitable foundations to fund? Or does our public education system have a responsibility to all of the children we purport to serve to give them the best possible start in life?

This article was originally published at GoLocalProv.

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