Friday, February 26, 2010

The Early Literacy Crisis

Earlier this week, I had my first "real" parent-teacher conference at Jasper's (2y9m) pre-school. We had a parent-teacher conference last year, too, but that was mostly just to report that he liked to sing the clean-up song and seemed to have mastered the concept of drinking out of a cup. This year, though, I found myself sitting down with a list of which letters Jasper could recognize, and nodding in a way to convey that I understood that this was important.

I don't think it really is at age 2, but it turns out that letter recognition is a big deal these days, in part because it is a proxy for other things. It is a way to try to quantify young children's pre-literacy skills. Such skills include the knowledge that in the English-language world we read left to right, how you hold a book, that we read words not pictures, that letters correspond to sounds, that letters strung together make words, which stand for concepts.

As Richard Whitmire points out in his new book Why Boys Fail, the early grades have become much more reading intensive over the past few decades. Some children thrive in this language-rich world, but others (more often boys than girls) do not.

One way to make children comfortable with language is to expose them to lots of it. My son's pricey pre-school is teeming with books, as is our house (to the point of absurdity, as my toddler fell asleep last night on top of a copy of What Do You Do With A Tail Like This? which I thought had been misplaced). But many environments are not. The Pearson Foundation came out with a study last fall noting that 61 percent of low-income families do not have any age-appropriate books in their houses. Parenting magazine picked up on this and ran a story this past month called The Early Literacy Crisis, calling for more pre-school and highlighting early educational interventions.

I think in general such interventions are a good idea. The important thing is to get them to where very young kids are, and this is slightly more problematic. If the kids are in daycare centers, that's one thing, but if they're in family care, or in home-based daycare centers and other informal arrangements, this is going to be more difficult. People try with educational television (since, alas, television occupies a lot of children's time, even if reading does not). When people talk about public pre-schools, they're often talking about schools for 4-year-olds. The scary thing is that this may just possibly be too late. While letter recognition at age 2 doesn't mean a whole lot, when kids' brains haven't been surrounded by a lot of language early on in life, they may not develop in a way that will make reading intuitive later. And that has all sorts of consequences. In one of the most awful and cynical sentences I have ever read, Parenting reported that "States like California and Indiana have even factored in the number of third-graders who are not reading at grade level when planning future jail construction."


Christina said...

This is very interesting to me because my younger son (now 6 and in first grade) was adopted from Vietnam at 3 1/2 - and obviously did not hear/read English before that time. And now he is having a lot of difficulty with language/writing/reading issues. It essentially comes down to him not having an intuitive sense of the letters and their corresponding sounds. We spend a lot of time reading and writing and watching videos about letter sounds and he is making progress but it is very slow. (Which is somehow more frustrating to me because his older siblings were gifted and reading fluently by kindergarten age). Regardless, I refuse to accept that he will be ruined for life because of this - I still believe one day it will "click" for him and he will learn to love reading as much as his sisters and brother do.

hschinske said...

I'm not convinced it's specifically about the letters. I think the trouble isn't so much that children don't get books, is that they don't get adults talking with them regularly (and, in our culture, reading books to children is part of that -- but it doesn't have to be; telling children stories and just having conversations with them is the main thing). I think you get children coming in to school with insufficient language knowledge overall.

Yeah, you have to learn eventually that print goes left to right, etc., etc., but I think it isn't so much that you have to have learned THAT skill young, as that you have to have learned SOMETHING from talking with adults and watching them do things (as well as doing things alongside them). I bet the specifics aren't hard to pick up in school as long as that area of your brain has been primed to learn things.

Getting parents to sit down and read with their children seems to me like a sort of proxy for getting them to do all the other communicating. It might work, it sure won't do any harm, and it's good acculturation, but in a way it's a bit backwards. However, it's easier to *prove* that someone has no children's books than that they hardly talk to their children, and I'm sure there's a correlation.

The Princess Mom said...

I agree with hschinske that the number of letters you can recognize at 2 or the number of children's books in the house is a bit of a straw man. This is not a quantitative game. Many, maybe most, children will eventually pick up phonological awareness intuitively but some don't, no matter how much they were read to or talked to in their early years.

Our national educational push for the last twenty years has been in the direction of quantifying education for the purpose of increasing the quality of education. You can count, graph, statistically analyze and report scores to your heart's content but until you realize that *all* children are different--and they *all* need a specialized education--you're going to fail. Counting children is not the same as believing children count.

AmericanFamily said...


I completely understand your frustration. Our older (bio) daughter was reading chapter books at age 3.

Our younger daughter (3.5) is adopted from China at 11 months. She had no interest in letters, sounds, books, etc. She recently started treatment for a visual processing issue and it was amazing how quickly she began to acquire pre-reading skills (including phonetic awareness which would seem completely unrelated to vision!) as soon as we started her therapy sessions.

Have you had your son checked for an auditory processing issue? Auditory processing disorders and other sensory issues are very common in post-institutionalized kids.

I wish I had know to get our daughter evaluated sooner, but I can't believe her progress in only two months of therapy!

lgm said...

I've read that most of the deficiency is poor vocab due to lack of sufficient positive conversational interaction with a literate caregiver. I don't see how universal preK will help...just not enough interaction due to the student:teacher ratio.

Anonymous said...

If your son spent his babyhood in an institution, he likely didn't get talked to or read to a lot in Vietnamese, either. I wouldn't worry too much. Give him lots of stimulation now, and it should click eventually--but don't make a chore of it. In fact, I wouldn't push the letter/sound videos even, unless he enjoys them. Do a lot of talking and listening, playing word games, thinking up rhymes, asking what he's thinking and feeling. Read *to* him, with lots of action and funny voices and without asking him, "What sound does that letter make?"

Let him know it's OK for him to take longer to learn to read, because he's had a lot of changes to deal with--language, culture, family--that other kids didn't. He'll get it.

Cranberry said...

The claim about the correlation between 3rd grade reading rates and the size of the prison population seems to be an urban myth. "Prison officials in California called the claim "absolutely untrue," saying they must perennially debunk assertions that the state uses elementary reading in prison forecasts."

( links to a Washington Post Article, "In Politics, Fact, Fancy Can Blur in Keystroke Bogus Claim Linking Jail, School Raised Election After Election".)