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."