If you work in a literacy-related profession, you are probably familiar with the points below. If this information is new to you, please share your shock and outrage with others . . . then do something . . . anything. Doing workshops and talks at schools and conferences has convinced me that many people care very deeply about these issues. Please, help any way you can.
The power of words
Children acquire language and vocabulary through the words they hear. By the time some children are three years old, they have heard 30 million fewer words than other children. Not surprisingly, this disparity has significant implications on brain develop-ment and literacy. Read more about the gap here and about an initiative to close the
It’s not just the number of words that are spoken to a child that matter, but also the variety of words. The original word gap study noted that 86% to 98% of the words a child was using by the age of three came from his/her parents’ vocabularies. Also important: “ . . . not only were the words they used nearly identical, but also the average number of words utilized, the duration of their conversations, and the speech patterns were all strikingly similar to those of their caregivers.” Recent research by Dominic Massaro, a professor emeritus in psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, found that picture books are much more likely (two to three times more likely!) than conversation to use a word that isn’t one of the 5,000 most common English words. Dr. Massaro also stresses that reading aloud helps with grammar development. A study by Jessica Montag from University of California Riverside compared the number of unique words in adult-child spoken interactions to the number of unique words in picture books. The study found "about 70 percent more unique words in the books than in the speech,” and was discussed in a Public Radio International Science Friday segment. As part of the segment, guests Jacob Berkowitz and Maria Popova listed their favorite science books for kids, and Get the Scoop on Animal Puke was one of them! Read more and listen to the broadcast here.
The phrase “summer slide” is used to describe loss in reading skills in children who do not read when they’re out of school in the summer. These children may begin the next school year two months’ behind classmates who read over the summer. Worse, the literacy losses in these children are cumulative from one school year to the next, which can put them several grade levels behind by the time they finish sixth grade. An ongoing study at Harvard University found that giving books to students for summer reading is not enough to prevent the summer slide. Kids also need to read books that are a good fit for their current reading skills, and they need parent or teacher oversight to make sure kids understand the content they’re reading. Research from the University of Rochester stresses one more important component of summer reading: kids should choose their own books. When kids make their own selections, they “maintained or improved their literacy skills.” I was honored to learn that two of my books, Get the Scoop on Animal Poop and Animal Tongues, were chosen by children participating in the Harvard study.
More than 65% of fourth grade students in the US cannot read at grade level. Besides causing problems for school systems and children’s self-esteem, consider this: students not reading on grade level by the end of the third grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school with their class, and high school drop outs are 65 times more likely to spend time in prison than college graduates.