Literacy begins at home?

Well, duh, yes of course it does.  But when I saw that that was the title of an op-ed piece in the LA Times, explaining why Reading First isn’t working, I rolled my eyes and figured it would be more moaning about how parents aren’t doing their jobs, so teachers can’t do theirs.  (I’ve heard that often enough this year from my coworkers; I’m not kindly disposed toward this way of thinking.)

However, I was wrong.  The author, Esther A. Jantzen, brings up one of my favorite books, the landmark study on language acquisition Meaningful Differences, by Hart and Risley.  Here’s what she has to say about what Hart and Risley found:

The most astonishing literacy-related information I’ve ever seen came out over 10 years ago, in Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley’s “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children.” Their shocking news: There is a huge difference in the number of words and the prohibitive or affirmative tone of words heard by young children depending on whether their parents are on welfare, in the working class or professionals.

They found that by age 3 children of welfare parents heard 10 million words, those with working-class parents heard 20 million words, and those with professional parents heard 30 million words. In addition, with children 13-18 months old in welfare families, almost 80% of the feedback to the child was negative, in working-class families about 50% was negative, and in professional families more than 80% of feedback to the child was affirmative.

Anyone who has read that can’t forget it.  A 20 million word difference?  No wonder we have an achievement gap — the children in welfare families arrive at kindergarten already behind in vocabulary, and what the teacher talks about makes less sense to them than it does to the children in professional families, who keep adding to their store of knowledge and keeping pulling farther and farther ahead.

And the ratio of positive to negative feedback is just heartbreaking.  Plus, Hart and Risley found that the four-year-olds in the professional families had larger vocabularies than the mothers in the welfare families.

Anyway, Jantzen actually has a proposal on what we need to do next.  (Here I’ve been thinking about ways to improve vocabulary instruction.  Solid, but prosaic.)

Here are ideas: How about directing some Title I funds to educate and support parents in lower-wage workplaces–big-box stores, fast-food restaurants, factories, hotels, data-processing companies, government offices — places where many employees are young mothers and fathers. How about enrolling the goodwill of the Salvation Army, Red Cross, United Way and the huge nonprofits that attract lots of volunteers of all classes and education levels, and bring them on board to reach out and encourage parents?

How about harnessing the political campaign troops of all parties, the caring people who make calls to our homes? How about involving the direct sales industry and those who create those recorded sales calls? How about using the public service components of media in all its shapes, sizes and forms — radio, television, gaming and entertainment, newspapers and magazines?

How about providing workshops, materials and leadership for churches, hospitals, clinics and social welfare offices? How about setting up video-link programs in prisons so that parents in jail could talk and read to their children?

The simplest form of the message we need to get out is this: Parents, grandparents, caregivers, baby sitters, uncles and aunts — talk kindly to children a lot from birth on, using big words. Listen to them and read aloud to them in whatever language you want to use. And do these no-cost things often.

If the foundation for literacy is laid in the home, then schools can do their job. If foundation is not laid, even heroic amounts of intervention by the school won’t be sufficient.

It’s that straightforward. And yes, we can.

I’d vote for that.


5 thoughts on “Literacy begins at home?

  1. We just produced a DVD for our district that highlights this information. We are an all Title I district—and literacy issues are a significant challenge (to say the least).

    Many parents are saying that they don’t talk to their infants/young children because the kids don’t talk back yet.

    So, we’re trying to emphasize more modeling. At Parent Nights for older children, we are playing the DVD and doing other outreach so that parents who are there (and also have babies/toddlers at home) might start to make connections.

    It’s definitely an uphill battle…but the kids are worth it.

  2. I took training 2 years ago called SEEDS which is literacy training for infant/toddler/preschool child care and education. It was an amazing course, and I learned so much from it. It also affirmed that what we were doing at our preschool was the right thing. We have an organization in our town that is trying to close the achievement gap at the toddler/preschool level, and it is in the early stages yet. I hope that it really does work. It seems so simple: talk to your child, read to your child, encourage questions, ask questions. Yet it is so difficult for so many.

  3. It used to drive me crazy, especially when I my boys were little: “I’m doing this for my children, why can’t you do this for yours?!”

    But then I would think, my mom taught me my colors by asking me questions like, “do you want to wear your blue pants or your red ones?” and I just naturally did those things with my children.

    Other moms never had anyone model good parenting to them, and they really don’t know how to teach their children or get them ready for school.

  4. Pingback: Talking to small children « Elbows, knees, dreams

  5. Pingback: meaningful differences « Elbows, knees, dreams

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