Written by Gen
I’ve worked as a literacy specialist in the primary grades for 12 out of my fourteen-year career in a district with a large population of low-income families, and that population is only getting larger. Let’s suffice it to say that we have a large population of students who aren’t achieving the expected literacy benchmarks. Over time, I’ve come up with a few thoughts on how we can succeed with this overwhelming challenge, but it requires a shift in thinking and some creativity to make it happen.
What the research says:
- 70-80% of the brain develops before the age of four.
- Infants and toddlers who hear close to 30,000 words per day demonstrate better performance in school.
- By the age of 3, children from poorer homes hear 30 million fewer words than children from professional families.
What the research means:
- Most brain development occurs before children enter pre-k and kindergarten (before teachers can even start!)
- Children from poorer families may have significantly lower levels of experience with language when they enter school, and literacy is all about language!
Efforts that seem like they should work… but don’t:
Sending books home with K-2 at-risk students over the summer.
Why it didn’t have an impact: The summer after kindergarten is too late. If the majority of brain growth occurs by the age of 4, then compensatory efforts for at-risk students need to begin in pre-k, or earlier!
Giving students who participated in summer school a leveled text to keep at the end of every week.
Why it didn’t have an impact: Though students do need to do lots of easy independent reading day after day, the students I’m referring to need to hear fluent reading. They need to make up that 30 million word gap that many students from low-income homes have. Early leveled texts have an average of 24 words. That’s not even a drop in the 30 million word ocean.
Summer reading logs with prizes.
Why it didn’t have an impact: The prize didn’t make up for the fact that the students needed to have an adult reader at home who has the time to read a stack of books to the child every day. That’s a major challenge when you work multiple jobs, are a single parent, or work the night shift. All this accomplished was making children from low-income families feel bad about not getting prizes.
So what do we do???
It’s hard to accept as educators, but we cannot possibly control what happens when our precious students are at home. The first step is to create empathy within yourself. It’s so easy to fall into the blame-game with families who don’t seem to value what we know is so crucial to the development and life-long success of our youngest students. It’s helpful if we remember that some parents must choose between feeding their family and reading to their kids. If we have empathy, we can increase our efficacy during the time the students are in our care.
The second step is to drastically increase the number of high-quality words our 4-6 year-olds are hearing in pre-k and kindergarten. This cannot be done by reading aloud to your class alone. We need to recreate in school what happens at home with our higher-achieving students. They need to sit close to an adult in a cozy place and they need to see and hear that adult read a stack of high-quality children’s books. Here are a few ideas I have about how to make this happen:
- Create an incredibly cozy spot in your classroom. While a couch or puffy chair would be ideal, it isn’t necessary. The spot just has to be big enough for a student to sit very close to an adult. Add blankets, lamps, and pillows to any spot to make it cozy.
- Choose a stack of high-quality, age-appropriate children’s literature. I’m talking a stack of 20-30 books. Enough for a student to have some choice, but not so many that the choice takes all day long. Include a variety of genres, including, but not limited to: stories, nursery rhymes, fairy tales, character classics, non-fiction, ABC books, and counting books.
- Identify students in need. A specific assessment is not necessary. You’ll know who these students are. They will exhibit behaviors of students who haven’t been exposed to lots of books: low literacy skills, low interest in literacy tasks, low attention span, low letter and letter-sound knowledge. (And guess what? This will also help students who exhibit these characteristics for reasons other than lack of exposure!)
- Dedicate the time of every support person to the task of reading to individuals as if they were their own children. This is the most important step, and may possibly be the most difficult shift to make ideologically. For students who don’t understand how words work within language, who haven’t heard enough language to know how to anticipate language patterns, who think that they need to know all the words in order to be a reader, increasing work in isolation (i.e. flashcards, letter-learning activities, etc.) will not accelerate their progress in literacy. Rather, they need what other students have had: the opportunity to sit one-on-one with an expert reader (i.e. an adult) in a low-pressure, non-threatening environment (i.e. cozy) and listen to stacks of good children’s literature. This individual should read a stack of 5-10 books to each child (it will vary depending on the length of the books). If I taught in a pre-k or kindergarten classroom today, I would use all adult resources for this purpose alone: teacher assistants, parent volunteers, classroom “grandma’s,” my retired teacher friends. Anyone I could get my hands on so that someone was in my room doing this, and only this, every single day.
What would happen if…
…every child who hadn’t had the opportunity to hear lots of words and literature between the ages of birth to age 4 could get that experience almost every day at school between the ages of 4-6? This is what I think the outcome would be:
- Children who would otherwise develop an early distaste for school (where they are asked to do more seemingly meaningless tasks like learning letters, sounds, and words in isolation, begin to like school a whole lot more.
- Children who would otherwise act out and feel like no one understands them develop strong connections with their grown-up reading friend.
- Children who would otherwise have a short attention span, develop an increasing ability to pay attention for longer and longer spans of time.
- Children who would otherwise dislike books develop a love of literature.
- Children who would have otherwise said, “I can’t” when it comes to reading, will say, “I can.”
So, I’ll just put this here, in case there is someone out there with the time and resources to try this:
Students who hear 30,000 words per day between birth to age 4 tend to do better in school. So, it makes sense to me that we should be trying to close that 30 million-word gap before students get to school at age 4. While the above efforts would help to compensate for the lack of experience with language, it would still be occurring after the majority of the child’s brain development. Ideally, we want to intervene for the students who need it at the ages when their counterparts are receiving the experiences. It makes sense to me to gather groups of local volunteers (I’m thinking retired teachers!) to read in this way to children at risk in daycare centers between the ages of birth-4. I would be excited to see what could happen to the number of low-achieving readers later in school if this type of intervention began before kids reach school-age.