Category Archives: Education

Babies, Maternity Wards, and Books—Oh, My!

“..what’s happening in St. Louis could be a blueprint for libraries and the medical community everywhere.”

by Kim Jocelyn Dickson

As a former third grade teacher, I’d often wished I could roll back time and meet the parents of my struggling readers at the door of their maternity hospital with a stack of picture books. There was nothing sadder to me than an eight year old that had missed out on being read to from the very start.

After years of teaching and observing students, it became clear to me that children who struggled in school lacked the necessary tools that come from being read to that their successful peers possessed. Brain science tells us that the first three years of life are critical in building the neural pathways that are the infrastructure for all future intellectual and emotional growth. In order for a child’s brain to make these connections, parents need to speak, read to, and sing with their babies.

According to the results of the 2017 NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress—otherwise known as the Nation’s Report Card), which tests a cross-section of fourth and eighth graders from public and private schools every two years, nearly two-thirds of fourth and eighth grade students do not read proficiently. That the United States is suffering a crisis of literacy is beyond dispute, but the good news is that our awareness of the problem is growing and people and organizations are finding creative ways to address it.

When I recently learned that the thing I’d wished for was actually happening in my former hometown, St. Louis, Missouri, through a program called Born to Read, I was intrigued and had to learn more. A few emails and a phone call later with Library Director Kristen Sorth, and I was convinced that what’s happening in St. Louis could be a blueprint for libraries and the medical community everywhere.

In 2015 Ms. Sorth and her team of librarians and volunteers from the St. Louis County Library system, along with the support of a handful of local maternity hospitals, began reaching out to new parents with a gift that sends the message that babies and books belong together. Just two years later every single maternity hospital and clinic in St. Louis County were on board.

What inspired you to bring Born to Read to St. Louis County?

We brought this program to St. Louis County to help give families a head start. Studies show that when children start behind, they stay behind. The goal of Born to Read is to foster a love of reading starting at birth and to emphasize the importance of reading to children of even the youngest age.

That your program has grown to include every maternity hospital and clinic in St. Louis County—11 in all—since you began in 2015 is a tribute to your success. What, exactly, do the parents of each newborn in St. Louis County receive from the library?

 Each gift bag includes a board book, baby’s first library card, early literacy information, a baseball Cardinals’ beanie, and a voucher for two Cardinals’ tickets, a toothbrush, and another board book.

What do you hope each new parent gains from this gift?

 We developed the Born to Read program to reach families at the earliest possible moment. We want to convey the importance of reading and to make it easy for parents to introduce books into their daily routine.

Was gaining the support of the medical community challenging in any way? Is their support at all difficult to maintain?

 The hospitals think it’s a wonderful program. The nurses love giving the bags to the families and encouraging them to read to their children. They know the materials in the bags are purposeful, and they hear great feedback from the families. Ensuring that the hospitals are stocked with enough bags so they never run out can sometimes be a challenge since the nurses and hospital staff are incredibly busy and can’t always let us know right away when they are low. Our weekly visits help to keep them stocked.

Once the initial gift is given, do you follow up with parents later on?

 Parents and babies are invited to the library for a first birthday celebration. The Born to Read parties include story time, sensory play with bubbles and, of course, cake. Parents are also given another free book to take home. These parties are a great first introduction to parents, showing them the variety of resources available at the library.

We also stay in touch with parents via a monthly Early Literacy e–Newsletter, which provides early literacy tips, library event information, and other library resources.

Is Born to Read having an impact on the community? If so, how?

Every child born in St. Louis County now receives a library card, thanks to the Born to Read program. We’re helping create a new generation of readers. To date, we’ve distributed almost 40,000 bags.

With the involvement of every area hospital and clinic you must need a lot of help. How do you accomplish the creation and distribution of all those gift bags?

Our Youth Services staff has done a fabulous job of maintaining the program. Every 6-8 weeks they have a Born to Read work day, where staff form an assembly line to stuff bags and package them for delivery. Each Friday we have a dedicated staff member who delivers bags to area hospitals and clinics. The program has been very popular among local volunteer groups as well. We have corporate and business groups that help stuff bags each month.

How is Born to Read funded?

 The St. Louis County Library Foundation helps raise funds for the program. We also have strong corporate support–-the St. Louis Cardinals and Delta Dental have been key supporters of the Born to Read program.

What is the program’s biggest success?

Born to Read has provided a unique opportunity for the Library to reach new parents at the very beginning. Before they even leave the hospital, parents learn about the importance of reading to their baby. We make it easy for them to utilize library resources by providing them with a library card, and the book voucher gives them an incentive for visiting their local branch.

Does the St. Louis County Library provide any other means of educating new parents about the importance of reading to their child from birth?

St. Louis County Library has a variety of early literacy resources for families at every stage of development. Born to Read is the entry point for many families; after that they can sign up for the 1000 Books Before Kindergarten or attend weekly story time at a nearby branch. Later we offer Kindergarten Prep workshops and resources such as FLIP Kits (Family Literacy Involvement Program) and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Mathematics) programming.

With the enormous success you’ve experienced in linking society’s primary stronghold of literacy—the library—with the medical community in order to reach new parents with this crucial message, do you expect to eventually see other communities follow your lead?

The Born to Read program has already been duplicated by St. Louis Public Library. Together, we’re reaching families and promoting early literacy across the St. Louis region.

If you live in the St. Louis area and would like to become a volunteer with the Born to Read program, please contact the Youth Services Department at 314-994-3300.

Author’s note: Born to Read is an American Library Association (ALA) trademarked program that encourages the connection between libraries and health providers. The St. Louis County Library’s program is exceptional in both its implementation and scope.

 

The Critical First Five Years

As much as we’d like to believe that children arrive at school on the first day of kindergarten with comparable reservoirs of potential, the sad reality is this simply isn’t true. From the very beginning of their school lives, the playing field is not even. Children arrive in wide-ranging states of readiness to learn, predetermined by their early language experiences.

Watch this powerful graphic illustration of the impact of the first five years on a child’s future learning trajectory from The Children’s Reading Foundation:

The fact is, children who have been read to regularly come equipped with the critical tools they need for the world of school. Children who lack this experience enter school already behind and, as the video reveals, they rarely catch up.

By reading to our children from birth on, we can build a foundation of literacy skills that will not only enable them to enter kindergarten on day one with joy and confidence, but carry them successfully far into the future.

“You Must Not Stop Reading Books. That’s All.”

 

 

 

 

A deeply informed, literate people may be the only thing that stands in the gap between our nation and its ideals and the rising tide of ignorance, tribalism, and barbarism that appears to prevail today. Make no mistake—history teaches that progress is reversible. It has happened before, and it can happen again. Pulitzer Prize-winning, Wall Street Journal columnist, author, and speechwriter Peggy Noonan recently delivered a commencement address to The Catholic University of America’s graduating class of 2017 that captures exactly what’s at stake for us as a civilization. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum nor what your religious faith is, the following is worth your time.  Her message is non-partisan and non-sectarian.

 

“Today is for celebration but starting tomorrow I humbly urge you to embark on a lifelong relationship with a faithful companion who will always help you and sometimes delight you — who will never desert you, who will make you smarter, and wiser, who will always be by your side and enlighten you all the days of your life. I am talking about: books.

You must not stop reading books.  That’s all.  If you seek a happy and interesting life, one of depth, meaning and accomplishment, you must read books.

Now, you have certainly read a few to get here today and some of you have read a great many.  But don’t stop, continue, even speed up.  And if you have not read all that many books it’s okay, you can start now, your brain is still young and fresh, it can still absorb and hold and even commit to memory big important things.

And now I share the thing I will not forget that I saw during the campaign of 2016.  I’d been seeing it for a while but last year it broke through to me in a new way.

I saw something, especially among the young men and women of politics and journalism — two professions from which excellent work is now more crucial to our country than ever.  These young reporters and candidates for office are college graduates, they’re in their 20s and 30s and early 40s, they’re bright and ambitious and work hard.  But it became clear in long conversation that they’ve received most of what they know about history and the meaning of things through screens.

They have seen the movie and not read the book. They’ve heard the sound bite but not read the speech. They read the headline on Drudge or the Huffington Post and then jump to another site with more headlines. Their understanding of history, even recent history, is therefore superficial.  Here is the problem:  If those trying to make history have only a shallow sense of history, they will not be able to make anything good.

They came to maturity in the internet age and have filled much of their brain-space with information that came in the form of pictures and sounds. They learned, that is, through sensation, and not through books, which demand something deeper from your brain.

Reading books forces you to imagine, question, ponder, reflect, connect one historical moment with another. Reading books provides a deeper understanding of political figures and events, of the world — of life itself.

Watching a movie about the Cuban Missile Crisis shows you a drama. Reading histories of it presents you with a dilemma.  The book forces you to imagine the color, sound, tone and tension, the logic of events:  It makes your brain do work.

But, oddly, it’s work the brain wants to do.

A movie or documentary is received passively: You sit back, see and hear.  Books demand more and reward more. When you read them your knowledge base deepens and expands.  In time that deepening comes to inform your own work, sometimes in ways of which you’re not fully conscious.

Not to put too fine a point, but your brain gets bigger, stronger. You become smarter and deeper.  That happens with books.

In the past two years I talked to three young presidential candidates — people running for president of the United States, real grown-ups —who, it was clear to me by the end of our conversations, had, in their understanding of modern political history, both figuratively and literally seen the movie and not read the book.  Two of them, I’ve come to know, can recite whole pages of dialogue from movies.  (I will tell you parenthetically that it is interesting to me that the movies our politicians most love are “The Godfather” Parts I and II.  In case you haven’t seen them, both movies are masterpieces and both are about gangsters involved in organized crime.  Make of that what you will.

Another candidate for president by the way stated that his two favorite books were the bible and the Art of the Deal.  I’ll let you guess who that was.

What I’m really saying is that almost everyone involved in politics or covering politics now…is getting dumber. They’re getting lost in a sea of dumb.  They may drown in it.  You must help them — they need you to help them, to be better than that, to set an example.  They are involved in the making of history…and yet some are “historical illiterates”, which is David McCullough’s phrase.  He of course is the great American historian of our time, and he would know.  He’s written brilliant histories the past 40 years and recently was asked, “Apart from Harry Truman and John Adams, what other presidents have you interviewed?”

People in politics now are getting what they know through the internet, through Google searches and Wikipedia. These can give you a certain sense of things but are by nature quick, lifeless and shallow reads that link to other quick, dry and shallow reads that everyone else has also read.  Who wrote them?  Nobody quite knows.  And what you see is often presented at a slant.  They put forward as fact what are really the biases or limited knowledge of the writer.  It all becomes a big lying loop.  Or at least a big, un-nourishing, inadequate one.

And they leave out this fact: history is human.  History is not dry dates and data, and it is not gossip or cheap stuff, it is human beings acting — sometimes heroically, sometimes inadequately or wickedly — in real time.

So: I am become an evangelist for reading books, especially history and poetry but novels too, fiction or non-fiction, whatever you’re drawn to.  But try to be open to a lot — let life summon you through books, be open to its summoning.

I know this:

If you cannot read deeply you will not be able to think deeply.

If you cannot think deeply you will not be able to lead well.

And all of you deep down, in whatever areas and whatever ways, hope to lead.

So:  Unplug and read every day. You stop at least three times a day to eat   Stop at least once a day to read.  You can also, I’m here to tell you, read while you are eating.

Here are some things you will get from it.

Information is more likely to be received and retained by the relaxed mind.  Reading is by its nature relaxing. You’re not furiously scrolling down, you’re not hitting refresh, you’re not fighting off pop-ups, not surfing in search of likes, retweets, elusive approbation.  It’s just you and your book, which unfolds before you, at your speed.  It’s tactile.  Hold the book in your hand, underline it, write notes on the margins, interact to the point even of defacement, it’s okay. Live with them for a while.  Carry the paperback in your pocket.

You must read so you don’t wind up with a head full of data you are unable to process. You process facts, data and information with the help of wisdom.  Wisdom is to be got through life experience — and books.

America is increasingly a land of communication.  We’re all talking — we talk a lot — we’re writing memos, trying to inspire office workers, making the pitch to the client, conferring with the patient, speaking at the symposia, we’re making the deal.

If you hope to be a writer, here’s what will happen if you read books: you can be a writer.  The author’s subject matter –history or poetry or a novel — will enter your mind.  Suddenly the reality of a style will insinuate itself without your even fully noticing.  It’s Murray Kempton’s style or Robert Frost’s — it’s David McCullough’s style or Willa Cather’s — but it will enter your mind and settle in.  Which means a way of looking at the world, of viewing and of processing the true nature of life, will enter your mind.  You will begin not to react but to ponder, to reflect.

You will imagine how Scott Fitzgerald’s Riviera looked along with him — you won’t be able not to — or how the stream and the small fire in Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories looked, and how the trout tasted.

These things will form colonies in your head.  They will take up space and hold up a flag.  They will say “I am the neural matter that is Emily Dickinson.’  ‘I am the cognitive territory of Leo Tolstoy, and I know what he said.’

It will change how your very mind works.  And in some magical way the deep thoughts of others give a spark to, and almost give permission to, thoughts of your own that had been lurking about but never had the courage to present themselves…

Books helped reveal myself to me.  I know that it was a book, Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, read in college, that began to reveal to me that I was a political conservative.  It was books — Saints for Sinners, and great biographies of Teresa of Avila and the Cure of Ars — that helped me understand that I was a Catholic and believed it all.  It was the first book I remember reading, a childrens’ biography of the Mayo Brothers, that provided, when I was 7 or 8, a breakthrough.  When I got to the last page I burst into tears — not because it was a sad story but because the story had ended.  Looking back, maybe this suggested to me that there was something about reading and writing that might figure in my future…

I earn a living writing a column each week only because I read books.  I follow the news to know what’s happening, but I read books to understand what’s happening.

At some point in my late thirties I stopped reading fiction and turned almost exclusively to history and biography.  I don’t know why. I think a youth reading novels was a search for the answer to the question “What is life like?”  The history and biography is:  “What happened?  How did it end?  How did we get through it?  What can I learn that will help me understand the world?”  I find now I go off on tears — a winter reading every book I can find on the Civil War, a summer devoted to the French Revolution, a few months on the Russia of Catherine the Great.

Finally there is the sheer comfort of it. When history turns murky I focus on crises and difficult eras that demanded wisdom to navigate.  I try to understand what a crisis IS, how to look at human agency, who made it a little better, who made it a little worse –.

But lately for no special reason, and yet of course for special and particular reasons, I have gone back to the stories of journalists living through history, especially columnists living through big history, such as Walter Lippmann, and Dorothy Thompson. I am re-reading their biographies.  How did they withstand the pressure of sharing their thoughts in public when the stakes were high?  How did they handle being wrong, and embarrassed?  What part of their brain and wit did they use to understand or misunderstand fascism, Hitler, communism, the beginnings of the Cold War.  I reach back to the daily drama of those trying, in their way, to lead in this great disputatious nation.

And so my friends you will be texting today.  You’ll be saying we’re at Brookland Pint, we’re at Busboys, come join us.  You are making the plans of life and about to have fun.  Fun involves logistics.  Text away.

But tomorrow put down the smart phone, put aside the internet of things, find the real and actual THING of things. Read and be taken away in a way that enriches, that strengthens, that makes you smarter, more serious, more worthy.

Keep it up. Pass it on.  If your generation doesn’t, it will disappear.

Civilization depends on it.

And so ends my chance to give you the advice the singing schoolchild made, unknowingly, to a bright, semi-wayward young man who would become a great one.  “Pick up the book, take up the book” the schoolchild sang.  And the man who would become St Augustine did, and changed himself, and changed our world.

Good fortune and high honors to the great and fabled class of 2017 of the Catholic University of America, in Washington, District of Columbia, in the United States of America.  God bless you and keep you.”

[To read Ms. Noonan’s full address, please click here.]

 

Gettin’ Jiggy with Reading

 

Think reading affects more than just the language processing parts of the brain? You bet it does.

Fifteen-month old Piper demonstrates what brain scientists have only recently proven to be true. When we read we experience the story as if it’s actually happening to us.

According to Annie Murphy Paul, author of Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives, “The brain…does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.” (“Your Brain on Fiction,” New York Times, March 18, 2012)

When a parent reads stories to a child, the child is not just learning about the world of the story, she is experiencing the world of the story. As we can see from Piper’s reaction, reading is a full-body sensory phenomenon, and it makes her very happy. Her mom and dad are teaching her an invaluable life lesson that will pay huge dividends in her future: reading is a pleasurable, rewarding activity.

It’s clear that there are many other things about books that Piper has already figured out (be sure to check out “What’s in Your Child’s Invisible Toolbox?” parts I, II, and III), but the understanding that reading is fun is the most critical lesson of all and the hardest to impart later on.

Learning why we read begins right here, in infancy, in the arms—or legs—of a loving parent.

What Else is in Your Child’s Invisible Toolbox? (Part III)

caucasian-man-reading-to-babyThe benefits a child gains from being read aloud to are many, and they contribute directly to success in school.

A child who has been read to regularly from birth arrives on day one of kindergarten with an invisible toolbox overflowing with the pre-literacy skills that are the foundation for all learning. They include not only the number one predictor of school success— a rich vocabulary—but many other essential understandings. Check out Parts I and II and then add these to the list:

They gain the ‘background of experiences’ necessary for understanding what they read in school.

Stories expand the boundaries of a child’s world in the best possible way. The greater the exposure to stories and ideas from outside their immediate experience, the better children are able to understand what they read in school. The reading a child eventually does in school is filled with countless references that will fall outside her natural orbit, and her degree of familiarity with them will determine her ability to understand what she reads.

They absorb how stories work on an unconscious level.

Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. There is a protagonist, a problem, a struggle, and a resolution. These are understandings that a young child will generally not consciously express, but they will understand intuitively that this is what constitutes a story. This unconscious familiarity will become very apparent as a child moves into writing in school.

They possess the tools to become effective writers.

Children who have been read to not only gain a greater vocabulary for expressing themselves in writing, they develop an innate grasp of how sentences are formed and have an easier time constructing them. Just as they have greater expressive fluency orally, their writing is also more fluent than that of their non-reading peers. Through hearing many stories read aloud from a young age, they have absorbed the structural rhythm that stories possess. They will draw on this to write their own more easily than their peers who have not been immersed in stories.

The simple act of sharing a daily read-aloud with a child will fill his invisible toolbox to overflowing with a rich vocabulary, an inherent understanding of the pleasure of books, knowledge of the way books and stories function, an ability to attend to what is important, and familiarity with expressive reading and the rhythm of language. These are the essential tools of literacy that are the foundation for all learning in school.

AAP’s Latest Guidelines for Children and Media

images-6Parenting in the digital age can be challenging and confusing. This week the American Academy of Pediatrics–informed by dozens of studies on screen time and its effect on the emotional and physical health of children–released new guidelines for parents. Here is some of their advice:

  • Children under the age of 2 should avoid all digital media use except for video chatting via apps like Skype and Facetime.
  • If you must introduce digital media to toddlers between the ages of 18 and 24 months, choose high-quality programming and sit with your child. Solo viewing should be avoided.
  • Children ages 2 to 5 years should have no more than one hour of screen use a day. Be sure to select high-quality programming and watch it with your children.
  • Keep bedrooms, mealtimes and parent-child playtime free of screens. (Parents, that goes for you too: Set your phone on “Do not disturb.”)
  • If you have children between the ages of 5 and 18, place consistent limits on their hours per day of media use, as well as the types of media they use.
  • Discourage the use of entertainment media while doing homework.
  • Children of all ages should avoid exposure to devices and screens for one hour before bedtime.
  • Keep smartphones, TVs and other devices out of the bedroom.
  • Communicate the family’s media guidelines to grandparents, babysitters and other caregivers so screen rules are followed consistently.
  • Have an ongoing conversation with older children about online citizenship and safety. This includes treating people with respect online; saying no to cyberbullying and sexting; and avoiding communications that can compromise personal privacy and safety.

To help your family develop a plan that is right for you, visit www.HealthyChildren.org/MediaUseplan.

Source: American Academy of Pediatrics and Los Angeles Times

What Else is in Your Child’s Invisible Toolbox? (Part II)

aa-mother-and-baby-readingEvery child walks through the doorway of kindergarten with a lunchbox in one hand and an invisible toolbox in the other. As we learned in “What’s in Your Child’s Invisible Toolbox?”, children who have been read to regularly in the early years enter school with an invisible toolbox brimming with rich vocabulary. Through hearing stories read aloud, children pick up on and begin to understand the rare words that don’t crop up in ordinary conversation. These words become the foundation that enables a child to comprehend what is taught in school. In fact, research tells us a child’s vocabulary is the number one predictor of school success.

A strong vocabulary is not the only gift in the invisible toolbox of the child who has been read to. There are several tools, or, what educators call “pre-literacy skills,” that make a significant difference in a child’s ability to appreciate and learn from what the world of school offers. A child who has been read to regularly will arrive at school having already internalized these attributes:

They are attracted to books.

Young children who have been read to will make a bee-line for an attractive display of books in a classroom. They will be curious and eager to explore because they already understand that there is something in it for them.

They attend to what is important.

Reading aloud to a child teaches them to listen, pay attention, and focus visually and auditorily. It is easier for them to shut out distractions once they begin school because they are habituated to doing so.

They understand the nuts and bolts of how books function.

We begin at the front and read to the back. We start at the top of the page and read to the bottom. We read the words from right to left. Pictures give us clues to what is happening in the story. Children may even begin to intuit that symbols on the page stand for sounds that become words.

They will become expressive readers.

If a child has been read to regularly by an expressive, engaged adult, he or she will read aloud in the same way because it’s what they know.

You may be thinking, “But can’t all these things be taught in school?” The answer is yes, but the reality is it will be more difficult for the child. The optimum place to learn all of the above is on the lap of a loving parent.

There are many more items in the invisible toolbox, so watch for them in Part III.

Why Children Need Their Own Library Cards

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When I was growing up every kid I knew had a library card. It was standard issue for a child of my generation, used once a month when the bookmobile came to school and bi-weekly during the summer when our mothers took us to the library to pick out a stack that would last us—maybe—for two weeks.

Entering the library or the bookmobile as a child was like embarking on a treasure hunt. One never knew what new discovery might lie around the corner. I loved the sense that there was a seemingly endless supply of books for me to browse through and that any number of them—within reason of course—could come home with me if I so chose. If one of them turned out not to be my cup of tea, no problem, it simply went onto the return stack that would go back to the library. More often than not, the books I hauled home turned out to be a delightful haven for me in quiet moments.

Not long ago I visited friends in a tiny eastern seaside town where they spend their vacations. Jack, who had grown up summering there, was especially eager for me to see the town’s charming stone library that had remained nearly unchanged for over one hundred years. He led me into the children’s section with as much gravitas as if he were leading me into King Tut’s tomb to see the Egyptian king’s riches. We came to the “B” shelf, and there he lifted one of Frank Baum’s original, much worn, hardcover copies of one of the Oz books. He had checked them all out many times as a child, and here they remained decades later. I moved further down the stack to the “L’s,” curious to see whether one of my favorite series, Betsy-Tacy, had also survived. I was thrilled to see that it had, but even more elated when I discovered all the original Lois Lenski books shelved above them. I hadn’t seen these books, which I’d adored through grade school, in decades. It was like meeting old, beloved friends.

Books that we grow up with and love can come from any source, of course, but there is a special value in teaching our children to use the local library. The reasons for introducing our children to the library, helping them get their own library cards, and creating a habit of use are twofold and both have to do with empowering them.

First, using the library encourages children to regularly and frequently make their own reading choices. When books are purchased children make a greater commitment, which often necessitates adult involvement in the decision making process. This is not a bad thing–I don’t at all discourage buying books— it’s just limiting. Unlike a bookstore or online shopping, browsing and sampling are not restrictive. The world of books is a child’s oyster in a library.

Second, it’s empowering for a child to have a library card of their own as it implies both responsibility and privilege. Parents also ought to have and use their own cards. Making regular trips to the library in which both parent and child check out their own books–and shared books too for read-aloud time–communicates a powerful message to a child about the value, pleasure, and importance of reading.

As a teacher, I’ve seen the number of students who have library cards and use their local library rapidly dwindle in recent years. Many of them use only the school library or buy their books online. While both of these venues are fine, they are missing out on the uniqueness of what libraries have to offer–limitless browsing, freedom of choice, and the frequent reminder of the value of reading that comes when they visit regularly with a parent and exercise this privilege with their very own library card.

 

What’s in Your Child’s Invisible Toolbox?

kinderThird grade is a watershed year in the life of a child. Research indicates that when children are not proficient readers by the end of third grade they rarely catch up and are at risk of dropping out of high school.  According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation,  “The ability to read is critical to a child’s success in school, life-long earning potential and their ability to contribute to the nation’s economy and its security.” (http://www.aecf.org/resources/early-warning-why-reading-by-the-end-of-third-grade-matters/)

As one who taught third grade for many years, I observed this unfortunate reality too many times. Despite strong teaching and intervention programs, some of our students continued to lag far behind their peers in reading and, because the skill is so foundational, they usually struggled in the rest of their subjects as well. These were students who had come up through the grades with the rest of their classmates, beginning in kindergarten. They had been exposed to outstanding teaching, just as their reading peers had.  So what accounted for the growing gap?

Looking back through the years I could imagine my third graders arriving at school on the first day of kindergarten, each with an invisible toolbox in hand. I knew that some of their toolboxes were filled to overflowing with language and love of story. Some of them, sadly, were empty. These were the students who were still struggling in third grade, who’d had very little exposure to books, who had not been read to regularly. The students with full toolboxes had been read to. A lot.

Research tells us that a child’s vocabulary is the greatest predictor of success in school. Children who know more words understand more of what is taught in the classroom. They actually get more out of school than their peers with limited vocabularies. According to Jim Trelease (The Read-Aloud Handbook) there are approximately 5,000 words commonly used in general conversation known as the Basic Lexicon. Beyond this, there are 5 ,000 more that are known and understood called the Common Lexicon. A child’s acquisition of these words is affected, of course, by the quality of conversation in the home. Beyond the 10,000, however, are the ‘rare words’ that do not crop up in ordinary conversation. These are the words that are found in printed text–not in conversation or television or movies. These are the words that make a difference in school.

Students who have been read to arrive at school on the first day of kindergarten with an invisible toolbox flush with language. Their familiarity with the ‘rare words’ enables them to comprehend stories and much more of what comes their way in instruction.  For the child who arrives at school with a deficit in vocabulary, it is extremely difficult to catch up to their peers whose rate of learning grows exponentially with each passing year.

I often wished in those days that I could roll back time, meet my students’ parents at the doors of  the maternity ward, hand them a stack of wonderful children’s books, and let them know how important it was for them to begin reading to their children for pleasure right away.

Every child should arrive on day one of kindergarten with a brimming invisible toolbox. An enriched vocabulary is just one important byproduct of reading aloud to a child from birth. Many other skills will be tucked into the invisible toolbox as well, enabling a child to take full advantage of what the world of school has to offer.

 

 

 

Your Baby’s Brain: Wired to Connect

The work of the brain at birth is to begin laying down an internal infrastructure of language that enables the child to make sense of the outside world, preparing her for her ultimate purpose—which is to connect.

Watch the drive to connect in action in three month old Piper’s focused alertness and vocalization as her daddy reads The Hungry Caterpillar to her.

According to Susan Brink, author of The Fourth Trimester: Understanding, Nurturing, and Protecting an Infant Through the First Three Months, hearing develops long before birth. The newborn, already accustomed to the sounds of the muffled maternal voice, recognizes and responds to a mother’s voice first. Beyond a mother’s voice, the sounds in a baby’s world are a meaningless din. But here is where the real learning begins.

“…lest anyone think these undifferentiated noises are useless, think again. With an innate skill that would be the envy of a statistics student, newborns are keeping track of probabilities; setting up neural connections in response to the patterns of the words they hear. They are learning where one word ends and another begins before they utter their first da-da.”[i]

Patricia Kuhl, a neuroscientist and leading expert on speech development at the University of Washington, has discovered that babies are born with the ability to hear the sound distinctions of every language that exists, but by ten months of age—maybe sooner—that ability is lost, “pruned away by a brain eager to cultivate what will be needed and get rid of what won’t.” [ii]

Human babies arrive in this world poised to learn.

At birth, Brink claims, babies possess “…billions of brain cells, or neurons, but little in the way of an internal communication network. Immediately, every interaction with the world–each touch, word, smell, look—helps the baby lay down an infrastructure of dendrites, the branched projections that receive and send signals between neurons.”[iii] The science that enables us to understand that infants begin learning immediately at birth, or even before, is clear and its implications are profound.

But perhaps even more profound than the fact of how soon learning begins is the beautiful metaphor that the brain cell reveals to us, for it organically demonstrates a truth about what it means to be human.

The work of the brain at birth is to begin making connections that enable the child to make sense of the outside world, preparing her for her ultimate purpose, to love. As parents it is important for us to understand that learning is a drive organically rooted in a child’s physical being, and its ultimate aim is to create a meaningful life. When we speak, sing, and read to our child from birth, this loving way of engaging builds neural pathways in the brain that become the physical infrastructure for all future learning and loving.

Learning, therefore, is connection, rooted in relationship.

Major religions throughout history have proclaimed a life of love as the highest human calling, and the observations of those who work in hospice care are equally compelling. Paradoxically, death often illuminates what is most important in life, and those who accompany the dying in life’s final stage are privileged to bear witness to their reflections as they look back over their lives. Social worker Grace Bluerock wrote,

“For six years, I had the amazing gift of being able to experience with people their final days and weeks. For most, these last days and weeks were spent looking back over their lives in deep contemplation. Many regrets were expressed, and many tears were shed. As a hospice social worker, I got a front row seat into the lives of those precious souls as they attempted to come to terms with how they spent their time on this earth. Everyone’s story was different, but each held common threads and similar regrets.” [iv]

The number one regret Bluerock observed in the dying during her years of service is that people wished they had loved more deeply. No one dies wishing they had made more money or worked harder. Ironically, at the moment of our departure from life we are perhaps most conscious of the instinct that existed as an unconscious urge from the very beginning—the longing to connect.

Our very purpose is imbedded in the work of our brain cells as we enter the world, and its function is a metaphor for what we as humans are destined to do.

A child’s drive to connect with his parents is important to understand, as it is the foundation for all learning. From birth on, babies are at work making connections and building the mental and emotional infrastructure that will make sense of the world and carry them into life. As parents of a newborn, we are that world, and the primary responsibility to nurture this process is ours. Speaking, singing, and reading aloud honor our infant’s drive to bond with us and nurtures the emerging internal infrastructure that will carry him into future learning and life.

 

[i] Susan Brink. “Through a Newborn’s Senses.” Los Angeles Times, May 11. 2013.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Grace Bluerock. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/grace-bluerock/5-most-valuable-life-lessons-i-learned-hospice-worker_b_7499030.html