While I fully support the need for state funding so that all our at-risk children can have a quality pre-school experience, we must not forget the huge impact that parents have on elementary school reading achievement when children are between birth and three years of age.
Elementary school students in the United States are, in general, poor readers; in 2013, the Annie Casey Foundation showed that 66-82 percent of beginning fourth graders were not reading proficiently. I met with our public school administrators in 2014 and learned that just over 50 percent of our kindergarten students do not have the language skills necessary to begin learning to read, and that a very similar percentage of our beginning fourth graders were not reading at grade level. We know that good teachers cannot often “fix” children who enter kindergarten without the language skills they need to begin learning to read.
Our research led us to conclude that we have a major “birth to age three years” problem. The child’s brain has finished growing by the third birthday. Children who hear their parents say the most words from birth to age three years are the ones most likely to be ready to read when they get to kindergarten. Some children hear their parents say 30 million more words than other children in those critical first three years of life. When the television is “on” in the home, adult conversation falls significantly.
My observations of parental behavior lead me to conclude that many parents are so addicted to screen-based technology and TV that they are spending little time engaged in face-to-face talking with their babies and young children. Furthermore, when these babies and young children act out, the parents give them an i-phone or i-pad, or prop them up in front of a TV, so that the children will be quiet while the parents are doing what the parents want to do.
In our community, we have merged two programs, Reach Out and Read and Read Wayne, to try to improve elementary school reading skills. Reach Out and Read is a program through which child health professionals begin talking with parents at birth about the importance of parent-child verbal interaction and reading, and give age- and culturally-appropriate books to babies and preschool children at all check-ups between 6 months and 5 years of age. When the health professionals give the books to the children, they talk with the families about the importance of face-to-face talking and reading with babies and young children.
It would not cost much for our state to pay for every child to be enrolled in Reach Out and Read and for our libraries to have funds to send advocates out into our communities to promote a early literacy agenda – starting at BIRTH!
David T. Tayloe, Jr., MD, is a Goldsboro pediatrician.