Pre-literacy


henrybooksHere’s a great story, “Play time helps boost child literacy,” from the online London (Ontario) Free Press, about the links between the play of babies and toddlers and pre-literacy skills. Most of us who’ve been involved in pre-literacy skills and young children have known this stuff for a while, but each generation of new parents doesn’t have a clue how literacy happens, needs to learn it, and we librarians need to take a major role in spreading those facts around. Here’s a quote:

“Play is important because right now they’re developing emergent literacy skills,” said Patti Prentice, a literacy specialist with the Ontario Early Years Centre. “Before (children) can read or write, they need to have skills.”

Community agencies in London are making literacy a priority, after a report found one in five Londoners lack literacy skills needed to understand a simple drug label.

Babies are born with a set number of brain cells. As they play, sing songs and have face time with a parent or caregiver, their brain cells make connections that set the foundation for early literacy.

Experts say those connections are made between birth and three years of age.

“They have to build them all and then it’s a case of use them or lose them,” said Prentice.

The article is accompanied by a sidebar, “Early Literacy Games,” listing simple activities parents and other adults can do to enhance babies’ and toddlers’ pre-literacy skills. For example, here’s how to build babies’ awareness of sounds, AKA phonological awareness, one of the basics of literacy:

Age: Up to three months

—Imitate the noises your baby makes with his or her mouth, including kissing sounds, tongue clicking, “raspberries,” suck in air quickly and blow it out quickly.

Age: Three to six months

—Fill small containers with different things, such as dry beans, rice, bells or marbles. Be sure the lid is on tightly. Give baby a shaker and say, “shake, shake, shake.” Then give the baby other containers. Try to imitate the sounds and respond when the baby does the same.

I wish they broadcast stuff like this as part of halftime at the Super Bowl, or in place of commercials during shows like 24. But I don’t think they ever will, so it’s up to folks like us to let adults know how children gain the skills they need to learn to read. Remember to get the pre-literacy message out to all the parents, grandparents, and others you encounter who work with kids under three, and build that link between literacy and the library.

librThe American Library Association’s Washington Office released to the library community this month a document it created for the Obama-Biden Transition Team: “Opening the ‘Window to a Larger World’: Libraries’ Role in Changing America.” (This link goes to a PDF of the report.) The document hits all the main points that concern us library folks: copyright, privacy, LSTA funding, and, of particular interest to me, literacy.

It begins by telling its readers, as ALA has been telling people in almost every communication with non-librarians that it publishes, and in bold type, too, “Americans are using libraries now more than ever.” I’m not certain how well it, or we library folks in general, are convincing the rest of the world that this claim is true, but it bears repeating. It also does its best to clearly state, below, in the broadest sense, what librarians do and why they’re important, and tie those things to some of the president-elect’s stated aims:

Librarians take very seriously their responsibility to serve as guardians for the public in assuring access to the most trusted, unbiased information. The ALA is ready to work with the new Administration to see President-elect Obama’s commitments to openness, transparency and equity fully realized. Libraries and librarians are critical resources for meeting these goals.

Getting into specific issues, the paper ticks off all those things on many librarians’ wish lists – things like:

* Get libraries/librarians involved in the expansion of broadband access to all parts of the country;

* Get federal agents off librarians’ backs by redoing the Patriot Act and similar laws when it comes to the privacy of library records;

* Include school libraries and school librarians in education mandates (as we all know, a major failure of George W’s “No Child Left Behind” law), and

* Enhance libraries’ abilities to participate in “e-government” – communicating with government agencies and doing government business through the Net, especially for lower-income folks without Net access.

There’s a section called “Safe computing and children,” which can be boiled down to the two first lines, and continues the ALA tradition of opposing filtering. But it’s pretty clear that filtering is here to stay in most libraries; the section’s gentler language, compared with the way these ideas were expressed during the filtering fights of earlier years, acknowledges that it’s a fight ALA has lost:

* Support legislation and fund programs that include Internet safety education, as opposed to Internet blocking and filtering;

* Emphasize the importance of parental involvement in Internet training and safety[…]

But the section of most interest to me, and the one I feel has the most chance of becoming reality, is called, “Literacy and Lifelong Learning.” You may be aware, as I mentioned a couple of posts ago, that Obama was early on converted to the need to support early childhood education and pre-literacy skills, particularly for lower-income children. These kids often don’t get the kind of language stimulation – in particular, print language stimulation and a wider vocabulary – that kids from families with middle or higher incomes do.

We still have a huge way to go in convincing the general public that libraries indeed have a role to play in helping children of all income levels gain a love and appreciation of print in all its forms. Here are a couple of the points from the document, which also emphasizes the role of libraries in aiding low-literacy adults:

* Promote partnerships between early childhood literacy programs and libraries; emphasize the contribution these literacy programs provide to aid in a child’s intellectual development;

* Promote and articulate the important role libraries serve in literacy efforts, including how libraries provide access to early learning activities for language acquisition and other learning and literacy skills for infants, toddlers, preschoolers and their families;

* Create a Presidential Early Learning Council, as envisioned by President-elect Obama, to encourage necessary dialogue among programs at the federal, state and local levels;

* Include librarians as full participants in this learning council and other literacy advisory groups [Here’s a major big deal, if there’s any way it could happen; typically, educators involved with these types of programs don’t even consider librarians worthy of joining such a team];

* Encourage private and nonprofit sectors to collect and disseminate the most valid and up-to-date research on early learning and highlight best practices and model programs at the state and local level [with the notion, I suppose, that programs involving libraries would be included];

* Review all types of federally supported literacy programs and assure appropriate planning and budgeting to support high school students and adult literacy;

* Require community partnerships between local literacy programs and local public libraries within adult literacy programs [see above, as libraries aren’t usually given consideration here, either];

* Broadly promote and emphasize the need for literacy programs and the “right to read”; through public awareness programs, encourage those needing literacy training to use every opportunity; promote literacy as an important tool to obtain employment, gain formal and informal education and to participate in the full breadth of life’s activities;

* Promote literacy programs as a tool for “hope.” [Hmm – is this different than regular hope, the kind without the quotation marks?]

I’m glad to see this document out there. But will it really make any difference? I dunno. With all the horrible pressures of the battered economy and the war in Iraq and Afghanistan getting most of the attention – and with most of the attention regarding education going to the schools and classroom teachers – will there be even a micron of space to squeeze libraries into the spotlight? I’m old and cynical enough to wonder.

obamaThere’s a great article in the New York Times, “Obama Pledge Stirs Hope in Early Childhood Education,” about what we can look forward to in the new Administration when it comes to the education of preschool kids. I listened closely to what Barack Obama said about education all through the Presidential campaign, and he almost always, in his speeches and debates, singled out preschoolers for special mention.

George W’s “No Child Left Behind” law basically acted as if preschoolers weren’t there. But that, I hope, is about to change. And will libraries have a role to play? Geez, I hope so – but probably not unless we library folks are out there with cymbals and kazoos, making a racket.

Obama wants to get programs such as Early Head Start, which Bill Clinton started up in 1994, better funded and taking a more critical role. But early childhood education in the U.S. is a nationwide mishmash. The article describes it:

“It’s a patchwork quilt, a tossed salad, a nonsystem,” said Libby Doggett, executive director of Pre-K Now, a group that presses for universal, publicly financed prekindergarten.

There are federal and state, public and private, for-profit and nonprofit programs. Some unfold in public school classrooms, others in storefront day care centers, churches or Y.M.C.A.’s, and still others in tiny centers run out of private homes.

“California has 22 different funding streams for child care and preschool, and that mirrors the crazy labyrinth of funding sources coming out of Washington,” said Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who is the author of “Standardized Childhood: The Political and Cultural Struggle Over Early Education.”

ALA, ALSC, and PLA (the American Library Association, the Association for Library Services for Children, and the Public Library Association) began their big “Every Child Ready to Read” program in public libraries partly because early childhood programs were fragmented and disorganized, and someone needed to step up and offer parents everywhere a great pre-literacy resource in every community’s library.

There are tons more baby times, toddler times, and other pre-literacy-oriented programs going on in libraries nationwide than there were ten years ago – and I say, hooray!

But do you see the national press recognizing what public libraries do for young children? Um, no; not really. Do you see any mention of libraries in this NY Times article? I don’t.

What does this mean? It means that we have to make certain that people (parents, teachers, program directors, just plain folks) know more about how public library programs and materials can help prepare young children for school, for the working world, and for their lives.

Obama cited in his platform a famous study (at least famous among early childhood education advocates) about the value of spending government funds to support education (including pre-literacy education) for young lower-income kids, who need it the most:

One much-cited study is of a preschool program that offered high-quality services to a few dozen black children in Ypsilanti, Mich., in the early 1960s at a two-year cost per child of about $15,000. The study found that the investment, 40 years later, had rendered economic returns to society of some $244,000 per child, much of that in savings from reduced criminal activity. Critics have challenged the findings, in part because of the small number of children involved.

Mr. Obama’s platform accepts the broad logic of the Ypsilanti study. “For every one dollar invested in high-quality, comprehensive programs supporting children and families from birth,” the platform says, “there is a $7-$10 return to society in decreased need for special education services, higher graduation and employment rates, less crime, less use of the public welfare system and better health.”

I hope this will be an exciting time for those who work with young children in libraries, but it won’t be unless we make noise. We librarians need to insist on expanding our role. So offer people in early childhood programs the library’s assistance. Pay visits to preschools, Head Starts, and child care centers. Put up signs in the library. We can grab a big opportunity if we work hard for it.

I’ve mentioned WETA Public Television’s “Reading Rockets” site and TV series several times in the past, but I particularly wanted to mention their newest programs on young children and reading readiness. This article, called “Toddling toward Reading,” reveals all the basics.

Many members of each new generation of parents – in particular, all the parents whose educational experience might be limited – believe that children learn to read in school, period, and their child doesn’t need any help gaining pre-reading skills before starting kindergarten. They don’t understand that those kids who have the easiest time learning to read in school have been prepared by parents who read to them from infancy, and who talked to them, recited rhymes to them, and sang to them. We library folks need to be passing the word on.

Unfortunately, the program is being broadcast on various public TV stations at all kinds of bizarre times, some of them inconvenient for parents of young children. But this site includes some great resources and materials you can pass along to parents and teachers you know. There’s a link to a National association for the Education of Young Children article called “Learning to Read and Write: What Research Reveals,” and another, “Pre-K and Latinos.” Take a look.

Last week, the U.S. Census released figures showing that due to the massive migration of Hispanic families into this country, in many places the majority of children under 5 years old are combinations of Asian, Black, Native American, and – especially – Latino. This change in population is particularly noticeable in the South and West, and in states in which Latino migration is highest. The story in the Washington Post explains it this way:

As with minorities in general, immigrants tend to be younger than non-Hispanic whites and still in their childbearing years. As a result, in five suburban Washington counties, more than half of children age 4 and younger were minorities when the annual Census Bureau survey was taken a year ago.

Demographers have long predicted this change; it’s the breaking wave of what the U.S. population in general will become by the middle of the 21st century, when no single ethnic/cultural group of Americans will make up more than 50 percent of the American people.

The biggest reason, however, to be paying attention to this shift in the numbers of children under 5 is that with huge amounts of children entering school, many of whom do not speak English well, educators are concerned about the levels of literacy these children will achieve in American schools:

… although most Hispanic children younger than 5 are native-born U.S. citizens and therefore eligible for government health care and other benefits, research indicates that if their parents are not U.S. citizens, they will be less likely to claim assistance, said Michael Fix, director of studies at the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute.

“All of this really reinforces the importance for counties to increase their investment in early childhood development now,” Fix said.”If you don’t make that investment, one of the penalties you pay down the line is that you have kids in school who don’t speak English well and whose overall performance lags behind.”

Fix pointed to studies indicating that as many as 75 percent of elementary school children learning English as a second language were born in the United States.

“Even more worrisome is that over half of the English-as-a-second-language learners in high school were native born,” Fix added.

It’s pretty clear that the new generation of librarians in both public and school libraries should be learning at least the basics of Spanish, as well as learning how to work with ESL kids. Helping these children become literate will become a major challenge as their numbers grow over the next 15 to 20 years.

Update: Here’s a story on CNN.com that explains the population changes we can expect by the year 2050 in more detail.

Susan Neuman, who was for a couple of years President Bush’s Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education, and is an important educational researcher, has written an editorial in the Detroit Free Press that labels the No Child Left Behind program that sets the standards for public education in this country a failure. It’s a failure because the program’s goal, to lift the educational achievement of children of lower-income families, can’t be solved by schools alone. It takes a whole community – which includes the library – to do it.

A lot of the difference in reading scores between well-off kids and kids in poverty stems from the differences between their parents’ levels of education, and the belief their parents and caregivers have in how much education can make a difference in their lives. It also matters how much children are talked to, and what they’re talked to about. It matters how many questions they’re asked, and whether the parents and caregivers interact with those children over their answers.

Well-off children typically are asked more questions – and adults and caregivers pay more attention to their answers. They’re talked to more, and exposed to a lot more words, and when they start school they know more words and know how to use them. They’re read to more and sung to more. This is the kind of thing Neuman means by “intervention” when she says:

In their 1995 book “Meaningful Differences,” Betty Hart and Todd Risley calculated it would take approximately 41 hours of extra intervention per week to raise language scores of poor children to those of their well-off counterparts by age four — and that’s before starting preschool!

Here is where libraries can make a difference – and here is where libraries can be blowing their horns to the community far louder. We need to be doing whatever we can to get more low-income babies, toddlers, and preschoolers into our preschool programs. And if they aren’t coming in, we need to be traveling to where they are.

I feel kind of weird linking up to yet another New York Times story, but I have a bad habit of reading the Times online every day. And I keep finding great stories there. Here’s one of David Brooks’s political op-ed columns that talks, for a change, about those things we early literacy fans always go nuts over.

Brooks thinks we need to be paying more attention to education right now, and less to gas prices. Read this piece, “The Biggest Issue,” and I think you’ll agree with him that the saggy economy we’re dealing with at the moment is tied, at least partly, to the sad dropout rate in plenty of high schools – and the even sadder job prospects of those dropouts.

We’re passing into a time when everyone needs to be literate to get a decent job, and most of the young people dropping out of high school aren’t. Brooks cites a recent study from James Heckman of the University of Chicago called “Schools, Skills and Synapses” (the link is to a pdf of the paper):

Heckman points out that big gaps in educational attainment are present at age 5. Some children are bathed in an atmosphere that promotes human capital development and, increasingly, more are not. By 5, it is possible to predict, with depressing accuracy, who will complete high school and college and who won’t.

Of course, most educators, and most librarians who have been working with kids for any length of time, know this stuff. It sure seems that most of the rest of the country doesn’t, though. I’m amazed by how easy it seems to be to fund a war, but how difficult it seems to be to get Head Start funded at anywhere near the level it needs to be.

As librarians, we have opportunities to reach new parents that most teachers haven’t had a chance to reach yet with the message that literacy is important. And we can establish the idea that literacy is fun, and silly, and challenging. We need to be doing everything we can to encourage those parents – especially parents who don’t come from educated backgrounds – how important it is to read, talk, and sing with their children. And to use, and play with, lots and lots of words.

And come next year, with a new president, we can hope for a little more funding…

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