Reading Between the Scribbled Lines

Early childhood literacy is a factor for future academic and professional success.

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Parents soak in all of the early markers of a child’s life. A baby taking his or her first steps, a toddler uttering his or her first words, or a kid riding a bike for the first time, are all seemingly monumental events that help further etch a sense of pride into the father and mother. One early childhood milestone, however, often has much larger implications in the life of the child: literacy.

The ability to read and comprehend information is essential to academic success. Consequently, failure to read proficiently can be the quickest way to diminish a child’s future success rate.

“There’s an enormous body of literature that suggests that how kids are doing when they enter kindergarten is highly predictive of that child’s future success in the academic perspective and even after they graduate high school,” says Steven Dow, executive director of Community Action Project Tulsa, an anti-poverty agency dedicated to providing children and families with the educational tools to break the cycle of poverty.

Studies have shown that 80 percent of brain growth is complete in a person by the time they are five years old. For this reason, a greater emphasis has been placed on early childhood education in recent years. President Barack Obama and United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have proposed many national initiatives to increase early education. Literacy, specifically, has been targeted as a key marker of a child’s educational development, primarily because regardless of the academic subject being studied, reading is necessary.

Donna Hall is a reading specialist and board member at Creek County Literacy Program in Oklahoma. Hall believes that falling behind in reading and literacy skills can create a dangerous snowball effect in a child’s life if left unchecked.

shutterstock_259613603“Teaching early literacy skills can be equated to building a brick wall with each brick representing a specific early literacy skill,” says Hall. “As children acquire each skill, bricks are added to the wall, starting at the bottom. As each row of bricks is completed, children’s literacy abilities grow.  With each grade level, additional literacy skills are mastered, thereby allowing their brick wall of literacy skills to grow and become stronger. Without the basic, early literacy skills, further development becomes extremely difficult. Each early literacy skill not mastered creates a missing brick in that wall. If skills are not mastered, the foundation of the brick wall ultimately becomes less and less stable due to missing skills.”

Many early childhood educators believe that the seeds of childhood literacy should be sown within the first year of a child’s life with oral language development and eventually phonetic skills.

Scholars suggest that in order for a child to be prepared for school, he or she needs to hear at least 25,000 words per day from birth to age five.

“Based on what we know, the parents clearly play a significant role in the education process early on,” said Dow. “The problem is that in many situations formal schooling does not happen early enough.”

Exposing children, and even toddlers, to a vast amount of words can have a large impact down the road. But if the parent lacks the vocabulary to consistently reach this mark or, for whatever reason, isolates the child from many verbal conversations the child can suffer early on in reading and comprehension.

“The state of Oklahoma has done a great job in creating preschool opportunities that most states don’t provide,” says Dow.

In order for [literacy] skills to be developed, additional practice is required at home nightly, such as spelling words, phonetic skills, sight words, reading nightly to children and/or listening to children read once students are capable of reading on their own.”

“From birth to beginning kindergarten, the responsibility falls on the family unit and rereading books to a child, talking to the child as they watch you throughout the day, are all ways to assist in increasing children’s oral language development,” says Hall.

Additionally, families are seldom aware of the ways in which their conversation and verbal actions affect the educational development of a toddler, particularly parents who were not highly educated themselves. Very often, literacy rates among children directly reflect the socio-economic status and education level of the child’s family.

When a child reaches kindergarten, the duty of educating the child shifts primarily to the school system; however, each student has different needs that require different levels of attention. Meeting all of those specific needs can be difficult.

This year, Oklahoma passed the Reading Sufficiency Act, otherwise known as the Third Grade Reading Law, which requires all schools to make sure every student is reading at grade level by the end of the school year.

The law was initially introduced with controversy, but the latest state test scores show subtle improvements. Based on results from the Oklahoma Core Curriculum Test in December 2015, the amount of students reading at grade level or higher improved from 66.2 percent in 2014 to 69.5 percent in 2015.

Furthermore, Hall adds that “In order for [literacy] skills to be developed, additional practice is required at home nightly, such as spelling words, phonetic skills, sight words, reading nightly to children and/or listening to children read once students are capable of reading on their own.”

As a state, Oklahoma has taken steps to remedy this issue. Though there are large gaps in elementary reading levels among various urban and rural school districts, numerous programs and initiatives have been created in recent years to tackle the problem directly.

Some of the positive educational programs include Tulsa Educare, Head Start, Oklahoma Parents as Teachers and AmeriCorps Tulsa Reading Partners.

“Great strides have been made in Oklahoma to increase early childhood education despite tremendous budget constraints and legislative interventions,” says Hall.

Though strides have been made, Hall and other early childhood educators agree that there is no quick solution to vastly improving childhood literacy.

“It is nearly impossible to remediate these children in one year,” says Hall. “Remediation must begin as soon as skill gaps are determined; thus, allowing students to gain the necessary skills specified for each grade level.”

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