Unexpected Ways to Support Early Literacy
Boosting early literacy rates is a goal for many educators, parents, and policymakers, and for good reason: Early literacy intervention and support has been proven to set young children on the path to later success. In an interview with the online outlet Neuroscience News, John Hutton—a Cincinnati-based pediatrician, children’s bookstore owner, and lead author of a 2015 study that showed the impact of reading to young children through MRI imaging—summed up the results of the study thusly: “We are excited to show, for the first time, that reading exposure during the critical stage of development prior to kindergarten seems to have a meaningful, measurable impact on how a child’s brain processes stories and may help predict reading success.”
Hutton’s study included an economically diverse group of preschool children and looked at various forms of caregiver-child interactions, including reading books together. Monitoring children’s brain activity with an MRI machine while the children were listening to a story being read to them illuminated some key early literacy points for Hutton, including the “activation of specific brain areas supporting semantic processing (the extraction of meaning from language).” As Neuroscience News explained, this finding is important because “these areas are critical for oral language and later for reading.”
Unfortunately, according to many researchers and education professionals, too few of today's children are receiving the kind of early literacy skills, support, and intervention necessary for later success—and researchers from the Harvard Graduate School of Education have gone so far as to call the situation a crisis. In announcing a new early literacy initiative called Reach Every Reader, Harvard staff cited this sobering statistic: “A student who fails to read in first grade has a 90 percent probability of reading poorly in fourth grade and a 75 percent probability of reading poorly in high school, with implications for success later in life.” The school’s new Reach Every Reader program is designed to tackle this situation head-on thanks to philanthropic support from the Chan-Zuckerberg Foundation, an organization started by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.
This brings up an important point. In an era when funding for public school programs and initiatives—including widespread access to preschool—can be tough to rely on, what should researchers, parents, and education practitioners do? One strategy may be to tap into grants and community partnerships to find the dollars and dedication necessary to start and maintain early literacy programs. For example, the Chan-Zuckerberg Foundation gave $30 million in 2018 to launch the Reach Every Reader early literacy program in partnership with the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Florida State University. Although the Reach Every Reader approach is broad and still very new, meaning it is too soon to judge the value of using personalized learning strategies or newly developed diagnostic tools to boost literacy rates, it is shining a needed spotlight on early literacy efforts.
Among the numerous smaller foundations, grants, and partnerships also being used to address critical early literacy needs, here are a few examples worth considering.
Regional grants tap into unique needs
The Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation is a philanthropic and community development organization based in Owatonna, Minnesota, just south of the Twin Cities. Recently, the group shared details of its Literacy Grant Program, which has distributed thousands of Spanish, English, and bilingual children’s books to local organizations with the hope of “encouraging a lifelong love of reading.” This is being done in conjunction with regional publishing companies that donated the books as part of a community-based approach to early literacy and future workplace readiness.
The foundation has also developed a unique way to support parents by hosting mid-day workshops that focus on the importance of helping young children gain essential pre-reading and writing skills. This is only one way to getting books into the hands of families, of course, and it does not seek to address some of the underlying socioeconomic barriers that may make it difficult for some parents and caregivers to frequently read with children.
Tap (unexpected) community resources
A children’s museum in Michigan recently took an unusual step toward emphasizing the value of early literacy. In the summer of 2018, high school students who belonged to a Citizen Artists program at an area art center were asked to create “artful representations” of words deemed important for young children to know. The goal was to use a sense of fun and play to nurture children’s emerging literacy skills through an interactive and multifaceted exhibit, with support from the United Way of Northwest Michigan. Encouragingly, businesses in the community picked up the baton and incorporated the same set of words into their surroundings.
Researchers at Ohio State University discovered an unexpected way to encourage caregivers to read with children: pay them to do it. Graduate students and educational psychology department members at the university embarked on an exploratory 15-week session designed to see how caregivers can best support the literacy development of their young charges—children who, according to the researchers, were all “4 or 5 years old and had been diagnosed with language impairment.” In addition, most of the caregivers “lived in low-income households.”
Four techniques were tried over the course of the study, including mentoring, support, and the provision of “positive feedback” related to how adults read with children. Paying the adults a modest amount—50 cents per reading session—was found to have the greatest impact on the young children’s reading test scores, to the surprise of the university staff. Lead researcher Laura Justice notes that this clued in her and her colleagues to an important discovery: The small amount of money offered to parents and caregivers in this study was enough to help them prioritize reading and get around the “time pressure” that may have prevented them from consistently reading with the children in their care.
Although paying parents and caregivers to read with young children is beyond the reach of many teachers and administrators, a willingness to think creatively and find new ways to “identify the right barriers” when it comes to early literacy skills could be an important part of supporting the idea that “reading is the foundational skill for all school-based learning.” From embracing the emerging neuroscience of early literacy to seeking out greater community partnerships, early childhood education professionals may find themselves armed with more evidence and support for their very important work with young children.
Ultimately, there are many resources out there that demonstrate how early childhood teachers and other individuals who work with young children can use everyday moments to reinforce emerging literacy skills.
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