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BLOG > When is the right time to start being concerned about literacy? Early Literacy Birth to Five

Why we cannot afford to wait

Placeholder imageThe Nation’s Report Card came out last week. Results from assessing reading skills among high school seniors in 2015 were not that different from 2013. Once again, just under 40 percent of students scored at college and career ready levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). That’s not a strong prognosis for college or job success.

High school is too late to be realizing this level of underachievement even if high school graduation rates are up. And, once again, our lowest performing students continue to struggle even more than their higher achieving peers. We cannot overvalue the importance of quality experiences during the earliest years.

Children of poverty have been reported to have the fewest quality experiences and, by four years of age, lag behind their peers in basic language skills that predict becoming literate. Hart and Risley’s classic study showed a 32 million word exposure gap between children of college educated parents versus those from poverty. It is no wonder that almost 50% of children enter Kindergarten not ready to read.

When is the right time to start being concerned about literacy? Quality early learning experiences begin at birth. We know that by nine months of age, children’s brains are responding to extraordinary learning opportunities in terms of the sounds they learn and the mouth movements they attend to for early speech production. We also know that parents are a child’s first teachers. So let’s make sure parents, childcare providers and early educators receive the knowledge they need to promote a successful start for literacy learning.

BUILDING BLOCKS FOR LITERACY®, is a program for early care and education providers and parents. It uses recommendations from the National Research Council and Early Literacy Panel Report to teach play-based, developmentally appropriate strategies to our youngest learners. Have you ever played Duck, Duck Goose with syllables and sounds? How about teaching vocabulary through Text Talk® with children’s literature? Research has told us what children need to learn to read. From birth to five, they need to share rich reading experiences, increase their sound awareness, and learn how our language links sounds to letters. Outcome data from BUILDING BLOCKS studies showed that young children whose providers took this training not only did better on measures of early literacy but those in the lowest 20th percentile, our most vulnerable young learners, were more likely to go from below to above at risk levels.

Well-trained teachers at home, school and childcare settings are at the epicenter of any effort to improve outcomes for our youngest learners. The precious childhood years between birth and five are the time to invest in early literacy if we ever want to see a better report card for our nation later on.

Blanche Podhajski, Ph D.
President, Stern Center for Language and Learning
Clinical Associate Professor or Neurological Sciences
University of Vermont College of Medicine