PORTLAND – The precursor to reading success is exposure to a lot of language and literacy from birth to 5 years of age: at home, in child care, in preschool or Head Start.

It is during this time in a child’s development when the stage is set for reading success or failure. It is also the best time to intervene when a child has not been exposed to high-quality language and literacy environments.

Over the past 15 years, an enormous amount of research has been focused on what a child needs to know before entering the early elementary grades, specifically around language.

Language development is what leads to literacy. Children need exposure to both vocabulary and grammar — in very large quantities. They need to hear and participate in spoken language with the people in their lives and hear it as it sounds in written form, through hearing books being read.

However, just being read to is not enough. Children need to participate in discussions and talk about books — the pictures, the characters, the plot and their misunderstandings. This is what many parents do with their children every night at bedtime without even realizing it.

What happens when children are denied this “language bath”?

A seminal research study by Todd Hart and Betty Risley has shown that children’s early language experiences vary widely, depending on the income and education of their parents.

Certainly, there are exceptions, but the children from homes with the lowest income and least educated parents heard 30 million fewer words spoken to them from the time they were 6 months old to the age of 3 than those with the highest educated parents.

Moreover, the children of the most educated families had larger vocabularies than the parents of the poorest children.

Not only were there many fewer words, but the majority of the words the lowest income children heard were prohibitions (e.g., “Sit down.” “Be quiet.”) Other research has shown consistently that these “management” words do nothing to increase reading ability.

Hart and Risley followed the same children through third grade — the time when reading comprehension (vocabulary) really starts to matter. The children with the smallest vocabularies at age 3 struggled the most with reading at age 8.

Though it is sometimes possible for children to catch up later on, catching up costs time and money, both of which are in short supply in the public school system today.

So, what can we do?

First, talk to children, whether we are parents, relatives, teachers, caregivers or neighbors. Talk to them about what is happening: Why is the squirrel carrying an acorn in his mouth? What is the bulldozer doing at the end of our street? What happens to the noodles as they cook on the stove? In the reading world, this is called “background knowledge” and it is almost always full of great vocabulary.

Without vocabulary, children will sound out words, but never understand a word they read, let alone a passage or a book.

To understand what this feels like, pick up a college physics book and try to read a chapter (that is, if you’re not a physicist). You can probably sound out the words, but have no idea what you are reading. That’s because you have no vocabulary or background knowledge to understand.

In order to access text in third and fourth grade, children need the background knowledge and vocabulary that they get from their families.

Second, read to children. Get a library card and take out books. For parents who may have difficulty reading, sign out books on tape or CD. Even for parents who may struggle with their own literacy, there are picture books to discuss. Take children to the weekly library story hour.

For parents who work, make sure the child is in a setting where teachers are talking about interesting and important things and, of course, reading often.

Until all children are exposed to both quantity and quality talk, we will always have struggling readers and the achievement gap will remain wide open.


– Special to the Press Herald