Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Dispatch from the Reading Institute - part 2

Day 2 of the US Department of Education's 2010 Reading Institute proved to be as valuable as day 1.

Dr. Michael Kamil opened the second day of the US Department of Education's Reading Institute with some discussion of the Common Core State Standards, which were released last month by the National Governors' Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. These aren't a federal mandate and it isn't required for states to adopt them, although many have. Dr. Kamil also recommended this website on "Doing What Works," which is an online resource for research-based education practices.

The break-out sessions I attended were eclectic, informative, and even entertaining. Dr. Perri Klass, the National Medical Director of Reach Out and Read (and a renowned author and pediatrician) presented the amazing Reach Out and Read program, in which doctors are trained incorporating children's books into the care and advice they give infants, toddlers, and their families. Starting at 6 months, babies receive developmentally appropriate books to take home, and doctors demonstrate how to share them and what to expect. The doctors share all that good information about why it's so important to read with kids, and they emphasize that it's as important as making sure your child has clean teeth.

What is so fabulous about this program is that doctors see SO many different kinds of families. We librarians mostly just see the families that take their kids to the library - we're NOT seeing the millions of families who don't go to the library. But doctors not only see rich and poor alike during Well Child visits, but they see many of the families who most need early literacy information.

Their reach is tremendous - much more than what even the most energetic outreach librarian could accomplish - and so you can bet I'll be getting information about the LA Public Library into the hands of my local Reach Out and Read coordinator. And I'll make sure that I include information about our Adult Literacy Program and its Families for Literacy component, because some of the parents are partially or totally illiterate.

During the session on Play: The Science Behind Its Importance to Literacy Development, we played with sticks and pipe cleaners and household objects while we learned from Linda Hassan Anderson, Senior Director of the NAEYC Academy for Early Childhood Program Accreditation, how different kinds of play are crucial parts of early literacy. We all know that for kids, learning is play, but I didn't know about constructive play, symbolic play, socio-dramatic play, and more. What Ms. Anderson made clear is that not only do children learn through play itself, but that play is such a strong motivator ('cause it's fun!) that it should be built into any good early childhood program.

I thought about the early learning areas we're adding to our libraries, with their toys and comfy seating, and am happy to have more arguments in my arsenal about why libraries need toys as well as books.

In the last session of the day, Janice Im, senior director of programs for Zero to Three, discussed the vital importance of quality daycare programs for infants and toddlers. In particular, she stressed that it's important that babies and toddlers be able to forge relationships with their caregivers. It's not enough that babies are read to, for instance. The meaningful interaction between the baby and a caring person during the experience is just as important as the book, or more. Toddlers need to feel a connection as well - it's not enough to be warm, dry, well-fed, and have lots of toys and books around. We're hard-wired to forge bonds with people, and babies and toddlers learn through their interactions with others.

Interestingly, almost every presenter over the two days of the Reading Institute showed this famous chart from the 1995 Hart and Risley study "Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children", which demonstrates that children in the lowest socio-economic group are exposed to many fewer words than in middle and high socio-economic groups. This corresponds directly to the number of words the child knows; the gap starts before age 1 and just keeps getting bigger and bigger.

All the more reason to keep giving parents the tools and information they need to raise kids who will enter school ready to learn. Doctors, teachers, caregivers, and librarians - we can all help, but it's the parents who really make the difference.


  1. I really appreciate the bit in this post about the importance of play for literacy in children. One of the big motivators towards librarianship rather than elementary education for me was the space in the library to play. I believe that teachers do the best they can, but they are in a very controlled environment with mandates to meet that don't always leave room for play.
    When I taught remedial reading, I tried to play "ring around the rosy" with one of my third graders, and she had no idea what I was talking about-- she didn't know any nursery rhymes at all! She even had the advantage of being from an upper-middle class family with a parent that was home with her. I was so heartbroken.
    My only mandate as a librarian (well, not only, but the most important) is to get books into the hands of kids, so if that means I have to get down on my hands and knees and make a Narnia out of blocks with my patrons then that's just a "sacrifice" I'll have to make.

  2. This actually makes me think of an interesting op-ed I read recently by David Brooks in the New York Times about books and learning called "The Medium is the Medium." I do disagree with a few of his assessments, but I agree with some, too. He also references studies that prove the book and student success combination.

  3. I think folks tend to be dubious about the importance of play. The presenter pointed out that play, especially the unstructured, child-directed sort, is becoming more and more rare. Even "play dates" often involve the adults organizing the activities for the kids, and toys are so detailed and life-like (toy cell phone, anyone?) that nothing is left to the imagination.
    I'll have to check out that article, Maddy.