Throughout April, I’m tackling 26 A to Z topics related to children’s literature. In honor of the letter L, literacy is the subject of the day. Below, you’ll find excerpts of an article about childhood literacy I wrote in April 2015 for The Times newspaper, which serves La Salle County, Illinois. The version below has been edited to remove hyperlocal statistics related to the La Salle County area.
What is the link between “Goodnight Moon” and academic excellence?
Or how about “Green Eggs and Ham” and career success?
The question may seem like a riddle, but the answer is no joke.
Early childhood reading can have a lifelong impact on an individual’s success in school, the workplace, and beyond, experts say, because it is the building block of a vital skill:
A 2012 national study by The Annie E. Casey Foundation found children are four times more likely to leave high school without a diploma if they are below proficient reading level in the third grade. Three years earlier, the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress reported 67 percent of fourth-graders scored below proficient levels on reading tests.
A child’s literacy development from birth through early elementary school can be a strong indicator of later life success, according to the 2012 study.
Parents shouldn’t feel overwhelmed at the task of developing literacy, though. Teachers, librarians, and other literacy experts have plenty of recommendations to ensure strong child literacy development.
BUILDING THE FOUNDATION
The key to teaching literacy is starting early.
Really early. As in, as soon as possible after birth.
“You’re sitting in the hospital. You’ve just delivered. Start reading,” said Stephanie Benson, president of Starved Rock Reading Council, which promotes literacy in five counties in North Central Illinois.
In surveys, educators emphasized reading education begins at home.
One La Salle County, Ill., teacher conducted graduate research by surveying 110 families in a local school district. The research revealed less than one-fourth of families had reading materials in their homes. This included books, magazines, newspapers and online sources. Only one family reported having a library card.
To ensure strong literacy development, surveyed teachers said reading material is a necessity in the home.
Child reading behavior is most influenced by habits created at home. When children see parents read, they mimic the behavior. Likewise, if parents don’t read, children are less likely to do so recreationally.
Tina Sandoval, a children’s librarian at Reddick Library in Ottawa, Ill., encourages families to set aside time in which the entire family reads.
“This doesn’t necessarily need to be out loud or to each other,” she said. “Just set aside time when there’s no television or video games or cellphones and everyone reads.”
Children are more likely to read — and more encouraged — if they see their parents and siblings reading, Sandoval said.
Tools for literacy skill development aren’t limited to books, according to Elaine Robinson, a reading specialist at Marseilles Elementary School.
“Talking about reading can be as important as actual reading,” she said. “When you read, talk about what’s happening in the book, point out things on the page and ask questions.”
Robinson also encourages parents to build vocabulary through a child’s surroundings.
“Point out print when you are out running errands or going to sporting events,” she advised. This could include road signs or product packages in the store.
“Build your child’s vocabulary by talking about interesting words and objects you see.”
GOING BEYOND BOOKS
Electronic resources are popular to purchase for at-home literacy education.
Educational TV programs and apps for tablets and smartphones can help, but Benson says they should be supplemental, not the main source of literacy development.
When technology does come into play, such as watching children’s programming, Benson recommends turning on closed captioning. That way, children see the words and associate them with the content on the screen.
Cristy Stupegia, director of La Salle Public Library, offers similar recommendations. When using an e-reader, she recommends apps that include audio so children can listen and follow along with words on the screen.
“It’s just another type of interactivity,” she said. “Any time a child is exposed to anything in writing — a book, a magazine, something on the computer — that’s all time that’s invested to introduce those literacy skills as well as enhance them.”
Benson said tablets and e-readers have their place — plenty of research points to electronic reading devices encouraging people to read.
“If a child will read on an iPad, I’m all for that,” she said. “You’re reading? Keep reading. Go for it.”
But her encouragement comes with caution. Research also suggests better comprehension comes from reading print material. Readers are more likely to remember content because of how it looked on a page and where it was placed.
Old-fashioned reading material has an added benefit for infants and toddlers. Streator Public Library director Cynthia Maxwell said physical books offer tactile interactivity. This allows children to feel the book and experiment with turning pages, as well as helps develop the skill of reading left to right, top to bottom.
Sandoval, the children’s librarian at Reddick Library, added that not all books translate well into digital format, particularly picture books.
“This is especially true when picture books for children have textures or glitter,” Sandoval said. “Some of these books are even pop-ups and are interactive, which tends to get lost when using some of the electronic devices.”
WHY LITERACY MATTERS
Literacy is a cornerstone of classroom performance, said La Salle County teachers in surveys issued by The Times newspaper.
Poor literacy skills affect all areas of learning, the surveys reported. This is because reading strategies are incorporated into all school subjects.
For example, students who struggle with reading also will struggle with math because word problems will be difficult to comprehend. Science and social studies can become a challenge because the text uses higher level words.
Students also need higher level reading strategies and skills to apply information from textbooks to class assignments or discussions, teachers said.
Teacher surveys indicated additional challenges for struggling readers, such as eroded confidence, which can cause a student to stop trying.
When low literacy deprives children of basic elementary education, it can have a domino effect on the rest of their educational career, leading to higher risk of dropping out of school and lower likelihood of breaking beyond entry-level careers.
“Literacy has a critical impact on a child’s school success,” Robinson said. “Children who are reading at least at grade level by third grade are more likely to have greater academic success later in school. Children who can’t read at grade level by third grade are at higher risk for later school failure, behavior problems, frustration, absenteeism, dropping out of school and other negative outcomes.”
As a grade school reading specialist, Robinson provides support and interventions to struggling readers and promotes overall literacy achievement.
Robinson recognizes the struggle some families face in carving reading sessions into their schedules, particularly when both parents work.
Parents who didn’t spend much time on reading and literacy development before their child entered school shouldn’t lose hope, though. Robinson said it’s never too late to start working with children to hone their skills.
“If your child is already in school, you can help boost your child’s reading skills by modeling good reading habits, monitoring the amount of time your child spends watching television and providing a quiet atmosphere so your child has a place to read or complete homework,” she said.
In cases where the parent struggles to read, Stupegia still urges the family to read together.
“I know parents who won’t read to their children because they can’t sound out word and don’t want to look foolish in front of kids,” she said. “Be bold. Just do it.”
Moreover, Stupegia says struggling child readers shouldn’t let themselves get hung up on a word. If it creates a stumbling block, it’s OK to move on.
“One of the things we think when we’re reading a book is it has to go word by word, step by step,” she said. “We get so focused on rote learning and making sure it’s perfectly correct — that’s intimidating to people. My advice for kids and parents alike is, if you don’t know a word, make it up, use your imagination.”
Robinson believes exposure to reading and language is more important than being able to read actual words. The solution, Robinson says, is simply to keep reading to a child and have a child “read” to parents, even if they are telling the story with their own words instead of sounding words out.
“I see some parents and families who get very frustrated if their child seems ‘behind’ their peers or isn’t reading as well or as early as their peers are,” Robinson said. “I try to stress that all children develop at different rates.”
Somehow, my parents failed to get my little brother interested in reading. My parents and I have always loved the written word and had lots of books in our homes, though my brother has never liked reading. They read to him a lot growing up, and we all got him books as presents, though it always failed to rub off. He’s almost 30 now, and might have a dozen real books in his home. It’s pretty sad.