Early Readers


I think this sort of thing demonstrates the inadequacy of our educational discourse. First, it really should give pause to anyone who is among the “blame teachers first” crowd; how can a teacher be blamed for the results of processes that begin, at the latest, during the toddler stage? But more to the point, it demonstrates that our educational outputs are conditioned by a host of factors that are really beyond society’s control. We don’t take children from their parents, and of course we shouldn’t. But a growing body of evidence suggests that parental input at the earliest stage of life have a huge impact on the success of children. How do we square that with our egalitarian aspirations, when we know that not all parents are made equal? I don’t have an answer, except for this: to protect all of our people from disadvantage through a robust and generous social safety net.

I can’t tell you how important it is to be able to write. Not from an artistic perspective, but from a practical one when searching for jobs or doing those jobs. If your e-mail is entirely AOL kiddiespeak, or misuses words, you don’t get to the next stage of the interview. If you can’t fill out a form in plain language, or read a paragraph to understand insurance benefits or a doctor’s instructions, or write a request letter, it stymies you in ways that go far beyond just the inconvenience of not expressing your thoughts clearly.

Part of solving this is equalizing the opportunity for exposure: better funding for libraries and musuems, especially in economically disadvantaged communities. Part of this is also making sure we close the digital divide; there are whole libraries online and I know the joke is that today’s technologically connected kids don’t read but reading on a screen is still reading.

And part of this is making sure there is time in which to read. It’s easy to bag on parents who don’t read to their kids, but if you’re working two jobs and aren’t home for bedtimes, if you’re so exhausted when you get home that you’ve got nothing left to give to your family, if you’re miles from a university or school of any quality or ambition and don’t get paid holidays to take trips, if your every thought is about the rent and the phone and electric bills, where exactly are you supposed to find the reserves to pick up Dickens, or even Judy Blume?

I joke all the time that as the oldest of three I was the starter kid, and my dad, though working full-time, did stuff like taking me to see Star Wars when I was two and reading me The Hobbit when I was five and generally treating me like an equal when it came to culture from the time that I could talk. He just sort of popped me into a backpack and went on about his day, and as a result I got exposed to a lot of things we now consider luxuries, or think of as adult pleasures. We would take annual trips down to Chicago and spend the day wandering around the Art Institute looking at paintings. One night we stayed over in a hotel (exciting!) and after dinner happened upon a play that was just starting in a cramped theater upstairs in a college. It was To Kill a Mockingbird, and it blew my tiny little mind.

We could do things like that not just because we had (relative) money — museums have free days and there’s all kinds of low-cost theater options available even in small towns, and libraries too — but because we had the time. Vibrant literature is evidence of free minds, and a great society is one that can support the freedom to expose oneself to great writing, the mental and physical space in the day to take it in. Quality child care, sensible family leave policies, living wages, all of those have as much to do with creating generations of readers and writers as anything that happens in a classroom.


7 thoughts on “Early Readers

  1. Combine illiteracy with innumeracy and you have a recipe for disaster, which leaves plenty of blind spots for the dishonest to exploit. Trying to get ahead, or at least remain stationary, while the sharks are circling is quite difficult.

  2. Agree with Leper, and will merely add that when you combine illiteracy with innumeracy with a social/pecking order that establishes exactly who’s at the bottom of the ladder from the earliest age…then reinforces that order over and over…it’s not surprising you end up with people who at best aren’t exactly well-adjusted…

  3. To state the obvious, in terms of Romney’s threat to put Big Bird’s head above his fireplace mantle:
    *) As the education theorist E. D. Hirsch recently wrote in a review of Paul Tough’s new book, “How Children Succeed,” there is strong evidence that increasing the general knowledge and vocabulary of a child before age 6 is the single highest correlate with later success.
    Uh, Sesame Street and other PBS programs for preschool readiness?
    *) Literacy skills, in particular, are likely dependent on students meeting certain thresholds of relevant exposure at a particular age. It’s possible, in other words, that an energetic and bright teacher might have a huge impact on a student who has already developed the prerequisite reading skills but have essentially no chance with a student who lacks them.
    Uh, you know what I’m gonna say.
    *) Of particular interest—and particularly discouraging—is the possibility that this dynamic is the product of a critical neurological period during which the developing brain is unusually receptive to syntactic conditioning.
    Uh, guess what I’m gonna say.
    *) a point I’ve been making for a long time: a lot of our educational difficulties probably stem from inequality in prerequisite skills that are developed prior to formal schooling.
    Uh, wanna make a guess.
    Not that Sesame Street is some sort of panacea for all the world’s wrongs. But it is obvious to any observation that the ability of the partents to provide the above skills varies widely. Even in well educated parents, the ability to take the kids to museums and provide other cultural activities varies widely. I personally would like to highlight music as a medium that gets disparate parts of the brain to interact (In thinking of preschoolers, interact also means forming neural pathways. Partly explaining why those exposed to music do better in math.)
    It is also obvious that the access to museums and symphonies varies by location. When I go to Chicago (8 hours away), I love making a whirlwind tour of the art museums/aquarium/natural history museums/etc. Figuratively, my eyes are bigger than my stomach. At home, in a county of 17,000 people (probably less than the turn out for one Chicago ball game), no such resources exist. St Louis, KC, and Des Moines are all at or over 3 hours drive away. This makes a family visit to the Edvard Munch or a School Field Trip to the same a near impossibility. Even trips to KC or St L at 3 or 4 hours away make trips an extreme undertaking.
    We also don’t have a local PBS station, but cable carries the KC PBS station. The Public Radio Station is run out of Columbia but has a remote transmitter here.
    As many small towns, we are perpetually in a low key unemployment nightmare. We need to attract businesses to town. The mantra is that to attract suitable businesses / factories that we must offer a skilled and well rounded labor force.
    So you tell me if PBS is worth 0.01 % of the budget.

  4. Forgot to add, under NCLB and similar high stakes testing to both delineate the effectiveness of schools and also to determine the amount of funding that goes to schools, how important is it to 1) not have to delay classes to allow for those who aren’t ready for school and 2) contribute opportunities for academic growth other than the dry, rote, classroom learning – such as provided by PBS?
    Sorry for the diatribe. But as you can see, I take this very personally.

  5. My parents didn’t really know what the “done things” were for kids, too, so I got a lot of experiences that other kids might not have. (I’d guess that you’re a year younger than I am, A, because my dad took me to see Star Wars at age three! And the first Star Trek, too. Talk about having your tiny mind blown.) My folks did have way more time than the average, too, with my dad working an hours-limited profession and my mom mostly at home.

  6. My childhood was mostly of the ‘pre-cable t.v. era’… My mom divorced my dad when I was 2, and my grandmother was my day care while mom worked in an office, until I went to pre-school part-time.
    I’m fortunate that Sesame Street was available and I loved watching it (to this day, the little segment w/the ‘two little cats and a little doll house’ STILL makes me yearn for childhood…), I had Sesame Street books that were a still version of the show’s educational aspects. I wonder where those are…hopefully stored somewhere.
    I’m also fortunate that I was surrounded by family (mom, grandparents, aunt and uncle) who were voracious readers. Not all highbrow stuff, mom was into Erle Stanley Gardner and Victoria Holt novels, grandfather into stuff like Len Deighton and Vonnegut if memory serves, grandmother was more into reading sheets of music, uncle (only 15 years my senior) into music theory-type things and art (he was a graphic design wunderkind) and my aunt was all about sci-fi/fantasy (Hobbit and such).
    Once I learned to read, it was on like Donkey Kong. First, Little Golden Books…moved up to Nancy Drew and Classics (Little Women)…and in pre-teen, started reading my mom’s Victoria Holt ‘gothick Victorian mysteries’… No wonder I adored my “English Country Houses and Gardens” art history class in college!
    Plus – I was a dictionary-aholic…I would be not unlike the “Diane” character in “Say Anything” – I would PORE over any handy dictionary just for the hell of it. And then, THEN came my LOVE of etymologies.
    My mom was very involved in my public school studies, she’d quiz me before a test, run my spelling list off to me for me to show I conquered it. The large vocabulary became a stylistic problem when I’d write a paper. Mom would review it and say I sounded like the hoity shopkeeper’s wife on “The Waltons”! Oh, well – I never lost my love of a broad and deep vocabulary. I’m a word whore! 🙂
    In college, any time I went to the library to ‘study’, I invariably ‘got lost’ in the stacks just looking for odd things or subjects off the path I was going there for, and discovered a lot of neat things.
    I’m a bookaholic – and thankfully, so is my boyfriend. Our hunt for a home involves finding a place where there is copious wall space for bookshelves to be set up.
    And, nothing makes me happier than to visit friends and see shelves, piles, stacks, rooms FULL of books. 🙂

  7. My Aunt was a teacher and school principal in Wisconsin. She spent part of every summer with my family and taught me how to read when I was 4-ish because I was interested. I owe Aunt Esther a lot.

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