READING BETWEEN THE LINES
In 2002, government agencies convened the National Early Literacy Panel (NELP) to understand what helps children from birth to age 5 learn to read when they get to school. Their report, "Developing Early Literacy," released last year, analyzed 500 studies and used the results to define a specific set of skills that predict later literacy achievement for children in kindergarten, explains NELP panel chair Timothy Shanahan, Ph.D., director of the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "We're not talking about sitting kids down with workbooks," notes Shanahan, "but you still need a plan to teach a child literacy skills through play."
Children also need access to books, and far too many don't have that. While a child growing up in a middle-class neighborhood will own an average of 13 books at any given time, low-income communities average about one book for every 300 children, according to University of Michigan professor Susan Neuman, Ed.D., author of Changing the Odds for Children at Risk. Even all libraries aren't created equal: School libraries in low-income areas average half the number of children's books as those in middle-income neighborhoods, and public libraries in these communities often have more restrictive hours of operation. "Physical and psychological proximity to books and reading materials is critical. A child can't pick up a book that isn't there," says Neuman.
A language-rich environment, in which parents talk to their children, ask questions, and involve them in an ongoing dialogue, is also essential to emerging literacy. One often-cited study estimates that by the time kids enter school, there can be a difference of 30 million words heard by children growing up in well-off households versus children in poorer ones. These children "often haven't been exposed in their interactions with their parents to the alphabet, vocabulary, and language skills," according to Susan Landry, Ph.D., founder and director of The Children's Learning Institute at the University of Texas Health Science Center, in Houston.