By Andrea Neal
October 17, 2012
Before lawmakers throw money at the thorny issue of early-childhood education they should consider an experiment under way in Richmond aimed at getting parents to read to their children daily.
K-Ready, the brainchild of two literacy activists, Victor Jose and Rick Ahaus, has one goal: “reducing the number of children entering kindergarten not ready to learn.”
“We’re trying to get parents to read to their children from the time of their birth until they enter kindergarten,” Jose explained.
If they succeed, it would be the most cost-effective early childhood program imaginable. By reading aloud to children 20 minutes a day, parents are wiring the children’s brains for reading instruction, Jose said.
A report by Educational Testing Service, “The Family: America’s Smallest School,” says research has built an overwhelming case for the value of reading to young children.
By age 2 “children who are read to regularly display greater language comprehension, larger vocabularies and higher cognitive skills than their peers,” according to Child Trends, one leading research group. “Shared parent-child book reading during children’s preschool years leads to higher reading achievement in elementary school.”
Predictably, there is a strong link between a family’s socio-economic status and the amount of reading that goes on at home. The typical child of professional working parents is exposed to 45 million words by age 4, the child in a welfare family to about 13 million.
Therein lies the challenge. The homes where reading rarely occurs are the homes that Ahaus and Jose must reach. They are trying to create a database of all children in Wayne County under the age of four. They want the parents in those homes to understand the value of reading and to have ready access to age appropriate books.
Reid Hospital has agreed to hand out K-Ready brochures to parents of newborns, along with a book called “Read to Your Bunny” by Rosemary Wells. The Scholastic paperback tells a delightful story, but, more significant, Wells uses the book cover to explain to parents why reading is as vital to babies as food and sleep. K-Ready is also hoping to connect with pediatricians throughout the county to expand its reach.
In some cases, Jose expects the parents to be illiterate themselves, but that’s no object. Those parents will be encouraged to look at picture books with their children and talk about what they see for 20 minutes daily.
This is a second venture into literacy education by Jose and Ahaus, who just released results from the fifth annual Third-Grade Reading Academy, an intensive summer remediation program for struggling students identified by teachers in Richmond-area schools. On average students in that program have gained more than a grade level per summer.
The constant battle is over funding. Jose and Ahaus spend a lot of their time raising money for their reading initiatives. One sign of community support: All five public school corporations in Wayne County are contributing $1 per student for the K-Ready program.
Although it’s way too soon for measurable results, the Wayne County program could be a role model for the state. Just last week, Indiana House Republicans proclaimed early childhood education a 2013 legislative priority and suggested the possibility of a voucher program to help parents pay for preschool.
House Speaker Brian Bosma cited data showing that 61 percent of Indiana children ages 3 and 4 do not receive any schooling. Only six states have lower enrollment rates.
According to the Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative, about 48 percent of Indiana children are read to daily, on par with the national average but considerably less than places like Vermont (68 percent) Massachusetts (58 percent) and even neighboring Kentucky (52 percent).
It is understandable that education-reform efforts would focus on getting more children into school sooner. A cheaper, more holistic and potentially transformational approach, however, would be to work with families, ensuring all homes provide children with the early literacy support they need.
Andrea Neal is adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.