Reading Success Begins in Infancy

by Shanda Trent

Reprinted with the author’s permission from the SCBWI-MI Newsletter, March/April 2002

What if I asked you to draw a xerbile? Could you write about a xerbile? Hmm…what is a xerbile? You can’t draw or explain something if you don’t know what it is.

The same principle holds true with reading. A child won’t know what a caterpillar, a bowl of porridge or anything else is unless he has experienced it. But if a child has gone to the farm, flown a kite or tasted a tangerine, when he sees those words in print, he’ll be able to connect the word to the object because the word has meaning. As authors and illustrators, we try to tap into a child’s real life experiences as we create. We want to enhance direct experiences and add meaning words. Not just a caterpillar, but a VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR.

As lovers of stories, we want to share our treasures with our audiences. And for so many reasons, we want children to love reading. Our youngest audiences cannot yet read, but they can listen. The single greatest predictor of school success is the size of the young child’s vocabulary. In fact, listening vocabulary also positively influences speaking and writing vocabulary, too. And because so much learning in the first four years happens through hearing, reading aloud to children suddenly becomes immensely important.

The authors of Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children, Drs. Betty Hart and Todd Risely, examined the relationship between income level and early language experiences. They observed children at age seven months and through two and a half years of age and recorded every word spoken around each child for an hour each month. They projected the numbers and kinds of utterances those children would have heard by the time they were four years old. They found that children in:

  • professional families would hear 45 million words
  • working class families would hear 26 million words
  • families in poverty would hear 13 million words.

The authors noted that the amount of affection in these families was the same. One conclusion was that, in order to increase those numbers, reading aloud would feed the listening vocabulary AND provide a pleasurable interaction between parent and child. Similarly, in Becoming a Nation of Readers (1985), a study showed the average number of books in homes in these California communities:

  • Beverly Hills — 199 books
  • Compton — 2.9 books
  • Watts — .4 books per family.

In Washtenaw County, we have a unique group dedicated to bringing books into all homes. The Family Book Club* is a non-profit organization founded in 1991 by a group of educators who believe that children can benefit significantly from being read to from infancy and throughout childhood. Joan Weisman of SCBWI-MI is the co-founder.

Initially called The Baby Book Club, the organization now reaches out to the whole family. Each year, the Family Book Club gives away over 8000 books in Washtenaw County via programs for low-income families at 36 locations. While offering books through WIC, Head Start, and our county medical clinic had been effective, the board of the FBC wanted to do more.

Through volunteer efforts and generous donations, the Family Book Club now offers regular story time sessions at shelters, teen parent centers, and community centers. FBC continues to develop programs in partnership with the community to meet emerging needs and is always in need of volunteers and donated books (including those from published SCBWI-MI authors and illustrators!)

Contact your own county offices to find out if there are similar programs in your area. For more information on the Family Book Club, write to their main office: 3174 Packard Road, Ann Arbor, MI 48104.

Shanda Trent is a parenting consultant who works with First Steps Washtenaw and Early On in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She’s also a children’s writer and mom to three eager readers!

Note from Hope:

Jim Trelease’s Read-Aloud Handbook offers a nice summation of research on this topic, including a Hart & Risely finding that the average child on welfare heard significantly more prohibitions and scoldings than the average professional child. In addition, the average professional child heard many more encouraging statements than did the average welfare child. Thanks to Nancy Shaw (author of “Sheep in a Jeep” and “Raccoon Tune”) for bringing these other findings to my attention. For more information about early literacy, visit Jim Trelease’s incredible website.

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