I spent the three days last week in Atlanta, at the eight biannual ALSC Institute at the Emory Conference Center. The setting was a lush updated complex with high craftsman styling, as the librarians from the Chicago suburbs dotted with real Frank Lloyd Wright buildings noted archly. I attended sessions on everything from gaming to diversity to the Coretta Scott King award and saw three spiritually nourishing performances, and while the proximity to the incredible authors and outspoken and visionary professionals in the youth services field was stimulating, it was Susan Neuman's closing session that will stay with me. Neuman is a professor of education at the University of Michigan and a former Assistant Secretary of Education under the last presidential administration. Among her work is a joint PLA/ALSC project for public libraries to improve early childhood literacy skills known as Every Child Ready to Read, which sounds like a better notion that No Child Left Behind.
Neuman really punctuated the need for early access to literacy for all children, demonstrating amply that "it is poverty that is the determinant of success, not ability." The three most important actors in determining reading readiness is poverty (which trumps the other two factors handily), the mother's educational attainment, and the mother's command of language. The advantages of educated parents are illustrated when on an average the three-year-old children of professionals have vocabulary equivalent to that of parents living in poverty, said Neuman, a deficit that would require 41 hours of intervention a week to correct.
Nonetheless, said Neuman "it is remarkable what environmental stimuli can do." To bridge this gap, Neuman suggests cognitive challenging talk from birth, frequent exposure to words, and repeated reading and re-reading since vocabulary required 28 reiterations before it became integrated. Because children's book have more sophisticated vocabulary than adult television programming, Neuman suggested books are the most effective way to develop vocabulary.She stressed multiple encounters with text, at least three with each book, and advocated watching a video and then watching a book to reinforce the language introduced.
The new literacies were another issue. Neuman said children in poverty average one functional computer per 1000 children, suggesting that less expensive hardware has done little to expand access. And what happens when kids without experience use the school computer lab? They flail, says Neuman, uncertain what to do until their time in the lab is up. That seems to suggest their is a persistant digital divide, and the myth of digital natives inherent fluency with computing may be overestimated.
It was interesting to hear Neuman speak about early childhood literacy since school readiness is something that teachers often dismiss as outside their control. Being with public librarians, one can easily imagine whole communities where early childhood literacy is encouraged through partnerships with hosptials and health care providers, the kinds of partnerships that eductors can also leverage.