We know from neuroscience that a child’s brain develops most rapidly during the first years of life, especially before age 4. Activities that promote brain growth during this period are critical to later success.
New research from Stanford University reminds us that the achievement gap starts during these early years. In a study of children from different socio-economic backgrounds, researchers found gaps in vocabulary as early as 18 months of age. Children were measured again at 24 months. Those from lower socio-economic environments had learned 30 percent fewer words than children from higher economic environments.
This achievement gap at age 2 is compounded by age 5, and has unfavorable implications for children, families and teachers. By kindergarten, children who were lagging at age 2 may be two years behind their language-rich peers.
To develop language skills, children need to hear lots of words each day in meaningful personal interactions (as opposed to passive words heard from television, for example). Simply talking or reading to children every day will build their vocabulary and pre-reading skills.
Reminding parents to read and talk to their children during everyday activities is part of what we do at First Steps. Our parenting mentors work with families as early as possible to offer guidance and support. High-quality child care and preschool — where teacher-child interactions are rich and engaging — also can help break the cycle of low literacy.
We can all work together to change the educational trajectory in the Palmetto State.
Since inception, First Steps and our partners have worked to cut first-grade retention in half, from 8 percent to 3.8 percent. But there is more work to be done. In honor of the Week of the Young Child, First Steps in joining our partners at Transform SC, Reach Out and Read and school and community libraries statewide to launch “1,000 Books Before Kindergarten.”
Designed to help families build strong learners from birth, the charge is simple: to have every child in every S.C. family reading 1,000 books before he starts school.
In South Carolina, roughly 55,000 children are born every year. If we simply read one book a day to these babies, we can celebrate 20 million books read to our youngest learners in just one year. This challenge, when added to other early childhood programs and services for families, can change the success trajectory for all our children.
Lewis T. Smoak
S.C. First Steps to School Readiness