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October 24, 2002

Language & learning begin at birth, education advocate stresses

Language and learning begin from the moment of birth, according to a prominent national advocate for cultivating early childhood literacy. “You’ve got to start early,” said Dorothy S. Strickland, keynote speaker this month at an early literacy conference, co-sponsored by Pitt’s School of Education and the Beginning with Books Center for Early Literacy.

The conference was intended primarily for early childhood educators, but the keynoter had advice for parents, grandparents and guardians of young children as well, particularly regarding what to expect of educators and caregivers of young children.

Strickland, a professor of reading at Rutgers and a multiple teaching-award winner, author and activist, spoke on “Best Practices and Early Literacy Research,” focusing on issues and challenges in the early childhood education arena.

“Why is this so very important? There are too many who are not succeeding,” Strickland said. “And I believe that it is not only important to the individuals themselves, but important for society to be well-educated. What happens to every one of us affects all of us. The impact is economic and there’s an impact on the quality of life.

“Promoting early literacy has a big effect, especially on schooling success, and most particularly with reading. Early childhood education and school readiness go hand in hand.”

According to Strickland, there was some attention directed to early literacy with the passage of the 1994 Goals 2000: Educate America Act, federal legislation that established a framework to identify academic standards, to measure student progress and to provide the support that students may need to meet the standards.

But while the goals were laid out, she said, the implementation has fallen far short of the expectations.

Among the concerns in the educational community are:

• Inadequate curriculum for young children. “We haven’t paid attention to how to develop it,” Strickland said. “For a while, educators put emphasis on the development of cognitive skills related to language, but now the fear is that cognitive development has overshadowed social, emotional and physical development leading to a curriculum imbalance.”

• Teacher quality development. “What does teacher preparation look like? We need professional development workshops. We need to improve the overall quality of the workforce, and that means better pay and working conditions to attract the best and brightest. Right now, we have substandard levels for early childhood educators.”

• Inadequate differentiation for language and literacy education for 2-year-olds, 3-year-olds, 4-year-olds. “We know that literacy starts much earlier than we thought before. We know it’s fundamental and it’s foundational. Even 2-year-olds have ‘McDonald’s recognition’ when they see a sign. So symbolic orientation begins long before we once thought it did. But that doesn’t mean they need to learn the alphabet at that stage.”

• Poor assessment strategies. “We need to be tracking our children. I can’t believe it when some teachers say, ‘I didn’t know this kid couldn’t read.’ If the kids don’t do it, how do you know if they can read? Unless they do it, how can you know what the kid can do at all?”

Strickland said addressing these issues should be part of systemic reform at the national level. “We need access to early childhood education for all children. There has been a big move to have national standards, but curriculum development should be in relationship to the child’s needs at [different ages],” she said.

From a practical standpoint, Strickland advised, early childhood educators should be developing individual student portfolios.

“Teaching, as much as anything, is just moving from one point to another, and showing and sharing gradually. We want to measure young children by saying, ‘At this stage of a kid’s development you would expect this. And here’s where Johnny is, and here’s what we’re doing to move Johnny forward.’ That way, teachers are really able to chart the child’s progress, and apply standards in relationship to the child, where the child is now, where we want to go a month from now.”

Teachers then can use the portfolios as the basis for conversation with parents, a kind of mini-lesson in child development. “When parents ask, ‘How’s my child doing?’ it means where is the child in relation to other kids. And they care about what you’re doing about it, if the kid is behind."

For early language and literacy education strategies, Strickland suggested:

• Focusing on language education by learning about language, through story-telling, reading aloud, repeating rhymes and chants, and breaking down letter recognition and symbol recognition.

“Language in the classroom really happens because we are bringing interest into the classrooms; it doesn’t happen naturally,” Strickland said. “It’s not enough to use only informational books. We need good literature in classrooms, if we want kids to have better vocabularies.”

• Expanding beyond conversation. Research indicates that when literacy learning starts early, it persists, Strickland said.

“Talking is very important. Oral language is foundational, but literacy goes along with it. Experiences with the world, and with print greatly influence the ability to comprehend, especially when children read on their own.”

• Emphasizing play and the joy of learning. “Play is essential in development: it’s the way kids learn; it’s integral to teaching language and literacy. They learn much more if it’s part of a joyful period. If it’s all hard work, just forget about it; it won’t work. Straining to keep copying letters over and over is nothing short of child abuse. I think as teachers we should follow the Hippocratic oath: ‘Do no harm.’”

• Focusing on domains other than the cognitive. “Don’t forget other aspects and pathways: There is the physical: motor skills, sensory perception, sexual development. There is the social, self-regulation, gender identity, behaviors with peers and others, friendships, awareness of diverse backgrounds. There is the emotional — these all need attention.”

Parents, of course, also play a major role in a child’s learning development, Strickland said. “We know from the research that early relationships count, both at home and in school. Studies show that children in homes of professional parents had better vocabularies than those with poor parents, with an enormous and frightening difference. But we cannot conclude that the parents of poor children only have poor vocabularies, or that children of poor parents cannot keep up with their peers.”

Simple patterns of communication in the home contribute to making a difference, independent of income distinctions, she said. Reading to children and letting them see parents reading are strong reinforcers.

“Even parents and children having dinner together indicates more school success. Sitting around the dinner table and having conversation, major research studies say, is one of the most important indicators.

“I worry that, in homes where children have a lower vocabulary level, a lot of speech interaction is highly punitive and controlling, what I call the ‘don’t-stop-quit-it syndrome.’ ‘Don’t do that, stop that, quit it; be quiet.’

“These are loving, caring parents, not mean people. It’s how they parent, trying to keep the kids safe and keep order as priorities. In recent years I’ve shifted to focusing on the content. You’re not going to have rich language development if you don’t have rich content.”

—Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 35 Issue 5

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