Peggy A. Sissel, Ed.D

About The Author

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Getting Ready to Read Starts at Birth

     Nine out of ten parents (90%) think their elementary school child's reading skills are either right on target, or above their grade level. Think again. In fact, only 36% of U.S. children in 4th grade read well enough to be considered proficient or advanced. Among white students less than half are performing up to standards (46%). For African American and Hispanic students only about one in five (18% and 21%) are reading proficiently in fourth grade.
     Fourth grade skills are especially important because in fourth grade the instructional focus changes from learning to read, to reading to learn. Concepts get more complex, and if a student can't keep up with their assigned reading and writing projects, they are 4 times more likely to drop out.
     We always hear that parents are a child's first teacher, but what does that mean in a practical sense? Somehow, that's always the part that's left out, so it's time to get real. Here is a brief explanation of what goes on in a baby's little noggin beginning at birth, and what you, as a parent, can do to prevent poor early development and poor achievement in reading and in life.

Defining Literacy

     Literacy skills are made up of READING, WRITING, LISTENING AND SPEAKING.  Listening is the primary learning process going on in the infant brain.
     Then, as they are exposed to language, infants develop receptive skills
(start to understand what words mean), then, little by little, they learn to talk. During the formative years of birth to age 3 as the brain grows to 85% of its adult weight, it is absolutely critical that parents and caregivers talk and interact with them a lot (with songs, rhymes, books), and use lots of different kinds of words with them. (By the way, TV and videos don't cut it - they need your face, and face to face interaction.)
     It is through those experiences that little ones begin to develop what are called "preliteracy" skills. During this time, they are not only learning the unique sounds in the language(s) spoken around them and to them, as they build up their vocabulary they also start to understand that pictures
on a page are "symbols" that connect with words and thoughts.

     In other words, the pictures begin to MEAN something. When they can correctly point to something on a page, they are telling you that their little brain has assigned meaning to that "symbolic depiction" of say, an apple. But they also KNOW that they can't eat that "apple."
    
Slowly the same process happens in their brain as it relates to the lines and curves they see on the page of a book. They begin to understand that
these marks are letters and numbers and written words - each of which
are also symbols with sounds and meanings attached to them.

     What's more, when you put a crayon or marker in their hand and show them that they too can make marks on paper, they will begin to see the
connection between the lines they make and those that are on the pages
in their books. Being able to "make their mark" also introduces them to
the power they have as someone who can participate in the making of
symbolic meanings.


The Ever-Widening Circle

     Each of these steps are intertwined and essential. Once this initial sequence of learning has occurred, it's your job, and those of your child's teachers to keep that loop going in an ever wider circle: hearing new words, learning their meaning, being able to sound them out as they try to read them, and then learning and remembering how they are spelled.  
     Those skills are all part of being literate. And it's those skills that will take your baby far, and make you proud.