Guest opinion: Reading before age 5 makes all the difference

Rick Blauvelt

Rick Blauvelt

Learning to read is an amazing achievement. Children enter the world with no knowledge of language, and within six or seven years, they are readers. For most children, the process begins long before kindergarten or primary school as they learn language, gain verbal skills, and build basic knowledge about words, sentences and the alphabet.

A large body of research confirms positive correlations between language development during the first five years of life and reading success later in life. A recent study at Stanford found that toddlers with more vocabulary – those who could immediately point to the correct item when asked – developed brains that literally processed information faster. It is easy to imagine a compounding impact. When a child hears more language and recognizes more words, her brain begins to process information faster and her learning accelerates. Similar studies have shown that children in low-verbal households can enter school two years behind in their language development, and that this lack of language starts to harm the child’s IQ.

Reading preparation begins at birth through positive verbal interaction with an emotionally invested parent or caregiver. A babbling child quickly discovers that utterances elicit a response from a parent, that communication reinforces emotional connections, that words identify things. Soon there is an understanding of simple concepts, activities, relationships and even an early awareness of self with the realization that “someone is responding to me.”

With these interactions, the brain builds neurological pathways that form the foundation for all future learning. From birth to age 5, the brain grows from 25 percent to 92 percent of adult size. It is the most rapid period of brain growth – a time when the brain is most receptive to new information. This helps explain why a 3-year-old child can learn a second language more readily than a 40-year-old. It also is the reason children struggle with reading and early success in school when they haven’t heard enough language in their first five years. As brain growth slows, it becomes more difficult to build those foundational pathways.

The path to success is both complex and simple. Children are born social and hard wired to crave positive interaction with their caregivers. A secure home environment with an abundance of verbal engagement is a key ingredient for language acquisition, healthy brain development and reading readiness. This environment is full of conversations, stories, songs, explorations, questions and books. It is simply finding the time to enjoy natural parent-child bonds.

But too often, it doesn’t happen. Some parents never had this behavior modeled for them as children. Others may be struggling due to economic hardships that allow little time or energy to engage their children often enough. Screens and technology have also distracted us and reduced direct engagement. There is nothing inherently wrong with TV or smartphones or tablets — except when they begin to significantly reduce a parent’s direct interaction with their 2-, 3- or 4-year-old. There is no substitute for positive parent interaction during these early years.

These are the issues we address at Raising A Reader Aspen to Parachute. We provide a weekly book bag and four storybooks to more than 2,000 local children through partnerships with preschool and kindergarten classrooms, Head Start, Yampah teen parent program, Preschool on Wheels and other child-care providers. Children take the books home for read-aloud time with family. At the end of each week, the books are returned and exchanged for another set.

For highly engaged families, the books strengthen home-school connections, provide parents with a friendly read-aloud reminder and reinforce a child’s excitement about books and learning. For families where verbal engagement is low or where books are unaffordable, Raising A Reader can become a lifeline to school readiness. Last year, the organization facilitated 50 small group sessions to help parents strengthen engagement activities at home.

When an 18-month-old is listening and responding to a story, she is absorbing the information required for communication and reading success. So is a 4-year-old cuddled up with Dad for another story, especially when there is time to laugh about a picture, guess the story’s ending or discuss a character’s feelings. It’s the same with singing, preparing a meal together and sitting down to talk about the child’s day. Homes full of language and love nurture a child’s brain connections, verbal skills and emotional health. It’s how great readers are made.

Rick Blauvelt is executive director of Raising A Reader Aspen to Parachute.

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