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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

A Community Effort to Improve Literacy

By Peter DeWitt — October 19, 2013 5 min read
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“On average, professional parents spoke over 2,000 words per hour to their children, working class parents spoke about 1,300, and welfare mothers spoke about 600. So by age 3, children of professionals had vocabularies that were nearly 50% greater than those of working-class children and twice as large as those of welfare children” (Rothstein, 2004, p. 28).

Or as Donna Scanlonfrom the SUNY Albany suggests, “Children living in poverty hear about 1/16th of the words that their wealthier peers hear before they enter kindergarten.” That has large implications for schools charged with educating these students, especially if they do not see them until they are 4 or 5 years old.

When it comes to literacy, everyone has a stake in how well our students read and use language.

Fortunately, some communities are taking on literacy, because although schools are charged with educating students, many adults in the community think it is their job as well. After all, schools cannot always get to students at birth, nor can early childhood centers.

The problem is that experts question how well teachers teach literacy, so if that’s the case, how well can non-teaching adults foster literacy skills in children? Does literacy have to be such a mystery and so complicated? Must it be so scientific? Or is there a happy medium in developing positive literacy skills for our children? Literacy should not always be portrayed as difficult or we will lose parents and helpful adults before we start.

Basically....how can we all help solve our literacy issue?

Literacy Symposium

A few nights ago I facilitated a discussion sponsored by the Junior League of Troy(Troy, NY), which was held at the Troy Boys and Girls Club. There were about 25 participants in the discussion, and they ranged from people who work in non-profits, teachers (public and private school), librarians, a school principal, parents, community members and research professors. We also had an eye doctor who is involved with area schools, so it was a very eclectic group with a wide range of education levels.

We talked for two hours about barriers to helping students become better readers, and practical solutions that will help get books in the hands of children. One of the easiest ideas to implement is to encourage parents to talk with their children and not at them. In addition to parents, we need to encourage daycare workers and teachers to talk with children and not just answer questions. We need to encourage children to find answers on their own.

It’s not meant to sound condescending but not all parents talk with their children. Ride public transit, spend time at the park, or go to the mall and listen to the way all adults talk with children. Do they give yes or no answers? Do they encourage dialogue? I’ve seen my share of parents and teachers not allow dialogue...and let’s face it school leaders aren’t known for allowing dialogue either...so we can all improve our practices.

Jessica, a parent and student from Hudson Valley Community College said the words we have often heard over the years. “It takes a village to raise a child.” So with that goal in mind, we talked about literacy and what we can do as a community to improve it. Although our focus started around the issue of poverty, we discussed the fact that literacy is not just a poverty issue. There are many students from a variety of backgrounds who struggle with reading or just don’t like to do it.

What was awesome about the evening is that it was a night without finger pointing. No one played the blame game, and we talked about problems and solutions. The group wanted to learn from one another, and it was one of those nights where the conversation went better than most of us anticipated.

It was important that we set ground rules for the discussion that everyone had to contribute and everyone had to walk out with specific practical ideas. Some of the ideas have been in practice while others want to put them in practice. Everyone, from those with a high school diploma to those with doctorates had examples to share. It didn’t matter if the contributions were from teachers or people who have never taught a day in their life. My friend John Bennett from UCONN would have been proud because it was a community of learners, all of whom were local.

Some of the suggestions were:

  • Replace videos at the doctor’s office that focus on medication...with videos that focus on parenting tips, like building vocabulary skills and reading.
  • Local public libraries make themselves available at annual school Open Houses and the Book Fairs that most schools have every year.
  • We need to continue a campaign to highlight the importance of reading.
  • Non-profits could work with those in the health field who work with young mothers and fathers.
  • Donate books that the health professionals could give to new parents.
  • Local colleges and universities have service learning requirements. Send pre-service students to consistently volunteer their time. Pre-service teachers need an extraordinary amount of exposure to students and could spend their time reading with young children.
  • College professionals created pamphlets that provide simple lists of effective literacy practices that all adults can do with children. And those pamphlets can be distributed to doctor’s offices, health care providers and anywhere there are children.
  • Boys and Girls Clubs can (and many do) participate in reading events, use Scripps National Spelling Bee words, and provide time for homework.
  • Schools need to be more open to working with non-profits. There is a reciprocal benefit for both parties.
  • We need to donate our time to help parents and caregivers understand the benefits of just talking with their children. Having natural conversations and building vocabulary.

Although some of the ideas may sound simplistic or difficult to complete, it was beneficial that we all came together to focus on solutions, and leave politics to the side. It doesn’t happen often enough that we do that. I’m sure many communities around the U.S. are doing the same thing and it would be great if you could share your ideas with how your community helps foster a love for literacy.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.