As you can see in the chart above, children from”professional” families in the U.S. receive five times the amount of conversational practice that children from families on welfare receive. From a slide on one of my recent Jumpstart trainings:
Four-year-old Head Start children, on average, score at levels equivalent to children age two. Many children (Even Start, bilingual/English language learner) begin school even farther behind in English.
This disparity is significant because a great deal of vocabulary acquisition occurs before children become literate. Early spoken vocabulary tremendously influences later reading ability. In fact, the number of words children have in their spoken vocabulary is predictive of their later success in reading. The words that children hear and use in the preschool years are the words they will be able to comprehend when they encounter them in elementary school texts.
There is a distinct parallelism between listening and speaking on the one hand and reading and writing on the other. Engaging in prolonged conversation with adults (i.e., conversations with multiple conversational steps, contributions, acknowledgments, and a few questions) is the best way to prepare young children to read.
Third grade is when students stop learning to read and begin reading to learn. Concepts become more abstract, parents are less involved in their childrens’ education, and low-performing students fall through the cracks more easily. If a student is not literate by third grade, she or he has a very low chance of catching up:
Statistics repeatedly confirm that if a child doesn’t learn to read by the end of first grade, he or she has only a one in eight chance of catching up. (NYT Op-Ed 2006)
In fact, educators and policymakers often throw around the factoid that some US states estimate the number of prisons they need to build based on third-grading literacy levels. This has never been proven — no one has actually identified a prison facility that has enumerated future populations in this way — but like all myths it has a basis in fact. Third-grade reading levels can be used to predict high-sch0ol dropout rates. Organizations and studies such as SchooltoPrison.org and the Cradle to Prison Pipeline Report describe the structural inequality that predictably leads kids from low-income families on a predictable path to incarceration.
Oh and by the fucking way, this shit makes me so so so mad and frustrated and confused and upset. I think I need to study Sociology just to make sense of all the variables that go into making our great country have the highest rates of incarceration in the world. (Source: Center for Economic and Policy Research, follow the link for more interesting and depressing graphs).
BUT, there is some good news.
My partner child wrote all the letters of her name earlier this week. When I first met her, she insisted that she could only write the first letter, A. All it took was for me to sit down next to her, say “¡Sí puedes!,” pay attention to her challenge, and affirm her attempts (“¡Lo hiciste!”). The drawing above is the letters A, h, and i (I didn’t scan the one with her whole name because, you know, confidentiality). On the back of this paper she actually wrote a backwards C and said it way my name. I was muy orgullosa, although she has to learn that letters are sounds, not names.
Her mother asked me to practice English with her. In my training on supporting English-language learners, we were taught that, for preschoolers, having a solid foundation in a first language is more important than actively trying to teach them English and besides, it is not our job to be English-language teachers. We are there to give the preschoolers one on one attention and conversational practice.
Regardless, I quickly found a happy medium: Whenever she says something in Spanish I repeat it back to her in English. “Estoy en mi casita rosa y hay monstruos.” “Oh no, there are monsters in your pink house? What are you going to do??” It works because she understands English but her production is limited. This way she gets to practice comprehension and receive linguistic input to draw on when she must learn English formally.
Spanish words of the moment. The first two are from Circle Time, and the second two are from lunch time.
fijarse to notice; to pay attention
Fíjase bien. Pay attention.
¿Se fijaste lo que estamos haciendo? Are you paying attention to what we’re doing?
Se fijó en mi. He noticed me. (Example from Diccionario Espasa concise inglés-español)
distraerse to amuse oneself, pass the time; to get distracted
No te distraiga. Don’t get distracted.
Estás distraiendo el grupo. You’re distracting the group.
Distráete con algo cuando termino esto. Amuse yourself while I finish this. (Example from Diccionario Espasa concise inglés-español)