What babies and toddlers need to become good readers

A the number of states, cities and regions is increasing requiring schools to teach phonics. In other words, to teach children to read. This is welcome news for a country that has suffered from poor reading scores for decades and is now also struggling with permanent learning losses caused by COVID-19.

For too long, showing young children the basic connections between speech sounds and the letters that represent them in print has not been given the priority it deserves. A mix of word-guessing strategies and picture book judgments passed for reading instruction, hurting the literacy and life prospects of millions of children. Without enough direct and sustained instruction about how our written language works, most fourth graders in the U.S. have achieved only basic or below basic reading skills, according to recent National Assessment of Educational Progress. Many of them are ready to one day join the ranks of 36 million US adults with low literacy.

Mass reading curriculum reform and teacher retraining to implement it are critical to reversing this disaster, but more is needed. The reality is that ineffective teaching in schools is not our only literacy problem. The United States also suffers from a deliberate underinvestment in families in the early years of life, just when parenting can make (or break) children’s reading prospects. The US only spends .03% of its GDP on early childhood education and care, on a par with Romania and Cyprus. This compares to more than 1.5% spent by Iceland and Sweden.

Read more: Inside the massive effort to change the way children learn to read

This is tragic because basic brain circuits and networks have evolved up to 2 years, according to evidence from anatomical, physiological and gene expression studies. From there, brain development is mostly about refining what’s already there. With regard to pre-literacy skills in particular, we have striking evidence that educational trajectories are set early. Research shows, for example, that children who engage in more dynamic conversation with educators when they are 18 to 24 months old tend to do much better as students in middle school than adolescents who do not engage in similar exchange. Specifically, they tend to have a lot higher IQ, better verbal skills and bigger dictionaries.

It is critical that schools teach what students need to learn (in this case, phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, and a host of other reading skills). However, it is equally imperative that parents and caregivers are well equipped and supported to lay the foundation that children need to learn these lessons well. That means giving babies and toddlers specific kinds of attention that develop their brains and teach them skills that are critical to their growth in reading fluency, from oral language and print exposure to letter recognition and speech-sound awareness. It is both/and scenario. Sound foundations and quality instruction is needed to promote literacy for all.

Long before children can distinguish letters from other characters on paper or consciously distinguish the sounds of English, they need a high level of love, care and communication. Without it, they tend to struggle to learn to read (and indeed the majority of children do). Yet millions of families across the socioeconomic spectrum are too stressed, strained, and unsupported to provide the optimal language nutrition to support future reading. The tragedy of poor reading achievement falling to new lows during a pandemic has been called the “kindergarten crisis,” but kindergarten is just a point in time when data is collected. The condition is antecedent.

Read more: The 100 Best Children’s Books of All Time

Scientific evidence fueled the push for systematic phonics teaching. It’s time to let science dictate our approach to seeding early literacy as well. As pediatric surgeon Dana Suskind writes Parent nation“What we now know about the brain requires urgency… There is neuroscientific weight about what children need, when they need it, and the primary role of parents and caregivers as the first, best teachers of the children.’

Serious public investment in families could improve children’s reading prospects long before they reach school. Policies included paid parental leave after childbirthtax credits for families with young children and provision of affordable, high-quality childcare all support the crucial early years of children’s lives and learning.

Clashes over how to teach reading in schools are known as the reading wars. But the combat metaphor ran out. Fortunately, it is now accepted that most children need a healthy dose of phonics to read well. We also have growing evidence that early childhood language experiences significantly influence children’s literacy trajectories. So let’s commit to a concerted national effort to promote reading—from its roots in early childhood and beyond. If we don’t, 20 years from now we’ll find ourselves revisiting these same old instructional debates, wondering why a win for phonics doesn’t mean a win for mass literacy.

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