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WHERE DOES LITERACY COME FROM? A grandmother’s letter to the Post shows us where reading skills come from: // link // print // previous // next //
SATURDAY, DECEMBER 17, 2005

WHERE DOES LITERACY COME FROM: On Tuesday, the Washington Post ran a front-page, Style-section story about ostentatious bat and bar mitzvahs. Today, the Post runs a set of letters complaining about the article’s focus. One of the letters caught our eye. We reprint that missive in full:
LETTER TO THE WASHINGTON POST (12/17/05):
I don't understand why Style chooses to print articles such as "13 and Counting," which described events that are not typical of the norms of a minority community and which can't help but reflect badly on the group. Your readers might be interested to know what my 12-year-old granddaughter Elana did for her bat mitzvah in June:

She studied the Book of Psalms for a year with her mother and wrote a lovely explanation of what she had learned, which she delivered to 35 of her classmates at a party at her home.

She selected several themes from Psalms—the unity of the Jewish people and their responsibility for each other—and asked me to devise a one-hour paper-cutting class for her 35 friends.

She received some memorable gifts—a pair of antique brass candlesticks that had been lit by the women in our family for more than 125 years, a pair of earrings made for her from cufflinks owned by her deceased great-grandfather, whom she had the privilege of knowing, and a locket given by that gentleman to his future wife, Elana's 96-year-old great-grandmother.

She donated 10 percent of all the monetary gifts she received to charities that she researched and chose herself.

Now there is a story worth telling.

N— H—
Silver Spring

We agree—that is a story worth telling. This child is lucky to have this grandmother. For ourselves, we were struck by the part of the story which we have highlighted above.

How did this child prepare for her bat mitzvah? Among other things, we’re told this: “She studied the Book of Psalms for a year with her mother and wrote a lovely explanation of what she had learned.” In this passage, we get a look at where a child’s literacy comes from.

As (pretty much) everyone knows, children learn to read by having a wealth of reading experiences. Some of these experiences take place in schools—but many of these experiences take place in the home. When this child “studied the Book of Psalms for a year with her mother,” she wasn’t just getting an education in her family’s religious tradition. She was also learning to read, in a way that children from high-literacy backgrounds often do without thinking about it.

Children from lower-literacy backgrounds may not get this same wealth of experience. Their loving parents may not realize the value of reading in the home. With this in mind, the Post’s William Raspberry has started a program in his home town (Okolona, Mississippi) designed to improve children’s reading readiness (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 11/12/05). In part, the program involves parent-child interactions which predate reading itself:

RASPBERRY (11/7/05): "Mr. Raspberry! Mr. Raspberry! I have something to tell you," the young woman called as she caught up to me during a break in the Baby Steps program a week ago. Then, grinning with delight, she told me.

She had recently taken her toddler for a routine doctor's visit. "And you know what the doctor said? He said, 'You've been talking to this baby, haven't you?' "

And suddenly, I was the one wearing a grin. Here's why. Baby Steps (a local parent-training program largely of my own design and funding) has been stressing how important it is for parents to talk to their young children—not "baby talk" and not "school talk" either, just chatter. It is our belief, based on some solid evidence, that parent-child chatter—begun even before children learn to talk—makes children more verbal, improves their reading readiness, stretches their vocabulary and generally makes them smarter.

This young woman had learned the fine art of chattering, and she was delighted that even her child's doctor had noticed a difference.

To read the full column, click here.

Raspberry’s effort deserves full attention; we’ll try to follow it in the new year. But remember—deserving children from low-literacy backgrounds must be served in their schools as well as at home. Many children are years below traditional grade level in reading by the time of the fourth or fifth grades. Their schools must be able to provide them with textbooks and other reading materials which they can actually read and learn from (and enjoy). Absent such meaningful reading experience, pious talk about “high expectations” is a cover for school system breakdown. In our experience, these school system breakdowns have been widespread—indeed, ubiquitous—over the past forty years.

Children need to read in the home. But they also need to read—voraciously—in their schools. Are children from low-literacy backgrounds being provided with reading experiences in public schools? In the new year, we’ll watch Raspberry’s program unfold—and we’ll also try to answer that important, complementary question.

HOW THE RICH GET RICHER: As we all know, parents from high-literacy backgrounds routinely give their children reading experiences in the home. Other kids, who may lack this background, are at a large disadvantage in school, right from the day they start kindergarten. Sometimes, though, parents may over-reach. On Thursday, the New York Times described one possible case. You know what to do—just click here.