How Strong Early Literacy Skills Can Help Kids Learn to Read

Schools are required to teach phonics in a growing number of cities and states. To teach children how to read. That’s welcome news for a country that’s suffered from dismal reading outcomes for decades and now also contends with persistent COVID-19-wrought learning losses.

Too long did it take to teach young children basic connections between sounds and letters in print. Reading instruction was dominated by a mix of picture-book appreciation and word-guessing strategies. This has had a negative impact on the literacy levels and future prospects for millions of children. The latest National Assessment of Educational Progress found that most fourth graders in the United States had very poor or no reading skills. They are likely to join the 36 million Americans with poor literacy skills.

This is why mass reading-curriculum reform, and teacher training to implement it, are essential to reverse this tragedy. But more is needed. The reality is ineffective instruction in schools isn’t our only literacy issue. The United States is also suffering from willful underinvestment in families during the first years of life, right when parenting can make (or break) kids’ reading prospects. Just.03% of the U.S. GDP is spent on early childhood education, care and services. This figure is comparable to that in Romania and Cyprus. That’s compared to the more than 1.5% spent by Iceland and Sweden.

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That’s tragic because the major brain circuits and networks have developed by age 2, according to evidence from anatomical, physiological, and gene-expression studies. From there on out, brain development is mostly about refining what’s already in place. Particularly in the area of preliteracy skills we see striking evidence that education trajectories can be set earlier. Research shows, for example, that children who engage in more dynamic conversation with caregivers when they’re 18 to 24 months old tend to do much better as middle schoolers than adolescents who weren’t party to such exchanges. They have higher IQs and better verbal skills.

It’s crucial for schools to teach what students need to learn (in this case, phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, and a host of other reading skills). However, it’s just as imperative that parents and caregivers are well-equipped and supported to lay the groundwork kids need in order to learn those lessons well. It means giving babies and toddlers the right attention to develop their brains, and teaching them skills essential for fluent readers. This includes letter knowledge and speech sound awareness. It’s a both/and scenario. Solid foundations Quality instruction is essential to ensure literacy.

Children need love, affection, and good communication before they can distinguish between letters on paper and the sounds of English. Without it, they’re liable to struggle to learn to read (and, indeed, a majority of kids do). But millions of families in every socioeconomic group are too overwhelmed, stressed and unsupported to ensure that their children have the right language nutrition. The tragedy of poor reading achievement dipping to new lows in pandemic times has been dubbed “the kindergarten crisis,” but kindergarten is merely a point in time when data is captured. It is already present.

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The push for systematically teaching phonics was based on scientific evidence. It’s time to let science dictate our approach to seeding early literacy as well. Dana Suskind is a pediatrician. Parents Nation, “What we now know of the brain demands urgency … There is neuroscientific heft about what children need, when they need it, and the essential role of parents and caregivers as children’s first, best teachers.”

Serious public investment in families could improve children’s reading prospects long before they get to school. Policies including paid parental leave after childbirth, tax credits for families with young children, and the provision of affordable, high-quality childcare all bolster the pivotal early years of children’s lives and learning.

Reading wars are a term that describes the skirmishes about how to teach reading at schools. The combative metaphor is now obsolete. Thankfully, it’s now accepted that most kids need a healthy dose of phonics instruction to read well. We also have mounting evidence that early childhood language experiences have a significant impact on kids’ literacy trajectories. So let’s commit to a concerted national effort to nurture reading—from its roots in infancy and beyond. If we don’t, we’ll find ourselves 20 years from now, rehashing these same old instructional debates, wondering why a win for phonics didn’t spell victory for mass literacy.

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