Sunday, January 29, 2012

I had been staring at the computer and had not written a logical or thoughtful word for this column. Then the telephone rang and Janelle Thompson invited me to go cross-country skiing with her. When I returned home an hour later the column almost wrote itself.
Recess time! If you are like me, you remember recess as a most enjoyable, important part of your school day.  In the early fall, I dug in the soft dirt under huge trees and imagined conversations with fairies and leprechauns.  During recess time I learned a lot about myself. I could swing to the greatest heights, flying like a bird. I could hang from the monkey bars upside down until my face turned red with the effort. I could survive skinned knees, receiving kindness and a band-aide from my teacher. I could jump rope ‘salt and pepper’ and I could run away from the boys.  I came inside after my exertions red faced and breathless, the blood coursing through my veins and into my brain. Recess made me physically ready to learn.
In contrast, children today are lucky to have ten or fifteen minutes of outdoor playtime during the school day. In the winter months, I have seen children come to school without appropriate warm clothing for playing out of doors. These little ones huddle near the doorway with no hat, mittens, or boots until the end of recess or until they are allowed back inside.
We wonder about the upswing in childhood obesity, the increase in heart disease, and the increase in childhood diabetes. We wonder why we have a generation of children who can’t entertain themselves, have social difficulties, and are fidgety and off task in the classroom.
In the late 1980s, some schools cut back on recess to allow more instructional time. This trend accelerated with the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001. Some schools, afraid of low test scores sought to improve scores by having children spend more time at their desks on schoolwork. However, the NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) found no research to support such assumptions that keeping children in the classroom could improve test performance.


Up through the ground, creep, creep, creep.
The sleepy little groundhog peek, peek, peeks
If he sees his shadow
and the sun is bright.
He jumps down his hole
and is out of sight.

Up through the ground, creep, creep, creep.
The sleepy little groundhog peek, peek, peeks
If there is no shadow
and the clouds hide the sun
He jumps out of his hole
and he’s ready for fun.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Helping your child learn to read

We ended last week’s column on a somewhat discouraging note––that the best predictor of a child’s success in learning to read was the mother’s education level and her family’s social-economic status. If you haven’t read last week’s column, you can read it on the previous blog,
Today I will follow through on my promise to you to share other more positive correlations from this research that can make a huge difference for your child.
The researchers learned that the amount and quality of language the babies and toddlers were exposed to correlated strongly with the mothers’ education and socio-economic status. Mothers on welfare spoke about 600 words per hour; mothers in blue color families spoke about 900 words per hour; and mothers in professional families spoke about 1500 words per hour.  Later, at about three years of age, the welfare moms spoke about 900 words, the blue color moms about 1200 words, and the professional moms spoke around 3000 words.
The findings pointed to the amount and quality of language as being the most important factor in the child’s success in learning to read and continued high achievement in school.
Let’s use the analogy of rolling a snowball. Can you picture making a snowball with your mittens? Initially you have very little snow to work with and when you put the snowball on the ground, it picks up only a little snow. You have to work carefully to keep all the snow adhering to the snowball you are creating. However, the larger the snowball becomes, the more snow it picks up as it goes, until it lifts all the snow from the ground all by itself.
Work carefully on your communication with your infant and young child. With your very best effort now, your child will be well prepared for literacy and life. Whether you are a college graduate or a mom struggling to obtain your high school diploma for a better life, you can improve the amount and quality of your communication with your child and make a huge impact upon your child’s ability to learn to read and success in school.

Let’s roll a tiny snowball
Til it gets big and round
Let’s roll it through the snow
It doesn’t make a sound

Give the snowman a head and eyes
A broom for him to hold
A mouth, a nose, and a scarf
So our snowman won’t get cold!

When they are able to, children love to tell you what is still missing from the snowman!

Friday, January 20, 2012

A difficult topic

I’m going to tackle a subject that is impossible to explain without calling attention to socioeconomic status and education levels in families. What I am going to share with you is some research done in the 1960’s by scientists trying to understand why the educational gains made in Head Start programs are lost, more often than not, by the time children reach third grade. What I hope that you,–especially new mothers, mothers-to-be, and childcare professionals,–take away from this discussion is that you have the power and opportunity to hugely impact your child’s literacy development. In improving literacy, you will greatly improve your child’s school and life success because so much depends on being able to read and write well.
I’d like to tell you about a large longitudinal study of mothers with their 18-month-old children. The mothers’ interactions with their children were documented. Some of the behaviors that were documented included how many words the mother used in speaking to her child, whether the tone of the interaction was engaging or disciplining the child, what the mother did to expand the child’s language, and what the mother did to encourage continued communication as opposed to what she did to close the discussion. Many more behaviors of the mothers in the study were tabulated to see if there was a common thread to answer the question, “Why do some children learn to read easily and others have more trouble?”
Along with these observations, researchers collected additional information about the family including–how many children, age of mother, whether the family had two parents or a single parent, level of education of the mother, income level of the family, and whether the mother worked outside of the home.
A longitudinal study is one that occurs over many years. In this study, the mothers were again called back for an observation at around the child’s third birthday, the mothers’ communication styles were again observed. The children were observed and tested once they were beginning to read and again later in about third grade. The factors that predicted the child’s level of success in learning to read and continued success in school were very closely linked to the mother’s educational level and socio-economic status. No other factors came close.
I apologize for ending today’s column on this discouraging note, but I promise I will share more next week of other correlations that the researchers learned that can make a huge difference for your child.


Most of the birds have gone away
On this cold dark winter day.
Here is one bird that I can see
Looking for something good to eat.

Little bird, I’ll feed you
Til the cold winter is through
And all of your friends come back to play
On a warm and bright spring day.

(tune:  Up on the Housetop)

Sunday, January 15, 2012

More on Literacy

We started 2012 with a discussion on building literacy skills for our little ones. I told you that reading is dependent on decoding the written word (sounding out words as we read) and being able to understand the content of what is read. The important point I wished to make was that what parents do in the first years, right from birth, has a big impact on how easily a child learns to read.
Last week’s discussion was about why it is important to talk to your baby. This week I would like to think about the content of what we say and how that helps build literacy skills.
When we engage babies by speaking directly to them (television, radio, and talking with adults doesn’t count) our babies learn to pay attention to what we show and tell them. Very early on children are able to follow our eye gaze or finger when we point out something interesting to them. They are learning to pay attention to what we are telling them is important.
We can tell our two month old about the toys they have on the floor with them as we hold up the toy in their range of vision. “See your pretty horse? Can you feel how soft he is?” Baby is gaining a big stash of receptive language in these two sentences. He is gaining vocabulary that he will use when he begins to talk and through this he is also learning content and meaning.
All of these things help later as the child learns to read. He will be ready to process sentence structures that we use. He will know that the attributes given to the toy are interesting words to pay attention to. He may be working at decoding a word he has never seen before, but will be able to use what he already knows about horses to figure out the meaning of new and unfamiliar words.


Feed, feed, feed the birds
In the wintertime.
When the days are dark and cold
Food is hard to find

Feed, feed, feed the birds
Til the spring has come.
Scatter birdseed on the ground
Feeding birds is fun.

Pantomime Motions
tune:  Row, Row Your Boat

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Beginning Year Eight with Literacy

Let’s start the New Year with a series of discussions on building literacy skills. We know from longitudinal research that babies who have parents who talk with them a lot, building communication turn taking skills, are the children who learn to read almost without being taught.
Reading is dependent on a combination of skills. Developing these skills starts very, very early in life. One skill is decoding the written word, or sounding it out. Another skill is to be able to understanding the content of what you are reading. The kinds of things parents do with babies help both of these skills develop.
Decoding the written word depends upon having developed all the brain connections that help a Russian baby learn to speak and later read the Russian language, help an American baby learn to speak and later read the English language. Before six months of age, babies’ brains are prepared to learn any language in the world. They can hear all the nuances in speech in all languages. However, parents usually speak only one language as a routine in their home. It is the continual exposure to the rhyme, rhythm, and sounds of that one language that teaches the baby where one word stops and another starts, teaches the baby the beginning and end of a chunk of meaning we call a sentence. After about six months babies. no longer hear the sounds of the languages they are not exposed to. They are able to focus on and begin to develop babbling that closely resembles the language spoken in their home.
At a Christmas party I learned that a young couple in my extended family is expecting a baby this summer. The mother-to-be is from Germany and her native language is German. The father’s native language is English though he is multi-lingual. They are planning to speak both languages to their baby and so this new little one will have some interesting sorting out to do as he or she begins to talk. This sorting out process will likely mean that there will be a small delay in talking, however once their child begins to talk, the exposure to two languages will be like having additional brain food.
Next week we will think about the content of what we say to our children and how that helps in learning to read.


A winter day is very, very cold.
A winter day is very, very cold.
It may just snow, you never, never know.
A winter day is very, very cold.

Make the w sign for winter with each hand and shiver.  Sign snow.  Shake head ’no’ and use facial expression for ‘you never know’