“It’s hard not to bond with someone when you’re reading to them,” says Early Childhood Alliance Director Laurie Black. ECA launched its “Talking Is Teaching: Talk, Read, Sing” campaign last month with MANOS, a dual-language early education program in Syracuse. (Photo courtesy of Early Childhood Alliance)
With babies, the conversation can be a bit one-sided. After all, they can’t talk yet. But according to a new campaign from the Early Childhood Alliance, parents should go ahead and chatter away to their little ones.
ECA has made Onondaga County the 12th community nationwide to join Too Small to Fail’s “Talking Is Teaching: Talk, Read, Sing” initiative, which encourages parents to build their children’s language skills from birth. The campaign uses social media, billboards, bus stop signs and text messages to give parents tips on how to engage their babies through speech, song and books.
“Learning begins at birth,” said Laurie Black, ECA director. “The more we talk with children, the more we engage with children, the more prepared they are for school.”
The years between birth and kindergarten are pivotal for a child’s ability to read, write and speak.
“When kids hit kindergarten, the standard is they should know their letters, their letter sounds and their numbers,” Black said.
Children who don’t start out with “robust literacy experiences,” as Black called them, start school already behind their peers. Once they fall behind, it can take years to catch up.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics:
• More than one-third of kindergarteners start school lacking the language skills they’ll need to learn how to read.
• In the United States, about 80 percent of people living below the poverty line — and two-thirds of all American children — cannot read at their grade level by third grade.
• By the time they reach age 3, a child from a more advantaged family knows 600 more words than a child from a low-income family.
Black said these deficits are discernible as early as 18 months of age, but she added, “This is something we can tackle.”
Some parents, Black said, assume that because an infant can’t respond to what they’re saying, it means the child doesn’t understand. So, they don’t engage with their babies.
“Parents miss that opportunity because their child isn’t talking back,” Black said.
Talking Is Teaching advocates reading aloud to children from the moment they are born, narrating their day and the world around them. Babies begin absorbing language long before they can speak, so playing peekaboo, telling bedtime stories and singing silly songs all contribute to a child’s development.
“Every moment is a talking moment,” Black said, “whether you’re in the grocery store or on the street.”
One of Black’s favorite quotes on the subject of early education comes from Bill Gates, Sr., attorney, philanthropist and father of the Microsoft mogul with the same name: “The first five years have so much to do with how the next 80 turn out.”
“The majority of parents believe they should start reading to their kids at 2 years old,” Black said. “That’s way too late.”
Talking Is Teaching doesn’t just deal with literacy. The campaign also offers tips on sharpening a kid’s counting skills and teaching children how to express and manage their emotions.
“The foundation gets laid pretty early for social and emotional responses,” Black said. “Talking’s a big part of social/emotional development.”
The ability to read is linked with the ability to form healthy bonds between parent and child.
“It’s hard not to bond with someone when you’re reading to them,” Black said.
The Talking Is Teaching campaign is accessible to many different populations. First of all, it’s free. “This is not something you have to buy a product [to do],” Black said.
The ECA is focusing its campaign first on the Near West Side of Syracuse, partnering with “trusted messengers” such as pediatricians, local businesses and social programs that can display literacy tips and provide materials to families in need.
“In their first 15 months of life, a child will visit their pediatrician six times,” Black said.
Doctors can keep tabs on all aspects of a child’s development and can provide Talking Is Teaching tips and materials in their offices.
Local businesses, such as Nojaim Brothers Supermarket, are joining the effort as well.
“By encouraging families to promote language skills with their kids at a young age, it is our hope that we will positively impact parents and children in our community, including families residing in the Near West Side neighborhood,” said Paul Nojaim. “With this established and proven campaign, we are able to hit the ground running and ‘flood the Near West Side’ with resources to help parents be the best teachers for their children.”
Materials are available in both English and Spanish, which is spoken widely on the Near West Side. Black said it doesn’t matter what language people use with their children, as long as they are engaging them in conversation and reading to them.
“Even if you can’t necessarily read a book, you can make up a story,” she said.
The message of Talking Is Teaching is light, positive and simple. Most of the literacy tips are simple nudges and not drastic changes, Black said.
“The overarching message here,” she said, “is that parents are their child’s first teacher.”
Ashley M. Casey is a reporter for The Baldwinsville Messenger and The Eagle Star-Review. She graduated from Le Moyne College in 2012 and previously worked for the Scotsman Press.
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