From Babbling Babies to Ready Readers: Minnesota and Massachusetts Link Early Childhood and Closing the Literacy Gap
Under pressure to close achievement gaps, raise test scores, and increase graduation rates, state education officials are coming around to what early childhood development experts have known all along: the skills that lead to literacy and academic success are developed early.
Some states, including Massachusetts and Minnesota, are considering legislative and budget proposals that will intensify the focus on building reading skills starting at preschool, and aiming for reading proficiency by third grade. That, experts say, is the age by which if a child is not reading, they may have academic challenges that follow them throughout their school careers.
Given the abundance of research supporting the importance of the early childhood years in cognitive and language development, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton's proposed 7-point education plan's emphasis on prekindergarten and kindergarten is welcome by early childhood advocates. A focus on building literacy skills among preschool-aged children is a great start, but to really close the achievement gap, policymakers and educators need to reach children from birth to age three and their families.
In Massachusetts, a legislative proposal championed by the advocacy group Strategies for Children takes early literacy one step further, creating a state Early Reading Council that promotes an age-appropriate focus on developing children's pre-reading and reading skills from birth. The council is tasked with developing state policy that will address the most crucial aspects of early literacy success: high quality and language-rich child care settings, effective professional development for child care providers, and parent engagement strategies that promote literacy-building habits in children's homes.
Importantly, the Massachusetts proposal specifies that any child assessments used by programs to inform their work with children be developmentally appropriate. This attention to age appropriate practice is critical in maintaining high quality child care settings for infants and toddlers and ensuring that meeting the full continuum of their developmental needs remains the top priority. Babies learn language and pre-literacy skills by acting like babies: babbling with the adults who care for them, handling and chewing on age-appropriate books, and listening to stories.
Policymakers also must address the diverse cultural needs of babies and their families in any proposals around early literacy development. Research shows that supporting a young child's home language development furthers the development of both their home language and English language skills. Effectively engaging parents of diverse cultural backgrounds will also be critical to successfully preparing young readers.
From the first reading aloud of Good Night Moon to the first standardized test in the third grade classroom, children are immersed in language, letters, and other elements of literacy. To focus education policy on making the most of the earliest years doesn't just make sense for states, it makes sense for kids.