I walked into West Parish Elementary School this week, ready to serve as a guest reader on behalf of the local reading program called the First R Foundation.
On the surface, it’s a program, now starting its 11th year, that promotes reading and literacy in the schools. But it also provides a powerful reminder that anyone can harness the power of language and share it with children — just by reading a book and talking to them.
It’s far more than providing an entertaining 10 minutes of storytelling. It’s about helping children develop their language, which seems to be increasingly difficult in the 21st century.
In this age of technology, the attention of children is often more focused on their cellphones and computers than on the allure of a book. Yet, social media and chats with their BFF cannot replace the power of face-to-face communication with an adult.
Reading to children helps them learn about language; and the more language they know, they more they will succeed in school and the workplace. Reading aloud can help narrow the divide in what one educator refers to as the “socioeconomic language acquisition gap.”
But don’t let that phrase daunt anyone because any child from any household — no matter what their income — can be exposed to books and the richness of language. If a parent works two jobs, find a family member or friend to help you with that task. But the message is simple — just read out loud to your children.
That’s the bigger picture these days behind First R, a recognized local nonprofit that sends a number of community leaders out to the schools each month to read to kids in kindergarten and first grade across Gloucester and Rockport. The guest reader then leaves the books for the students to keep in their little classroom libraries — the First R program was launched when Gloucester’s schools first made significant cuts in elementary library funding in 2003.
Pat Earle, the First R founder and still its driving force, knows firsthand how the power of language and words can transform someone’s life.
Her father, Michael Kane, had to drop out of school in the sixth grade to take a job in a tack factory because of a family crisis. But on Sundays he went to the library and undertook the challenge of educating himself. That path led him away from the factory floor and into a career as a management consultant.
”My motto is: ‘If you can read, you can do anything’,” said Earle. “Children learn to love reading through picture books. And I thought, ‘Let’s start a program in which people in the community go into the class and read a book —and then give a book to the classroom.’”
This year, that will translate into 31 books a month for the various kindergarten and first-grade classrooms in the Gloucester Public Schools.
“The best part for me is when I see that the books on the shelf are dog-eared and dirty, which means they are being used and I know the program is working,” said Earle.
This week, my book to read was “Scaredy-Cat, Splat,” by Rob Scotton. The main character of the book series was familiar to a few of the kindergarten students; in fact, one girl eagerly asked, “Can we get ‘Merry Christmas, Splat,’ too?” when I told her the book I had was going to be a gift to the class.
The kindergarten pupils — in the classes of Kim LaCoste, Jaclyn Figurido and Joan Klics — were only too happy to sit and listen to the Halloween story about Splat the Cat, who is determined to be the scariest cat in his class to win the coveted trophy.
Splat was sad to discover that the other cats thought his spider costume made from stuffed socks was more funny than scary. However, when Mrs. Wimpydimple turned down the lights to tell a ghost story in the dark, something happens that causes Splat to win the prize.
For decades, research — at times controversial — has shown that student success can be related to the extent of a student’s vocabulary. The late Betty Hart, a researcher and psychologist, attempted to document the importance of the role parents play in how they communicate with their young children.
In Hart’s obit last October in the New York Times, reporter William Yardley referred to the results of research on the subject: “Simply in words heard, the average child on welfare was having half as much experience per hour (616 words per hour) as the average working-class child (1,251 words per hour) and less than one-third that of the average child in a professional family (2,153 words per hour),” wrote Drs. Hart and Todd Risley. “By age 4, the average child in a welfare family might have 13 million fewer words of cumulative experience than the average child in a working-class family.”
The beauty of the First R program is that it allows wide access to the necessary tools to harness the power of language. Parents needn’t worry if they themselves did not go to college or lack the resources to buy books. Like parents and children have done for generations, they can take advantage of their local public library and there is no shortage of elementary school teachers who allow children to take books home.
The key is to read and have simple conversations that will help children learn about language and all its diversity.
As an aside, I have to wonder if those adults who talk incessantly on their cellphone while out walking their child in a stroller realize the missed opportunity to enrich their child’s vocabulary.
Reading this week to the kids at West Parish, I couldn’t help but think Dr. Hart would have told them to hang up their phone.
Another tidbit I’ve taken to heart is that, while reading a book, you may come across a word that you think the child is not likely to know, then stop and explain that word to the child. They may not remember it right away, but they will likely come across the word again — and learning a language, whether your first language or second language, happens through repetition.
This kind of learning does not require government or school intervention, just a caring adult. And that’s what the First R Foundation is all about.
Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3445, or at email@example.com.