The dog is jumping excitedly around my oldest daughter’s feet. She is trying to teach Lucky, our four and a half month old Mini Australian Shepherd, how to shake a paw. Although, I think at present the lesson has disintegrated into a jumble of paws, feet and hands going every which direction. The four-year old sister joins the ruckus, and I hear her say, “Just let me distract her for a minute.” I look up, and I see my youngest prancing around in circles, her arms waving in the air, while the oldest does what she needs to do as the dog-distracting is underway.
Distract. Not a simple vocabulary word for a preschooler to pronounce, let alone understand the meaning of which. According to a study conducted by Camille L.Z. Blachowicz and Peter J. Fisher, along with Susan Watts-Taffe, in a document titled Integrated Vocabulary Instruction: Meeting the Needs of Diverse Learners in K-5, vocabulary used for the purpose of knowing word recognition as well as word meaning is directly related to acquiring knowledge; no matter what extent to which a child is achieving, vocabulary instruction will bring them further along in learning. (www.learningpt.org/pdfs/literacy/vocabulary.pdf)
In another article titled Effective Vocabulary Instruction written by Joan Sedita, she cites well known documentation that student’s word knowledge is strongly linked to academic success. Reasons for this include the fact that students with a great knowledge of vocabulary are able to comprehend and understand ideas and concepts more quickly than those without. (article published in “Insights on Learning Disabilities” 2(1) 33-45, 2005) This just goes to show how important it is to read to our children from birth and beyond, as they are taking it all in; that is to say, they are being exposed to sounds, letters, sentence structure and fluency, word choice and voice and more, during those early years and this will lay the foundation for academic success in the years to come.
Prior to the birth of our last child, I attended a playgroup in the area with my then three young children. One particular day, there was just one other mom and myself in attendance at the center, and we were chatting with the day program activity facilitator. The subject of reading and books came up. The day-program facilitator asked us both if we read to our children, to which I replied a resounding “yes.” When she asked the other mom the same question, the woman replied no she did not read to her children, and it was insinuated that she did not have the desire nor time to do so. The next moment was for me an embarrassing one because I remember the look of disdain that came over that facilitator’s face, and the incredulous exclamation that blurted out. I wanted to fade into the woodwork, as I am sure that other mom did too. Although I secretly felt surprised at her seeming lack of interest in her children’s literacy, I also felt mortified that she had been made to feel “less than” and not a good mother. I later called her up on the phone and apologized for the humiliation she suffered by the ill-timed response from the facilitator of a program that was suppose to help mothers support their children’s growth, not tear them down when they made a misstep along the way.
Although early parental involvement is crucial, we still need to find ways to support the parents who are unable, for whatever reasons, to support their children’s literacy development. Making parents feel “less than” and guilting them into reading to their children is not the ticket to creating a literacy rich pre-school environment for children. There must be ways of helping parents to believe in the process of literacy, so that they are not just going through the motions of reading because that is what good parents do. And what of the parents that simply cannot read? Are there ways to support them in their children’s education? What present supports are out there for them? Otherwise, the achievement gap widens and another generation of illiteracy is the result.
There is a little boy in my class that reminds me of why I must believe that all student’s have the right to learn to read and be literate. He has very little in the way of home support for his academic learning, yet he generally likes school and mostly wants to be there. He struggles to keep up with the rest, and there are times that I can read on his face an awareness that he is not at the same level as the other children. Yet, he perseveres.
Last week, I was doing some testing on one of my students, and the little boy I was testing was breezing right along. Meanwhile, the other little fellow who struggles was noticeably copying and mimicking everything the one I was working with, was saying. This little boy got a little peeved at his little echo and reported to me that he was saying everything the same. I looked at both boys, and I said this to the one I was testing: “He wants to learn all that you know, and you are helping him to discover new things. When he copies you, that is his way of learning. Isn’t that right?” I said turning to the boy who struggles with learning.
He looked at me and nodded. I saw in his eyes that he just wanted to be like the other student and know the same things as the one who had been given a better start than he. I could already read shame on his face. I could see in his eyes that shame would one day lead to anger, anger to resentment and resentment to apathy. The spiral of illiteracy. In that one look, I got the motivation I needed, and I am determined to do what I can to help this child. But I am no saviour, and there is only so much a teacher can do in a given year for a child.
My two youngest children snuggle around me. It is night time, and we are cozy on a bed piled high with pillows, blankets and books. We negotiate which stories, who chooses and how many. As I read, I tell myself how blessed I am to have these moments with my own children. To read, to discover and to grow young minds. I am truly grateful, and humbled by this awesome responsibility.