Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Improving Literacy by Not Focusing on Literacy

In the 1960s researchers seeking to understand the vocabulary deficit that persistently plague students of lower income families began observing 42 families in their homes for several hours each month for 2 1/2 years. The data showed that the amount of experience with language and interaction families provide their children and are strongly linked to children’s language accomplishments. They learned that children from poorer families are subject to fewer words and more admonishments than higher income families and that these two factors contributed to a 30 million-word gap by age three, making it more difficult for these students to keep up with their higher income peers all through their school years. This study is frequently used in attempts at improving literacy by focusing on literacy. This sounds logical, but it is focusing on the effect rather than the cause, much like treating the symptoms of an illness and ignoring the causes and implications of the illness as a whole. In addition to the sheer number of words they are missing and the encouragement they lack, they also have to contend with issues of nutrition, movement, play, and unhelpful community/family dynamics that negatively impact their ability to learn.

Poorer families typically do not have the resources to buy high quality, nourishing, whole foods, and they have less time to prepare them. Families with less education and that struggle financially are more able and more likely to buy nutritionally vapid foods that contain harmful ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup, trans fats, artificial colors, flavors and preservatives. With respect to food, the quantity, quality and frequency are all factors that can positively influence hyperactivity, aggression, impulse control, focus, attention, and concentration. Poorer children, then have a built-in handicap in school with their nutritional needs not being met, causing a deficit in the qualities that are necessary in learning and getting along with others. Of course, over time the lack of good nutrition leads to health problems from frequent general illness to more serious and specific problems like obesity and diabetes. A chronically sick student is not learning optimally, and is likely often absent.

Also contributing to these health and behavioral problems that limit learning is a lack of opportunity for movement and exploration. Urban children in poorer, often less safe neighborhoods are not encouraged to freely explore their environs. Their rougher and denser surroundings contribute to a lack of community cohesion. The children of these areas are less likely to be watched out for by adults who are present and know them in the neighborhood, and therefore they are less likely trusted to be free-range children. They have less access to green areas that provide connection to nature, unstructured play, and plenty of exercise. Their families cannot afford the opportunities for physical outlets like karate, soccer, or ballet. The alternative for these kids is often large chunks of time absorbing unsupervised media (the electronic babysitter) while their parents work multiple jobs to make ends meet.

The unfortunate confluence of these attributes of poverty: inferior modeling of rich vocabulary, lack of encouragement, lack of creative and physical freedom, and lack of good nutrition, and health conspire to entrench children further into the cycle of poverty and widen the achievement gap.

The approach of devoting a majority of resources and time spent directly on improving literacy skills and achieving literacy at earlier ages at first glance sounds like a good way to close the word gap. However, much research and well-documented studies have shown that free, active, and creative play in early childhood builds the necessary foundation for reading, writing, critical thinking and the like. At first glance it is counter-intuitive, but devoting enough time and resources on developmentally appropriate activities that indirectly but strongly improve literacy is a better strategy than time and resources spent on direct and early literacy efforts.

It is clear from the study that it is crucially important that preschoolers get a rich learning environment to lay the foundation for literacy and success in school, ultimately closing the word gap. A rich learning environment goes beyond just providing more direct time spent on literacy though. Schools should balance a child’s home life, just as parents should strive to provide balance for their children outside of school. For the poorer child, the school has to work harder to provide the balance that they need, by virtue of what is missing in their home life. Schools for these children need to provide the rich vocabulary, the encouragement to take risks, as well as the creative, physical, and nutritional enrichment that they do not get at home. This means allowing adequate time for recess and unstructured physical play outdoors. This means art programs that allow for creative exploration that also have the benefit of providing a meaningful framework for learning and keeping students interested in learning and attending school. This means making available nutritious, organic, whole foods for students throughout the day.

It is our obligation as educators to see the child as a whole person and to strive to meet all of their needs. Educating the whole child will improve not only their literacy but their overall achievement. We will also have done much to interrupt the affects and the cycle of poverty.