This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

October 30, 2008 - early literacy means global competitiveness

About twenty years ago, I went with some other librarians to the Greeley mall. We were going to stage a "read in."

The idea was this: we put up some library signs, then stepped into a sort of reading corral. When small children would come by, we'd invite them to listen to a story. We'd taken a bunch of kid's books with us.

Shortly after I arrived, a little boy walked along who was about the same size as my daughter Maddy was back then. I suppose he was about a year old.

Utterly without thinking, I treated him just like her. I picked him up, spun him around, dropped into a cross-legged position on the ground, and opened up a book in front of him.

And two things immediately became apparent. First, I could sense from the corner of my eye the mother freezing up. "Uh oh," I thought. "I just snatched this boy right from under her. Bad idea."

But the other odd thing was that it was perfectly clear that nobody had ever read to this child before. He didn't know where to look.

You know how long it takes to learn how to follow the rhythm of reading a book? Opening the book, starting on the left, moving to the right, turning the page?

It takes two pages.

And within two pages, this little boy was acting just like Maddy: Relaxed in my lap, head turning smoothly with the pages. He was interested.

We finished the book, and I think read another one. Then I handed the boy gingerly back to the mom. He smiled happily at me, and at her. I apologized to the mother: "I didn't mean to frighten you. He's just the same size as my daughter."

And the mother said something that has stayed with me over the years: "I had no idea he was ready." She had somehow thought she would start reading aloud to him when he was older. How old, I don't know.

Early exposure to books is important. There are some significant correlations in behavior and attaining fluency.

For instance, one of the best predictors of 4th grade fluency is the ability, by about kindergarten, to recognize the letters in our alphabet. Children who have trouble learning to read in 1st grade are quite likely to have trouble in 4th. As I noted here a couple of weeks ago, reading scores in 3rd and 4th grade are reliable predictors of the prison population.

There's good news: several studies have demonstrated that one of the best predictors of academic success is a strong school library program.

But within the state, many school libraries are in crisis. The average copyright date of a book in Colorado's school libraries is 15 years. Many have no librarians.

We know exactly what to do to improve reading scores in Colorado -- but, in most schools, choose not to. It baffles me.

Then there's this even more alarming statistic from the 2008 Report of the National Commission on Adult Literacy. Alone among the first world  (democratized, free market) countries, the United States' current generation is less well educated than the previous one.

That's worth restating. In other developed nations, the current generation is better educated than their parents. In our country, the trend is in the opposite direction.

Today, 1 in 3 young adults will drop out of high school.

We know that low literacy is correlated with family poverty. It seems likely to me that it is also correlated with our ability to compete in a global economy.

Following the mall encounter, I remember being very glad to see that young mother show up with her toddler at our library. She learned something important: the time to start investing in your child's future is now.

I hope our nation is as smart.

LaRue's Views are his own.

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