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Closing the Word Gap

Children Never Too Young to Be Read to, Experts Say

When a home visitor from school told Jessie Kent that she could read books to her son Michael, she had her doubts. How could a child barely a year old absorb and retain any words she read to him?

Michael quickly erased her doubts. She has been reading to him for four months, and he always wants more.

“He’ll sit right on your lap and help you turn the pages,” said Kent, 23, who reads to Michael such toddler classics as “Wheels on the Bus.” “He gets mad when you take the book from him.”

  • Children who are read to frequently at home better recognize the alphabet, count and write their names than those who are not
  • Children in homes below the poverty line are less likely to be read to aloud every day than those above poverty
  • The more types of reading materials in the home, the higher students score in reading proficiency
  • A study by University of Kansas researchers found preschoolers in high-income families were exposed to 30 million more words than were children from families on assistance

Sources: National Education Association, Rice University

That’s just what Lora Jenema hoped for when she began bringing books to Kent on her twice-monthly visits. Jenema is one of three parent educators who since September have been providing parents with free books donated by the Cedar Springs school community.

The initiative was launched by two speech language pathologists at Cedar Trails Elementary School, who found an idea in a summer seminar to get more books in the hands of low-income school district parents – and more words into the ears of their young children.

“We see a lot of kids coming to school with language delays,” said Tari Howland, who leads the Read and Talk Together program with her colleague Krista Olszewski. “Being read to at home is one of the biggest indicators for school success (and) of coming to school with a well-developed vocabulary. Our thought was if we can get more of these at-risk kids with books at home, we’ll see fewer kids coming to school with poor vocabulary.”

The thought bore fruit. Well over 150 gently used books have been distributed to at least 50 families, bringing stories, pictures and comforting lap time to children from birth through first grade. All without costing the school district a dime.

Keep Digging

The project zeroes in on a well-researched problem. Lack of reading at home can create a “word gap” for young children in poverty or from low-income families, which studies have shown puts them behind when they enter school. Conversely, other research shows children who are read to at home do better in school.

Howland and Olszewski saw a simple remedy: collecting books from the community and bringing them to parents through parent educators with the Bright Beginnings and Parents as Teachers programs.

Once the pair put the word out, they began getting scores of books donated by teachers, parents and others. They sort through them after school, choosing ones appropriate for each age group. They still need more, especially sturdy board books for toddlers like Michael.

“It’s been a great way to get those books into homes where they don’t have the pleasure of having even one book,” Olszewski said.

Being read to also helps children to focus, calms them and nurtures bonds with their parents – “having your child sitting on your lap and having that intimate moment,” Olszewski said.

But many parents avoid reading because they weren’t read to as children and find it difficult to do, she added. That is where the parent educators come in, by coaching parents on how to use the books they provide.

Speech language pathologists Krista Olszewski, left, and Tari Howland launched the Read and Talk Together program for parents of young children

Reading to Relax

Lora Jenema found Jessie Kent at first didn’t feel comfortable reading to Michael, saying she was never read to as a child. But she didn’t want him to struggle in school as she had. Jenema showed her she didn’t need to read every word of the books she brought, but could describe the pictures and fill in with her own narration. It worked.

“Now every time I come, he goes in the bag and gets the book,” Jenema said with a chuckle.

“He’s getting pretty smart,” said Kent, who’s expecting a second little reader in February. “He’s starting to know some words.”

She reads to him before going to her second-shift job as a janitor in the schools. Her husband, Jack, also does his share. She hopes it will pay off for Michael in school — “to get ahead of things, so he’s not slow” — but sees its benefits right now, too.


“I like reading to him,” she said.  “It helps me improve my reading, too. It helps us to relax.”


Closing the preschool “word gap”

Children’s literacy research

Kent ISD Bright Beginnings program

SNN Road to Reading series

Kent District Library’s 1,000 Books Before Kindergarten Program

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers series and issues stories for all districts. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio


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