Influence a reader’s life

literacy Nestled into a corner sits a child with his worn copy of The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats (as it is proving to be quite a snowy day outside!). As he reads the words aloud, he persists to determine the word before him, “pocket”. Decoding each individual sound while simultaneously checking it with words he knows and the pictures shown, he soon discovers the word is indeed “pocket”. All the while he is also trying to build the world of the story–understanding the characters, predicting the unfolding events, connecting the scenes to other witnessed snowstorms, accessing his background knowledge of winter, visualizing how the current scene might look outside the adjacent window, recognizing the story’s narrative structure, determining the author’s purpose…And, he is also persisting to remain interested and motivated to find his way to the book’s end. Thus, it is of no surprise that upon closing the back cover, he lets out a well-deserved long exhale.

Reading for success in the 21st century is a complex and dynamic process—one that extends far beyond decoding words on the page. It is one that begins at birth and continues through adulthood. And it is one that must meet the increasingly changing text demands throughout the child’s developmental years. Knowing this complexity of reading development and the many intertwining factors required for reading success, in the recent report, “PIRLS 2011 Canada in Context: Progress in International Reading Literacy Study” (2012), authors Mélanie Labrecque, Maria Chuy, Pierre Brochu, and Koffi Houme consider key findings regarding these influential factors. Within the lengthy report, two reported outcomes were emphasized: (1) the impact of a child’s home life on his/her reading success, and (2) the positive relationship between reading achievement and a child’s attitudes toward reading.

Headlining the report, authors state “children whose parents read books to them at home before they started primary school, scored an average of 35 points higher on the (PIRLS) tests than children who were not read to”. A similar finding reported “children of parents who say they like to read, scored 36 points higher than those whose parents do not”. Thus, these reported outcomes promote the notion that both home literacy practices and parent’s attitudes influence a child’s reading achievement starting from birth, both of which further support existing literacy research.

“Each adult holds the power to influence a reader’s life.”

Reading research demonstrates the explicit link between early literacy skills and later reading success. The National Early Literacy Panel (2008) identified several early literacy skills that predict later literacy development, including: alphabet knowledge, phonological awareness, rapid automatic naming of letters, digits, objects, and colors, writing and name writing, and phonological memory. Also, vocabulary size is a key predictor of reading success. Kindergarten vocabulary correlates strongly with reading ability at every subsequent grade through high school (Snow, Porche, Tabors, & Harris, 2007).

Reading research has also never been as clear and convincing about the long-term developmental impact of the quality within a child’s early environment and experiences— their language and reading development, social and behavioral abilities, and health (Lesaux, 2010). Coupling this notion and the discussed connection between early literacy skills and later reading success, it exhibits the impact and need for high-quality language environments starting from birth. As Tabors, Snow, and Dickinson (2001) highlight, “activities in the home make a considerable contribution to children’s ultimate literacy success, both by providing opportunities for children to engage in specific literacy-related activities such as book reading and by developing language skills, including vocabulary, that show immediate and long-term relations to literacy (p. 327).” In that same light, Hart and Risley (1995) found by age three, children from low-income families, on average, have vocabularies that are half the size of their higher income peers. By age 4, children from low-income families are exposed to an estimated 32 million fewer words than their higher income peers. Because vocabulary size is the key predictor of reading success, this clearly exhibits the predicted impact of a child’s environment on his/her later reading abilities. Both past research and the PIRLS 2011 report invite targeted efforts on ensuring high-quality language and reading environments starting from birth.

The PIRLS 2011 also unsurprisingly reports another key finding when considering the multiple the snowy day facets required for reading success: the positive relationship between reading achievement and a child’s attitudes and motivation toward reading. Using student surveys, researchers found, “students who like reading have an advantage of 54 points (on the PIRLS assessment) over those who do not like reading”. It also finds, “a significant difference in the reading scores between students who are ‘confident’ and those who are ‘not confident’ in their reading skills”. Finally, the report shares that “students who are motivated and somewhat motivated to read performed significantly better in reading than those who are not motivated to read”.

From the field of reading research, these outcomes are nothing unexpected. Namely, Stanovich (1986) documents a framework entitled The Matthew Effect that signifies this finding. This framework captures the ways various mechanisms relate to create “rich-get richer and poor-get-poorer” patterns of reading achievement. Children who struggle in reading early often continue to struggle throughout their reading lives; whereas children who are successful tend to read with more frequency and become more successful over time. Often times when initial attempts at learning to read result in failure, problems begin to compound impacting a child’s future reading success. These include negative self-expectations, lowered motivation, and limited practice, all making it an increasing challenge to become a proficient reader. As Stanovich (1986) notes, “once the cascades of failures and motivational problems commences, it is difficult to reverse the negative spinoff effects of academic achievement, motivation, and behavior” (p. 386). At the same time, a child’s self-motivation determines the degree to which he/she seeks out reading opportunities (both extensively and diversely), expends effort during reading, and demonstrates persistence when comprehending a text. Thus, while these PIRLS 2011 findings regarding a child’s attitudes, motivation, and behavior are nothing unexpected, their reemergence in this report explicitly remind educators of the critical nature in designing language-building opportunities that support, motivate, and engage a child to ensure reading success.

As the PIRLS 2011 report is added to the robust catalogue of reading research it provides us with yet another call to action—one that entails promoting effective reading experiences from a child’s earliest years and across all settings, including our living rooms, grocery stores, classrooms, after-school settings, and early childhood centers. Each adult holds the power to influence a reader’s life. And each adult holds the ability to encourage language-rich opportunities and to spark a reader’s interest to snatch another book from the shelf and nestle right on in.

As Director of Reading Proficiency at Strategies for Children and our Early Education for All Campaign, Kelly guides their statewide effort to ensure that children in Massachusetts become proficient readers by the end of third grade. Prior to joining SFC in August, Kelly earned her Ed.M. at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, with a concentration in language, literacy and literacy coaching. While working as a middle school math teacher at the Santa Monica Alternative Middle School House for three years, Kelly initiated and led district-wide professional development programs designed to help elementary and middle school teachers improve students’ literacy across the disciplines. Kelly began her career as a second grade teacher at the Horace Mann Elementary School in Washington, D.C., where for three years she taught an inclusive classroom comprised of native English speakers and English language learners. Kelly graduated magna cum laude from Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and math.