Uriel Torres, 4, wasn’t sitting quietly as his tutor read him a book about Clifford, that irascible big red dog. He wasn’t sitting at all. He leaned forward out of his high chair, almost laying his little body out on the kitchen table, to get a closer look at the illustrations.
Uriel is one of nearly 100 children in East Palo Alto who receive free books and private tutoring through the nonprofit 10 Books A Home, in exchange for a commitment from his mother: She reads with him every day. Programs such as 10 Books A Home, which focus on improving early reading skills by engaging parents, are spreading in California.
The programs have different approaches. For instance, the statewide Raising A Reader program and San Diego’s Words Alive! both work with child care centers and preschools to connect with children and parents. But all the programs have the same goal: To get children, and parents, excited about reading.
It’s worked for Uriel.
Rather than waiting for his tutor, Lisa Hern, to tell him the story of Clifford’s chance to be a volunteer firefighter, Uriel wanted to discuss how the smoke got out of the burning building. Or imagine the best way for Clifford’s humans to bring him along on vacation, since big red dogs don’t fit in cars. His tutor encouraged his questions and asked lots of her own about what colors Uriel saw and how many windows he could count on the drawing of the smoking building.
The 10 Books A Home program was founded on the idea that low-income parents are just as willing to “pay” for extra help for their kids as middle- and high-income parents. They may not have $60 to $100 to spend per home tutoring session, CEO and founder Paul Thiebaut reasoned, but he thought
they’d happily commit to spending their time and energy learning the best ways to get their children ready for school.
“It matters to me because I want my son to succeed,” said Uriel’s mother, Clarisa Torres, as she watched her son and his tutor closely, picking up ideas for the next time she read with Uriel.
Getting parents at all income levels excited about reading to their young children has become a growing trend as more research has emerged about the importance of early language development to later success. Reading and talking to children under 5 years old on a daily basis is critical to their vocabulary development, their verbal communication skills and their ability to begin reading on time and at grade level in elementary school, said Dana Suskind, director a University of Chicago research laboratory focused on early language acquisition.
“The difference in early language exposure really is the beginning of the achievement gap,” Suskind said.
And the difference can be vast. Research first published in 1995 by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, of the University of Kansas, established that a 30 million-word gap exists between the vocabularies of 3-year-old children from low-income families and 3-year-olds from middle-income families. Since then a large body of research has confirmed and expanded this initial finding.
“How much parents talk to kids has a huge impact,” Suskind said, calling the extensive research on the subject “indisputable.”
Involving parents was common sense, Theibaut said. “Think about people accepting awards: After God, sometimes before God, (people thank their) parents,” he said.
Torres, who is married now and has a second son, said she used to think the program’s requirement that she read to her son every day was “pointless.” Her parents hadn’t read to her as a child and she didn’t see the importance of reading to Uriel, then a toddler. And reading to a 2-year-old can be frustrating.
“I would try to read him a book and he would just grab it and say whatever he wanted,” Torres said. “So I would give up.”
After watching Uriel and his tutor reading together over the past year and a half, Torres said she better understood her son’s behavior.
“He was just too small,” to sit silently and listen, Torres said she learned. “He needed my support to work with him on (a level appropriate for) his age.”
Many studies that were limited in scope have found positive preliminary results for programs like 10 Books A Home. But there have been no large-scale studies that track the academic trajectory of children whose parents are enrolled in programs that focus on teaching them the importance of reading to and speaking with their children. That’s about to change.
Starting this year, Suskind will be able to test her own parent-outreach program, the Thirty Million Words Initiative, by comparing the language development of children whose parents are enrolled to that of children whose parents are not. The longitudinal study will follow the children for five years with help from a part of $19 million grant from the PNC Foundation, the philanthropic arm of PNC Bank.
“Unless we really connect ourselves to science, unless we see that we can change outcomes, you can have a lot of feel-good organizations,” and no real change, Suskind said.
That shouldn’t stop nonprofits from doing what they can to help parents talk and read more with their children, Suskind said.
Organizations across California are taking different approaches to the challenge. Raising A Reader is one of the longest running programs of its kind in the state. Founded in California, the program has gone national over the last 15 years. Participating schools get regular read-alouds from Raising A Reader staff, training for teachers, classes for parents, and a collection of books for students to borrow.
At FranDelJA preschool in San Francisco’s Bayview–Hunters Point neighborhood, 16 children listened to “Pete the Cat and his Four Groovy Buttons,” read aloud by Raising a Reader’s Michele Callwood, a Bay Area program coordinator and former special education teacher.
It was raining, but being stuck inside hadn’t dampened the children’s interest in the story about a singing cat who manages to lose his four shirt buttons. The children delighted in singing along with Pete about his shrinking assembly of groovy buttons. In the last scene, the only button the cat has left is his belly button, which turns out to be fantastically funny, if you’re 4.
When Callwood finished, one little girl shouted: “Read it again!”
Inspiring children to love reading is part of the plan, said Molly Wertz, executive director of Raising A Reader, Bay Area. A child handing a parent a book and saying, “Please read with me,” makes the ideal ambassador for reading more at home, Wertz said.
“It doesn’t come naturally (to parents) if that hasn’t been a part of (their lives), if children were seen and not heard, if the only book at home was the Bible and nobody touched it but daddy,” Wertz said.
Sheryl Rowser of San Diego said when she was a young mother, she worked several jobs to make ends meet. She tried her best, but she rarely had time to sit and chat with or read to her four boys, now adults. Besides, academics weren’t encouraged in her neighborhood, she said.
“You were a nerd if you were a book scholar,” Rowser said.
Rowser is now raising her fifth child, 6-year-old Dakari, and she’s done worrying about the nerd label. Last year, Rowser enrolled in a reading club for children and parents offered by Words Alive!, a San Diego nonprofit. The club met weekly to make crafts, read books and learn about early childhood development at her daughter’s public preschool.
“I never realized when a child is reading he’s using his imagination and becoming more educated just by opening his mind,” Rowser said. “It was like the breath of fresh air to me.”
Rowser said Words Alive! made a huge difference to her, but she knew several women in her neighborhood who were eligible for the classes and didn’t sign up.
In the end, Rowser said, “you gotta want to make change for yourself.”