Read me a book: It's the surefire way to ensure our future

Read me a book: It's the surefire way to ensure our future

April 20th, 2014 in Opinion Times

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We're squandering our children. And our own future at the same time.

A child's brain has achieved 80 percent of its growth by age 3, and 90 percent of its development by age 5.

Parents and the caretakers of young children hold the key to helping youngsters be ready for school - just by talking to them and reading to them. Children are learning machines - if we just take the time to turn on the switch.

Tragically, when children don't get that simple and ordinary attention - talking and reading - they begin school at a disadvantage, and they fall more and more behind.

Consider these statistics:

• About 20 percent of children in Hamilton County are at risk of not starting school with the skills they need to succeed.

• Only 48 percent of third-grade children in Hamilton County public schools can read at grade level. In some schools, fewer than 10 percent of third-graders can read at grade level. And in low-income homes, 80 percent of children in fourth grade read below grade level.

• Once behind, learning gets harder. In Tennessee, 66 percent of children in the fourth and eighth grades read below proficiency.

• Children who can't read at grade level are at high risk of dropping out of school, and in 2012, 490 Hamilton County students dropped out of school before graduation. Multiply that year after year.

• Nationally, one fifth of high school graduates cannot read their own diploma.

• Nationally, 85 percent of juvenile offenders are functionally illiterate.

• Nationally, 75 percent of crime is committed by those without a high school education.

We face many problems in our city, state and world that we as individuals can do little or nothing about. This is not one of those problems.

To help youngsters read and succeed, each one of us can make a difference.

And this is a difference that has huge potential to change our own lives and our own economic future. What do we spend on 20 percent of our population that cannot read a job application? What do employers spend training a workforce to be job ready? What do we spend on juvenile courts and jails? What do we spend on crime and crime prevention?

United Way of Greater Chattanooga is offering help, too, with its Ready for School program, Imagination Library and free video for parents and grandparents. But the programs only help if we use them.

Signing up a child under 5 means the boy or girl receives a free, high-quality book in the mail each month to encourage parents and caregivers to read to them. Free "Ages & Stages developmental assessments" are offered to see if the child is on track. Parents who complete a learning checkup for their youngster receive a free family pass to the Creative Discovery Museum.

About 1 million books have been mailed to more than 18,000 children in Hamilton, Marion, Catoosa, Dade and Walker counties locally.

Why does this small thing, coupled with someone to read that book and talk to that child, have such an impact?

Because a baby's task is to learn to communicate. Thinking, listening, reading and writing all are built on the foundation of language that children begin acquiring at birth. The baby's first four years are the most critical, says Mary Poston Tanner, retired Guerry professor of education at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and one of the speakers on the free video that explains - from a child's view - how babies and toddlers learn.

Reading to children makes for a chatty environment, and children around chatty adults gain a larger vocabulary than youngsters in quiet homes. Parents who read to their children put their babies' brains on natural learning steroids.

Children who have been read to from birth start school with 7,000 words in their vocabularies, where children who are not read to start school with about 500 words, according to Sarah J. Sandefur, a UTC literary education professor.

Some children come from homes where they hear 11 million words a year, while others come from homes where they hear only about 3 million words a year. By age 3 the difference in the vocabularies and language use in these two groups is tremendous, she says.

This is something we can fix.

Sign up your child, or a child you know. And start talking and reading to them. And give United Way a cheer. Better still, a cheer and a donation. But remember: It won't work without you - the grown-up who will take the time to read and be chatty with a little one.

This is doable. Pass it on.