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Fresh Ideas: Giving Olivia a head-start to literacy

Lorie Smith SchaeferFor the Nevada Appeal

“Richer than I you can never be, for I had a mother who read to me.”

– Strickland Gillian

In my granddaughter’s bedroom, right next to the rocking chair, is a basket overflowing with books, evidence that during the first sleep-deprived, getting-to-know-you weeks and months of her life, Olivia’s parents have been reading to her. Right from the beginning, the comfort of being rocked and snuggled was associated not only with the soothing sounds of her parents’ voices but also the rhythm and rhyme of language.

Why start so early?

The first building block of reading is language. During the first years of life, Olivia’s brain is wired for language acquisition. At 18 months she will know about 50 words but after that, she will acquire new words at the incredible rate of eight to 10 new words a day. By age 6, Olivia will understand about 13,000 words. At this point however, the window of opportunity for language learning will all but shut. Any language growth after she starts school will be much more difficult to achieve.

Reading aloud to Olivia – especially repeated readings of familiar books – contributes to her language development and vocabulary growth. It also stretches her attention span, improves her memory and exposes her to how print works (top to bottom, left to right). It stimulates her imagination. Reading aloud shows her that reading is a meaningful, pleasurable habit.

How much is enough?

Most experts agree that Olivia will need 1,000 hours of lap-sitting and listening to stories before she starts school and formal reading instruction begins. That breaks down to about 30 minutes a day from birth to age 5. To put this in perspective, most kids get about half that amount. Meanwhile, children do get close to 1,600 hours of television before they are 6.

Books provide a wide variety of language and concepts, but all language experiences are valuable. Nursery rhymes, silly songs and finger plays like “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” will all add to Olivia’s vocabulary and pleasure in language. Everyday conversations as her parents change, bathe and feed her are key as well. All verbal interaction builds her internal word bank.

Finally, after a hectic day, reading aloud together offers Olivia and her parents a few private moments of peace, calm and love. She’s growing so fast. I know it won’t be long before she won’t fit on a lap anymore. Or sit still. I’m glad her parents aren’t wasting a moment of this precious time.

• Lorie Schaefer is Olivia’s grandmother as well as a retired reading specialist. She recommends The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease and his website at http://www.trelease-on-reading.com/