It’s about WORDS

Josiah Brown sent in the following report about an event in which he took part.

On March 28, the Literacy Coalition of Greater New Haven convened a breakfast forum at the offices of the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund in Hamden. The theme was “Early Learning.” (1)

The event featured greetings by moderator Curtis Hill, executive director of Concepts for Adaptive Learning and a Literacy Coalition board member, followed by a panel discussion.  The panelists were Myra Jones-Taylor, early childhood planning director for Connecticut; Cyd Oppenheimer, senior policy fellow at Connecticut Voices for Children; and Sandra Malmquist, director of the Connecticut Children’s Museum and of its Creating Kids program for children from infancy to age five.

Myra Jones-Taylor, whom Governor Dannel Malloy appointed last year to implement a 2011 state law (the General Assembly’s Public Act 11-181, “concerning early childhood education and the establishment of a coordinated system of early care and education and child development”), spoke about her effort with colleagues across six agencies to improve upon what she called a “redundant,” fragmented, “non-system” of early care and learning, with isolated programs “nestled within larger agencies.”  (2)  In this year’s legislative session, House Bill 6359 has been introduced to establish what only three other states (Georgia, Massachusetts, and Washington) have: an Office of Early Childhood with substantial authority, reporting to the governor.  According to Jones-Taylor, the aims include a more efficient and effective series of early childhood programs, enabling parents greater access to early care of higher quality, while relieving the paperwork burden where possible “to make it easier for families.” 

She noted parent engagement and literacy (and numeracy) as crucial to the experiences of young children.  She observed, “It’s not just about the achievement gap.  It’s about social and emotional health” – and that “respectful dialogue with parents” is essential.

The cost to provide preschool to all of the approximately 5000 three- and four-year-olds who are not currently enrolled has been estimated at upwards of $40 million per year, not to mention the cost of constructing new classroom space, some $220 million. (3)  Already, according to information from Connecticut Voices for Children that was cited in a March 2 Hartford Courant article, some 33,500 children are in state-subsidized early care programs.  The cost: some $226 million per year, including school-readiness dollars, state-funded centers for children, Connecticut’s share of the federal Head Start program, and the state’s “Care 4 Kids” program, which assists parents in paying for child care – an expense that can easily exceed a thousand dollars a month, depending on the age of the child and the scope of the care.  Preschool attendance for kindergartners ranges from 90 percent or more in affluent suburbs to 70 percent or less in Connecticut’s cities, for an overall average of about 80 percent.  There are also differences in the quality of those preschool experiences, though organizations including All Our Kin (now in Bridgeport as well as New Haven) are working to ensure a more uniformly strong standard of early care, including in home-based settings.

One of the “Connecticut Voices” responsible for such analysis is Cyd Oppenheimer.  In her remarks, she acknowledged that, in addition to her role at that advocacy organization, she is co-chair (with Jennifer Heath of the United Way) of the New Haven Early Childhood Council. 

Oppenheimer spoke of New Haven as one of the “discovery communities” that receive support from the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund, which has a related “Right from the Start” initiative.  She emphasized how the General Assembly’s 2011 and 2013 legislation around early childhood had emerged from years of research and agitation for better policy – not only for more funding, but for “system reform.”  A “unified funding stream” and standard reporting requirements, child-care workforce development and compensation policies, clear data and a Quality Rating and Improvement System (QRIS) are among the anticipated benefits.

Sandra Malmquist presented slides from the WORDS Project, which the New Haven Early Childhood Council undertook with United Way support, via its “Success by 6” initiative.  Along with Adrenna D’Orlando, Malmquist was a language and literacy coach for the project.  It was inspired by research, including that of Betty Hart and Todd Risley (1995), on socio-economic disparities in the number of words and type of language that young children from various family backgrounds typically hear at home. (4)

The project aimed to address these problems from several angles.  WORDS established as a goal for every child in a participating program to have a minimum of five books per day read to him or her.  Adherence to this goal was carefully recorded.  Enhancing the vocabulary used in everyday conversation was also a focus, as was the mode of interaction, with play, inquiry, and exploration favored over directive speech.  (5) 

Understanding of picture books was made more vivid through “props” such as puppets, the kind of tactile instrument that can “provide context” and “enrich reading.”  Malmquist cited “embedded lessons” in each of the stories that children heard – for example, through Goldilocks, one can learn about relative size, comparing and contrasting.  Books in both English and Spanish were used, and LULAC Head Start on James Street is a New Haven site for a dual-language early childhood pilot.

The WORDS Project’s participating providers developed their classroom libraries and lent books freely to families.  Eventually, “87 percent of teachers and family childcare providers report[ed] that after WORDS coaching they read at least 5 books/day.”

The project reflected a targeted yet multifaceted approach, with encouraging results.

Each year during the Week of the Young Child in April, the New Haven Early Childhood Council conducted a citywide “Little Read,” with parents invited to join early childhood teachers and students in sharing classic picture books, a copy of which each child then brought home.  According to the Council’s report on its April 2012 Little Read, “The Council partnered with early childhood classrooms, libraries, family childcare homes, and social service agencies to implement The Little Read.  Each site organized innovative and fun family reading events to celebrate Week of the Young Child and to highlight the importance of literacy for our youngest children.”  An example was at the Helene Grant Head Start run by the New Haven Public Schools.  There, “Sixteen Head Start fathers/males were identified to read The Hungry Caterpillar in each classroom.  Following the reading, the identified father/male role model had his book signed by the classroom teacher for him to keep.”  The report continues, “We are seeking to maintain the participation of these men for future father events and look forward to other fathers/men joining in the movement of fatherhood/male involvement in early education.”

In 2013, the Week of the Young Child is April 14-20.

During the question and discussion period, Myra Jones-Taylor spoke of plans for a “simple, discrete messaging” campaign to “saturate” public awareness of the importance of the early years, wherever children may be – at home or in a center, formal or informal, in school or not.  Cyd Oppenheimer underscored the need for such a campaign, as well as for more support amid the challenges that many low-income families in particular encounter – from daily transportation pressures in the absence of a car, to modest wages or no job at all, while food, rent, clothing and other basic needs strain their monthly budgets.  She recognized a need to link the message about the importance of literacy to providers of services such as nutrition, health, and mental health.  She spoke, too, of “harnessing a relationship that’s already there, a relationship of trust between the early childhood provider and the parent.” All three panelists agreed that every parent wants to propel his or her child’s learning and development, but that the ways and means must be made clearer and more fully available. 

One questioner asked about home-visiting programs, addressing literacy and other needs.  Examples include the Nurturing Families Network in Connecticut, as well as the Parent-Child Home Program – which emphasizes literacy and has a Bridgeport affiliate – and the Nurse-Family Partnership, which uses health and loving relationships as levers for success.

A Literacy Coalition board member, Sandra Santy of Connecticut Humanities, cited the cluster of Family Read initiatives – Motheread, Fatheread, Story Exploring – in which that organization is involved, for example through a training to be offered April 19 in Hartford.  A former board member, Laurie Ruderfer, mentioned the Parent Academy.  New Haven’s Parent University will resume April 6 at Gateway Community College. 

There was mention of the Literacy Coalition and its “LiteracyEveryday” website, and of the broader Literacy Forum series. (“Engaging Young Readers” is a likely topic for the next event, to be held late one afternoon to accommodate teachers and others.)  The LiteracyEveryday site has portals to Get Help, Volunteer, Donate, and Learn More, as well as a blog and a News/Events calendar.  There is a need for additional volunteer tutors and mentors at such organizations as the Boys and Girls Club, New Haven Reads, the Jewish Coalition for Literacy, Junta, and Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven.

Anthony DiLauro, executive director of Read to Grow (with the motto, “building literacy from birth”) and a Literacy Coalition board member, offered to give away – through hospitals and beyond – thousands of books that his organization has solicited. 

Other March 28 attendees included colleagues from All Our Kin and Calvin Hill Day Care Center; the Community Foundation and New Alliance Foundation; the New Haven Public Schools (NHPS) and its state-funded Family Resource Centers; Junta for Progressive Action; the Connecticut chapter of Reach Out and Read; Spanish Community of Wallingford; Hamden nonprofit Destined to Succeed; New Haven Education VISTA AmeriCorps program and the Experience Corps; Branford Early Learning; school-based site directors for LEAP (Leadership, Education, and Athletics in Partnership), which emphasizes reading, for example with a “Read-In on the Green”; and current and prospective literacy volunteers working with both children and adults.

In addition to Curtis Hill, Anthony DiLauro, and Sandra Santy, Coalition board members in attendance included Stephney Gonzalez – a teacher in the NHPS – and Kirsten Levinsohn, executive director of New Haven Reads.  (This reporter is also a member of the board.) 

Neighbors are invited to visit the Literacy Resource Center on Winchester Avenue, in space at 4 Science Park donated by Science Park Development Corporation.  The Literacy Resource Center, or LRC, represents a partnership among Concepts for Adaptive Learning, the Coalition, New Haven Reads, Literacy Volunteers, and the Economic Development Corporation.  Upstairs in the same building at 4 Science Park are the offices, classrooms, and art gallery of the Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology (ConnCAT).

You can help by:

*Reading in the home, promoted by libraries such as the New Haven Public Library—and involving grandparents as well as parents, and free books from sources including Read to Grow and New Haven Reads;

*Encouraging friends, family, and others to seek literacy assistance whenever useful;

*Volunteering as a tutor or mentor, including through the Boys and Girls Club, New Haven Reads, Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven, the New Haven Public School Foundation, and the Jewish Coalition for Literacy;

*Bolstering literacy in other ways, such as through donations of money—whether directly, via the Community Foundation or the United Way—or of books and by advocating and voting.

Waiting lists among learners at providers including Junta for Progressive Action, New Haven Reads, and Literacy Volunteers demonstrate the strong demand for their services.  Even as it serves hundreds of students at multiple sites through its tutors, New Haven Reads alone has a waiting list of some 200 additional students seeking tutors.

Participants in the March 28 event, and prior such occasions, came from New Haven public schools and a range of other organizations. Here is a partial list, including some already mentioned:

* Concepts for Adaptive Learning, which equips and trains parents (and also supports teachers) in New Haven and other Connecticut cities to use computing technology for their own and their children’s learning;

* Jewish Coalition for Literacy, a project of the Jewish Community Relations Council, which brings volunteer “reading partners” into several New Haven public schools;

* Junta for Progressive Action, which offers English as a second language, family support, financial literacy, legal assistance, and workforce preparation services;

* Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven, which serves adults;

* New Haven Free Public Library and its branch libraries;

* New Haven Reads and its Book Bank, providing free books for all ages and tutoring for school-age students;

* Reach Out and Read, which promotes reading through primary care physicians and their offices;

* Read to Grow, which emphasizes early literacy with partners including hospitals, and provides free books to children of all ages;

* Workforce Alliance, joining employers, workers, and training opportunities;

* Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, a partnership between Yale University and the New Haven Public Schools that offers professional development to district teachers in a collegial setting, with the resulting curricular resources available online to parents and students as well as teachers.

The Literacy Coalition of Greater New Haven is a nonprofit, all-volunteer organization with a mission to promote, support, and advance literacy for people of all ages.  Visit LiteracyEveryday to share or obtain information on free events, resources, and ways to get involved in pursuit of a region of readers.


Earlier articles on the Coalition:


(1) This is a matter of national (not to mention international), as well as state and local, significance.  In his February 2013 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama “propose[d] working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America.”  He said, “Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime. In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form more stable families of their own.”  He then visited an early education center in Georgia, saying “Study after study shows that the earlier a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road…. We are not doing enough to give all of our kids that chance.… Fewer than 3 in 10 four-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program.  Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for private preschool.  And for the poor children who need it the most, the lack of access to a great preschool education can have an impact on their entire lives…. Kids who, when they go into kindergarten, their first day, if they already have a lot fewer vocabulary words, they don’t know their numbers and their shapes and have the capacity for focus, they’re going to be behind that first day.  And it’s very hard for them to catch up over time…. This is not babysitting.  This is teaching.  So at the age that our children are just sponges soaking stuff in, their minds are growing fastest, what we saw in the classroom here today was kids are taught numbers, they’re taught shapes, but also how to answer questions, discover patterns, play well with others…. And one of the things that you’ve done here in Decatur that’s wonderful also is, is that you’ve combined kids from different income levels; you’ve got disabled kids all in the same classroom, so we’re all learning together.  And what that means is, is that all the kids are being leveled up, and you’re not seeing some of that same stratification that you see that eventually leads to these massive achievement gaps.  So before you know it, these kids are going to be moving on to bigger and better things in kindergarten, and they’re going to be better prepared to succeed.  And what’s more, I don’t think you’ll find a working parent in America who wouldn’t appreciate the peace of mind that their child is in a safe, high-quality learning environment every single day…. The size of your paycheck, though, shouldn’t determine your child’s future.… Let’s make it a national priority to give every child access to a high-quality early education.”
Beyond such programs as Head Start, ways in which the federal government is increasingly involved in early education include the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grants and grants to support states in launching kindergarten-entry assessments.  See for example a February 19, 2013 article by Christina A. Samuels in Education Week.

(2) These agencies range from the Connecticut Departments of Education and of Higher Education to the Departments of Children and Families, Developmental Services, Social Services, and Public Health.

(3) See a September 6, 2012 article by Jacqueline Rabe Thomas in the Connecticut Mirror.

(4) In an April 2, 2013 New York Times article, economics columnist Eduardo Porter cites Nobel-winning economist James Heckman – who for years has studied the return on investments in early education – commenting on tests of “cognitive performance.”  According to Heckman, “The gap is there before kids walk into kindergarten…. School neither increases nor reduces it.”

(5) In a September 2012 review of Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed, E.D. Hirsch argues, “There is strong evidence that increasing the general knowledge and vocabulary of a child before age six is the single highest correlate with later success.”

Post a Comment

Commenting has closed for this entry


posted by: formerNhresident on April 10, 2013  4:04pm

I think what needs to be taken into consideration is the parents own literacy level. How many people are functioning illiterates? How can we expect children to be taught reading and vocabulary skills before the age of five,  if parents have limited literacy skills?

posted by: Josiah Brown on April 11, 2013  6:34pm

The person who commented recognizes the importance of parents’ literacy levels.  Many of the programs cited above work with parents wherever their current reading skills may be.

In addition, there are various opportunities for adults to strengthen those skills.  For example, Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven has numerous sites in the New Haven, Meriden, and Valley areas for adult students to take small-group classes.

If you wish to help, you can volunteer as a tutor or can contribute financially to support such efforts.  It happens that Literacy Volunteers (LV) has a Scrabble benefit event at Gateway Community College on April 25.  Contact .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

For a sense of the results of these efforts with adults, see “Hear Our Voices,” a collection of statements that LV learners wrote after studying with the program’s volunteer tutors: