Mind the Gap

Early childhood literacy is front-page news

January 22, 2015

Jennifer Burek Pierce

Last fall, I paid assiduous attention to early childhood literacy, striking up conversations on the subject and creating lengthy lists of resources. My obsessive information seeking supports students in my community engagement class who are helping Sioux City (Iowa) Public Library (SCPL) staffers locate area organizations with an interest in children’s reading. Library Director Betsy Thompson regards early childhood literacy as an essential aspect of community wellness and a key to economic development. She wants to start a conversation with others who believe it’s imperative to support parents and caregivers in encouraging the development of a child’s language skills before school starts. She’s not alone. 

Entities ranging from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to government programs like Women, Infants, and Children want to talk to parents about how to encourage literacy in their preschool children. The 2013 Institute of Museum and Library Services report, Growing Young Minds: How Museums and Libraries Create Lifelong Learners, reminded librarians of their potential to change the trends toward lower educational and occupational achievement for children in households below or barely above the poverty line. It mentioned the “knowledge gap,” short-hand for the learning disparities seen in children of different socioeconomic status. That gap, and the importance of addressing it before children begin school, resounds in more recent conversations, too. 

In October, Hillary Rodham Clinton heralded AAP’s new literacy toolkit that enables pediatricians to encourage parents to read and talk with their children from day one. Clinton discussed the “word gap,” a phrase coined in 1995 by researchers documenting a vast chasm in the vocabulary heard by age three, depending on the education and income of a child’s parents. The word gap is recognized as a portent of the child’s future, a sign that he or she may be less likely to succeed in school. 

Headlines about such studies that refined our understanding of the concept soon followed. By late October, a multifaceted White House initiative addressed disparities in early childhood literacy associated with socioeconomic status. A teacher’s story of an elementary school student who refused to believe he had a meaningful future, published Oct. 16 on TheAtlantic.com, put a young face on the problem: Kids whose parents don’t help them develop strategies for making sense of words and using them to reflect on the world around them are at a distinct disadvantage that only increases with age. These disadvantaged children grow into adults with fewer employment prospects and other difficulties.   

Among the facts that have been put forth lately—that it’s never too early to start teaching children words; that even 20 years after the initial word-gap study, the phenomenon persists—there’s a powerful message. A recent re-examination of the study—an attempt to consider its fundamental premises—found that the number of words preschool children hear isn’t the sole predictor of language skills and academic success. Rather, it’s what some now describe as the quality of the words. Researchers found that one-to-one, real-time, real-person interactions that create a dialogue with a young child have proven to be as important as the array of words that have become a symbol of attainment disparities.

The daily work of children’s librarians, who offer storytimes that encourage children’s curiosity about language and parents’ proficiency in fostering literacy, supports the activities touted by our potential partners in a core professional aim. The latest research finds that one person, committed to reading and talking with a child, matters. Children’s librarians are positioned to help parents begin that conversation.

JENNIFER BUREK PIERCE is associate professor of library and information science at the University of Iowa in Iowa City and author of What Adolescents Ought to Know. Email: jennifer-burek-pierce@uiowa.edu.


Kenneth Wayne Thompson, director of Davenport (Iowa) Public Library, participates in small-group work at an ALA-Harwood Institute training in Atlanta in October.

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