Have you ever stubbed your toe? Of course you have. Have you ever noticed that stubbing your toe, like getting cut off in traffic, has an almost 100% probability of eliciting an audible curse from an adult? It usually goes something like this:
Stub. Searing pain. Hop on good foot, grab injured toe and squeeze hard.
“Gah-DAMMIT! OW! DAMN! %$#@! @#$! etc.”
Now take it a step further: have you ever stubbed your toe in the vicinity of a child? Everything cited above still holds true, but when your wife comes in and asks what happened, her heretofore angelic child will dutifully tell her, “Daddy banged his goddam toe.” With a smile no less. And much as you would like your child to forget the aforementioned word, it will pop up again and again. And again. Usually in front of your parents. Or a prospective employer. Or a member of the clergy.
How do children DO it, this acquisition of language and words and context? They identify objects pretty easily – “table”, “blanket”, “bath”, “ball” – but then one of my children will point to a fruit in front of me and say, “Daddy’s apple”. Wow! I mean, think of the complexity of that statement. They have no idea what an apostrophe is, or an apostrophe followed by the letter “s”, or that that particular combination of symbols denotes the possessive form. None of that. What they figure out somewhere around the age of 2, is that if you make the sound a fly makes when it whizzes by (“zz”) and place it at the end of someone’s name, THEN follow it with the name of an object, that means that that object BELONGS to that person. “Daddyzz apple”. Which they are perfectly capable of distinguishing from an unclaimed apple which is just “apple”. A truly dizzying thought process.
They learn all of this from listening to conversation around them, being read to (and re-read and re-read their favorite books) and generally soaking everything up like the proverbial sponge.
A few years ago when Gabriella was quite small (3 or 4), she used to listen to the recorded version of Stuart Little over and over. She LOVED that story, though I suspected (wrongly) that she didn’t understand all the words. She would sit, completely enraptured, for hours on end.
One day, I decided to take the kids out to the Hall of Science in Queens but, being a true Manhattanite, wasn’t too sure how to get there. I entrusted our fate to the GPS and set off, intentionally not telling the kids where we were going in order to avoid a meltdown should I be unable to navigate successfully. As you can imagine, this uncertainty as to our final destination was met with much grumbling from the back.
“Where are we going?” “Why won’t you tell us?” ” We’re gonna hate it!” sang out the Greek chorus over my shoulder.
After a half hour of driving around, Gabriella piped up from the very back, “Daddy, are we just knocking around town?”
“Yeeees. We are. I suppose”, I answered doubtfully, not convinced she had any idea what such a grown up phrase really meant. “Bella, where did that come from?”
“Well,” she answered matter-of-factly, “when Mrs. Little asked Stuart where he went all the time in his little red car, he said ‘I’m just knocking around town’.”
I was stunned. She couldn’t have defined the concept if I had offered her a gallon of ice cream as a reward, but after having listened to the story many many times, she was able to understand the phrase sufficiently to internalize it and apply it to the situation in which she found herself. UNBELIEVABLE.
Early childhood literacy is the greatest predictor of ultimate academic, social, and economic success and I am very grateful that my children are lucky enough to be exposed to dozens of books. Statistics show that by the time they reach first grade, children from middle and upper income families have ready access to at least 50 books and enter school with a 20,000 word vocabulary.
Others are not so fortunate. At-risk children from lower income families have 0 to 3 books in the house and arrive at school age with vocabularies of barely 5,000 words. Because of these factors, 1 in 3 children in this country enters school unprepared to succeed.
Thankfully, many not-for-profits exist that directly combat this problem. None do so more effectively and with more heart and enthusiasm than an organization called Jumpstart (for full disclosure, I co-chair Jumpstart‘s mid-Atlantic board). Jumpstart is a national early childhood literacy organization that works with thousands of children each year. Jumpstart partners with local universities, training interested students in how to use reading techniques statistically proven to improve a child’s literacy and language skills. Then each student commits to a year long one-on-one relationship in a local school with an at-risk pre-schooler. Jumpstart works exclusively with 3, 4, and 5 year olds, and the long term results are phenomenal in terms of Jumpstart kids’ preparedness for the rest of their education and, more importantly, the rest of their lives.