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Parents as Educators Begins at Birth

It's encouraging to learn that universal prekindergarten in New York City will begin this fall, adding 21,440 seats for 4-year-olds ("Books, and Compassion, From Birth," The New York Times, Apr. 6).  But the positive effects of this policy will not be fully realized unless parents themselves are made part of it.

That's because parents are their children's first teachers, whether they realize it or not. Children from poor families enter kindergarten already three months behind the national average in reading and never catch up, according to the U.S. Department of Education.  It's not surprising in light of studies showing a wide gap in the number of words that these children hear from their parents compared to the number that more advantaged children hear.  Moreover, low-income parents are less likely to read to their children.  

The issue is how to educate these parents so that their children have a better chance of succeeding in school.  It's a touchy subject because the best intentions often backfire.  No one wants to be judged, but if parents can be shown that their children will be the direct beneficiaries, then perhaps attempts to intervene have a better chance of achieving their objective.

Studies have shown that parents who use what is known as a "highly elaborative style" of reminiscing with their children prepare them for school far better than parents who use a more "repetitive" style ("The Power of the Earliest Memories," The Wall Street Journal, Apr. 8).  The difference is that the former verbally engages a child. For example, parents can ask the child to tell a story about what happened at the park that morning. Encouraging the child to add details helps form the foundation for subsequent learning. The latter approach relies heavily on questions that require short, curt answers followed by silence.

In England, the head of Ofsted recommends that parents be given a checklist of minimum requirements before their children start school.  The hope is that it will clarify the existing confusing system that leaves the poorest children at a distinct disadvantage. It's a good start, but it's hardly enough in light of the disproportionate weight that the earliest experiences have on subsequent learning.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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