According to Dr. Wendy Falb, executive director of The Literacy Center of West Michigan, Michigan’s children have a serious literacy crisis. They rank in the bottom third of states in the nation when it comes to literacy skills. The State’s African American boys rank last. And, those numbers accurately reflect literacy rates in Kent County.
While its programming remains focused on boosting adult literacy, The Literacy Center has decided that building literacy skills among preschool children is important, too. The goal is to make sure West Michigan’s children have the skills they need to learn how to read and write when they get to school. To help launch that focus, its 2020 Community Literacy Conference adopted the theme, “Ready to read, ready to succeed: Developing literacy birth to five” on February 28 in Grand Rapids.
“Recent knowledge about the brain and cognitive development has clarified some of what is the causation of good foundations for a child to decode language,” Falb says. “With the [Kent County] millage passing for early childhood, this a really opportune time to focus on what happens between birth and kindergarten that sets the foundation for children to be ready to read by kindergarten.”
Globally recognized scholar, researcher, and international advocate of literacy education, keynote speaker, Dr. Keisha Siriboe, spoke about early childhood literacy and parent-child reading aloud. Also a TEDx speaker, Siriboe serves as director of Ruling Our Experiences (ROX) Institute for Research and Training in Columbus, Ohio.
“The keynote went over brain development and cognitive, racial disconnects and contexts around that,” Falb says. “Racial inequities in education come from the fact that white kids have a shared knowledge base with white teachers. We need to be training teachers in developing content and pedagogy based on getting to know their students first, asking, ‘What is your culture? What is your knowledge base?’ and trying to build off from that.”
In a subsequent breakout session, Dr. Siriboe shared suggestions for creating a literacy environment where adults and children feel safe with learning opportunities when using culturally competent picture books along with successful techniques for supporting parents and caregivers as first teachers.
Other breakout sessions included Jayme Vosovic and Dwayne Barnes, community engagement specialists with the Michigan League for Public Policy (MLPP). Through a lens on racial equity and the use of data, they talked about MLPP policy priorities that support children’s school success. Kathleen Neumann and Rebecca Keller from the GRCC Early Childhood Learning Laboratory highlighted how “Play and Learn Groups” offered in eleven sites throughout the Grand Rapids community engage young children in developmentally appropriate play activities that support literacy development and school readiness.
An afternoon panel about how to get kids ready to read featured Chana Edmond-Verley, CEO, Camp Fire West Michigan 4C; Madonna Princer, executive director, Head Start for Kent County; Abby D’Addario, librarian/early literacy specialist with the Kent District Library Wyoming Branch; Tomarra Richardson, parent liaison with Great Start Parent Coalition; and Tequia Adams, supervisor with Baby Scholars at Spectrum Health.
Falb concludes, “Much of the cognitive and social foundations for literacy have already been built by the time a child enters kindergarten, and given that only 40 % of Kent County’s children are kindergarten-ready, it’s imperative we rally as a community around these children and their families during these formative years.”
Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor
Photos courtesy The Literacy Center of West Michigan