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Reading is a powerful tool

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Words are powerful. They can hurt. They can heal. They can provoke, inspire, sooth, explain and persuade. They can change the future of one individual or an entire society, for better or for worse. We often ask children to "use their words" to tell us what is going on, to resolve issues with their peers, and to problem-solve. Whether in spoken or written form, words are an important way to communicate our thoughts, feelings and ideas with others.

A child's language development starts in infancy. For example, humans seem hard-wired to teach children language skills through what experts call "parentese," not to be confused with baby talk. It's that singsong way adults speak to infants, generally accompanied by exaggerated facial expressions, and it's observed world-wide. Research shows that parentese helps our little ones develop early language skills.

In fact, the mind of a young child is like a language sponge, taking in everything said, read, signed and sung to them. The more a child is exposed to language experiences, the more their language skills will develop.

We talk about an achievement or opportunity gap in our schools and the difference in test scores and graduation rates between groups of students, generally based on socioeconomics. But an opportunity gap can exist even before children start school.

University of Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley (2003) studied the early language experiences of children and discovered a 30-million word gap between children of affluent families in comparison to those living in poverty. A 30-million word gap ... That's not a typo. The differences were in the number of words spoken and in the messages conveyed with those words. By age 4, significant differences in knowledge and skill levels were evident. As the study continued, the opportunity gap between these students widened even more.

Part of the difference may be in the language experiences available and there may not be one solution to fully address this opportunity gap. However, a research-proven strategy for increasing language skills is to read to children from the time they are small.

February is "I Love to Read Month," a time to seek out ways to encourage a love for reading in even the youngest children and to make books readily available to all families.

The Duluth Public Library is a great source of reading materials and fun reading activities for kids. The "tiny library" movement is growing in neighborhoods across the country and they're popping up all over Duluth, boxes on posts where books can be shared.

The Duluth Children's Museum has taken over the Big Red Bookshelf from United Way and is collecting gently used children's books. The program is for kids up to 8 years old. The museum hosts bookshelves throughout the community where families are able to pick up a book and take it home. Book donations can be dropped at the welcome desk of the museum.

Let's work together to expand opportunities for language development and encourage a love for reading in our children. Let's give our young people the words and language skills they need to be successful now and into the future.

Bill Gronseth is the superintendent of Duluth Public Schools. Contact him at (218) 336-8752 or email william.gronseth@isd709.org.

Bill Gronseth

Bill Gronseth is the superintendent of Duluth Public Schools. Contact him at (218) 336-8752 or email william.gronseth@duluth.k12.mn.us.

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