Is there really a drastic difference developmentally-speaking among children who are read to, avidly spoken to, and who engage in wordplay versus those who are not and do not? I recently read a fascinating chapter of Maryanne Wolf's Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain that suggests the answer is a resounding YES. Chapter 4 of the work, entitled "The Beginnings of Reading Development, Or Not" purported a myriad of unique insights concerning just how critical it is to develop early literacy skills in children.
It turns out that reading skills are constructed one level at time, much akin to building a pyramid - each subsequent level is dependent upon the previous level's solidity. In this way, if just one layer or element is missing or askew, then the whole structure can come crumbling down. Wolf implores the reader to picture a young child, sitting on the lap of a loved one, listening to a story. She delves into the aforementioned inherent intricacies upon remarking, "Consider more carefully the scene we just described: a very young child is sitting, looking at colorful pictures, listening to ancient tales and new stories, learning gradually that the lines on the page make letters, letters make words, words make stories, and stories can be read over and over again. This early scene contains most of the precursors crucial to a child's development of reading" (Wolf, 82). Something interesting that Wolf also mentions pertains to the fact that the nurturing impulses and feelings of love naturally emanating from the parent or caregiver during this encounter creates an inestimably powerful association in the child. This association between hearing stories and feeling loved forms the crucial groundwork in developing early literacy skills.
Furthermore, the author contends that literacy and linguistic skills continue to sharpen as children learn (around eighteen months of age) that everything in the world has a name and they begin to categorize the objects they see in the world around them. It is also around this time that emotional development is concurrently honed, and the child will begin to be able to actually relate to characters and feel empathy for others.
At the most basic level, the vivid, flowery language of books and stories provides an essential stepping stone in cognitive and vocabulary enhancement. Hearing this rich type of literary language, which is often not spoken in everyday life, allows children to flex their cognitive muscles, becoming veritable wordsmiths. According to Wolf, "What makes this significant is that when children are able to use a variety of semantic and syntactic forms in their own language, they are also better able to understand the oral and written language of others. The linguistic and cognitive ability provides a unique foundation for many comprehension skills a few years later, when children begin to read stories of their own" (Wolf, 88).
Moreover, by the time recognizing letters comes into play the child is progressing by tying together the concept that a given visual representation actually stands for something and has meaning. To put this theory in action, simply think about the staggering amount of brand logos that young children can recognize. According to the article "Products R Us: Are We 'Brandwashed?'" on npr.org, "...the average American 3 year-old can recognize 100 brands" (http://www.npr.org/2011/10/23/141470152/products-r-us-are-we-brandwashed)
I remember, far before my now five year old niece could read, she was asking me questions such as, "Hey what do you have in that TJ Maxx bag over there?"
So, what does this mean for librarians and teacher librarians? First off, even if all the building blocks are firmly cemented in place, we should not force a child to read before he or she is ready. There is a common conception in our society that we always need to be better, smarter, and faster than the generation before us. Not only is this not true, but research has shown it may actually be detrimental to a child's learning progress if we force the child's hand too early (Wolf, 96). As librarians, we must stress to parents and teachers that it is important not to rush development - that every child is unique and this is not a competition. It is up to us to emphasize the importance of making sure that the child is communicated with, read to, and engages in and interacts with all forms of oral and written language - if this occurs early and often, then the child will be destined to succeed.
Finally, librarians are also in a unique position to assist those children who hail from what Wolf describes as "impoverished-language environments." These children arrive at kindergarten at a severe disadvantage, their cognitive development clearly stunted from a lack of engaging with words and texts. In these cases, librarians have a responsibility to perform outreach services to the affected populations and educate them about the importance of language development, and the consequences of being language poor. Librarians can develop programs stressing word play and story engagement, put together educational presentations based upon the concrete facts, donate books to homes that may have none, and above all, be champions for the cause of early literacy development.