No. 776



“Mommy, please read to me,” is a plea that has been spoken by millions of children over the years. Blessed indeed is the child who has a reading mother, father, grandparent, sibling or others who will take time to read to them, especially before they are 3 years of age.
While this is not something that is discussed at most dinner tables, the simple act of reading to a very young child will determine to a large degree, what the child becomes later in life. As you may know, we have a bookcase project here in our community to help children in low-income families learn to read and to encourage lifelong reading habits. Many of the children we are helping are African-American children, and we have a passion to help them, especially in light of a very tragic report on NBC News.
Only 47 percent of African-American males graduate from high school. No need to discuss what this means to the individual who drops out of school, and to all the rest of us in society. In a recent article in The New York Times, the question was asked, “Why do low-income/minority kids do so poorly in school?” Only time will tell if we are able to do anything about this problem, but fortunately the answer is known.
In 1985, Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, child psychologists at the University of Kansas, published the results of an intensive research project on language acquisition. They recruited 42 families with newborn children in Kansas City, and for the following three years they visited each family once a month, recording absolutely everything that occurred between the child and the parent or parents.
The researchers then transcribed each encounter and analyzed each child’s language development and each parent’s communication style. Here is where it gets interesting: Hart and Risley found that vocabulary growth differed sharply by class, and the gap between the classes opened early. By age 3, children whose parents were professionals had vocabularies of about 1,100 words, and children whose parents where on Welfare had vocabularies of about 525 words. The children’s I.Q.s correlated closely with their vocabularies. The average I.Q. among the professional children was 117, and the Welfare children had an average I.Q. of 79.
To understand this data, here is a point that must be noted. The size of each child’s vocabulary correlated most closely to one simple factor: the number of words the parent spoke to the child. This is why reading to very small children can make all the difference in the world. Also, the kinds of words and statements that children heard were characterized by class. The most basic difference was the number of “Discouragements” (prohibitions and words of disapproval) a child heard compared to the number of “Encouragements” or words of praise and approval. By age 3, the average child of a professional heard about 500,000 encouragements and 80,000 discouragements. For the Welfare children, the situation was reversed: they heard on average about 75,000 encouragements and 200,000 discouragements.
In the final analysis, the researchers concluded that while wealth does matter, child-rearing style matters more.
Dr. Greg Murry, superintendent of the Conway School District, shared this important information: Out-of-school reading habits of students has shown that even 15 minutes a day of independent reading can expose students to more than a million words of text in a year. It’s true: Those who love to read most often succeed in life.
(EDITOR'S NOTE: Jim Davidson is a public speaker and syndicated columnist. You may contact him at 2 Bentley Drive, Conway, AR 72034. To begin a bookcase literacy project visit You won’t go wrong helping a needy child.)