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Experts: Earlier the better in developing language skills

POSTED: March 21, 2014 1:17 a.m.

Community leaders are joining to stress the importance of reading to and engaging with young children, from day one onward.

That was the message behind United Way of Hall County’s Cocktails & Conversations event Thursday, part of the Read, Learn, Succeed initiative to engage parents and community members in making sure children have the opportunity to succeed academically and later in life.

“We want our parents to read to their children, from birth to (age) 5, 15 minutes a day,” United Way Vice President of Resource Development Joy Griffin said. “We want that to be as common as brushing your teeth and buckling your seat belt.”

Research has shown that success is highly dependent on the first few years of life. Pediatrician William Boyd, one of three panelists at Thursday’s event, told of the rapid growth a human brain goes through in just the first two years of development.

“One of the first language milestones is cooing and that usually begins around 2 months of age,” he said. “Around 6 months, babies begin to babble.”

Boyd went on to say children go on to have a vocabulary of 1,000 words by 3 years old. By 5, children can use complex sentence structures.

“Higher word counts with children are associated with language-rich environments,” he added.

For the children in less ideal language environments, the outcome can be bleak. Juvenile Judge Lindsay Burton explained that if she can help a child who hasn’t reached age 5, there’s a better chance of recovering whatever developmental milestones were previously missed. However, if she doesn’t see them until they are in school, a successful outcome becomes more unlikely.

“By the time a child’s in the second or third grade, it’s really, really hard to recover,” she said. “In reality, by the time a child gets into second and third grade and has been neglected that whole time, the chances of them going to college are not great. It would take a vast change.”

She shared a story about a young child who had been ignored and neglected by her parents, to the point where the child had only just reached the babbling stage of language development.

“The 2-year-old is cognitively disabled based on the fact that for two years, even living in a home where she wasn’t physically harmed, she will take years to come back,” Burton said.

While some adults may think a child who has fallen behind is still young enough to catch up, panelists all argued that research and statistics do not back that up.

“Does anybody know, the Department of Corrections, how they anticipate and plan for prisons?” Gainesville Superintendent Merrianne Dyer, the third panelist, asked. “It’s on the third- and fifth-grade reading scores. And that’s how they determine, by formula, how many prison cells they’ll need. There’s that direct of a correlation.”

She added that research into brain development has shown the importance of engaging with children as early as possible. While the children won’t be students until after those vital development years, Dyer said the city school system is focusing on family outreach programs to educate parents.

“As long as there’s young children being born, we miss our opportunity by the time they’re 3,” she said. “We’ve missed it, and think of how much we can save (on) money and funding for all those children we help through schools, and then when they go in the juvenile justice system.”

The panelists said even illiterate parents can help raise their child’s vocabulary level simply by conversing with them in different places, such as the grocery store.

“It’s not just a problem for schools or for parents of young children,” Griffin said in wrapping up the evening. “It is a community opportunity where we can make better customers, create better employers, create better employees. It’s about this entire community, and it’s an economic thing that can be improved.”


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