There’s a kid in my class who I’ll call Arthur. Although he’s in fourth grade, he started the year reading at about the first grade level and his math skills were even lower. He wrote nothing. When we discussed his situation during a September Child Study meeting we decided to “pull out all the stops.” And so we did. Arthur gets pulled out for one-on-one phonics lessons every day from 9:30 to 10:00. He goes directly from there to his small-group reading lesson with our special ed teacher. From 11:30 to noon he receives in-class support for writing and organization skills. At 2:15 he gets an hour of math support.
That’s pretty much “all the stops.” Fortunately, he has started to making progress; if you were to draw a line representing his academic growth since September, it would have an upwards trajectory. But if that line were a ski slope, you would not tremble at the top. And as far behind as he was four months ago, he is even farther behind now; his classmates, after all, have also made progress, but at a faster rate.
It didn’t have to come to this. A famous study by Betty Hart and Todd Risley resulted in the Thirty Million Words Initiative. Simply put, they found that parent-child communication has an enormous impact on a child’s development and academic success. The name of the initiative reflects the optimal number of words a child should hear from his parents before entering school.
I have never met Arthur’s dad, and apparently neither has he. I have met his mother, though, on several occasions. She is very quiet, somewhat sullen, with the air of a person who looked at the low hand she was dealt and folded pretty early in the game. Which was about when Arthur was born.
Arthur is exactly the kind of student that TMW wants to prevent. Had his mother known how important it was to simply talk to her child, perhaps he wouldn’t be in his current circumstances. Perhaps I’d feel a little more certain that he’ll be in fifth grade next year. Perhaps his ski slope would be a little scarier.
We’ll never know. But I do know this: The most important thing non-teaching education stakeholders can do to support education in this country is to help parents help their children. And Thirty Million Words is an example of how simple that support can be. Talk, after all, is cheap. But apparently it’s pretty important, especially early in a child’s life.
Because sadly, fourth grade is a little bit too late.