Williams: The decline in children’s literacy is a crisis. Author Maya Payne Smart says the cure begins at birth. | Education

From handing out Ezra Jack Keats and Meg Medina books at the Dominion Christmas Parade to Jacqueline Woodson titles at Chimborazo Elementary School, Maya Payne Smart has used her platform as a Richmond Christmas Mother 2014 to share her love of multicultural children’s books.

“I thought I had really found my calling or my mission in life to encourage kids to become readers and cultivate that love of literature,” Smart recalled of his time in Richmond. But she was concerned about disparities in reading skills between black and white children and poor and rich. And she wondered if she was doing enough to foster the reading development of her then preschool-aged daughter, named after literary icon Zora Neale Hurston.

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New parents are told to read to their children every day, take them to the library, and keep books at home.

“I knew a lot of people who were doing these things and their kids weren’t great readers,” Smart said during a Zoom call Thursday from his Milwaukee home. “So I knew there had to be more than that.”

Smart, an affiliate faculty member at Marquette University’s College of Education, began looking for the “more.” The result is her new book, “Reading for Our Lives: A Literacy Action Plan from Birth to Six.”


As Richmond’s Christmas mother, Maya Payne Smart gave a book to first grader Caleb James. Smart donated 550 books to students at Chimborazo Elementary.

2014, P. Kevin Morley/TIMES-DISPATCH

We need a plan to combat what the book calls a “quiet crisis” in literacy in the United States.

Richmond public school students, with a 47% reading pass rate, struggled on the most recent learning standards tests. And results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress test released Thursday showed reading scores for 9-year-olds fell by the biggest margin in more than 30 years, according to the New York Times.

But Smart, an alumnus of Harvard and Northwestern universities, writes in her book that “standardized assessments are valuable, but limited, warning systems,” adding: “The alarms are ringing; they don’t teach.


Richmond Christmas Mother Maya Smart gives 3-year-old Kayden Frederick a copy of ‘The Snowy Day’ by Ezra Jack Keats during the Dominion Christmas Parade, December 6, 2014.

Father Kevin Morley

One of the key takeaways from his book is that literacy lessons begin at birth with verbal exchanges between parents and infants.

Evidence from anatomical, physiological, and gene expression studies “all suggest that the basic brain architecture is in place by around age 2…” she writes. “And, most importantly, it is the nurturing and supportive verbal engagement of caregivers in a child’s early years that literally stimulates brain function and shapes brain structure.”

“It was interesting for me to hear how important it was to talk with babies,” Smart told me. “And I think a lot of people don’t culturally know how to talk to babies. You think they don’t understand or you think you need to do “baby talk”… Parents don’t automatically know how to respond to a baby’s cooing or babbling as if it were a conversation, but that’s really how their brains are built and developed.

Smart says the seeds for her book were planted during her time in Richmond when her husband, Marquette basketball coach Shaka Smart, ran the hoops program at VCU.

She toured bookstores and podcasts. A Forbes magazine article about how babies in the COVID era talk less cited her work. She has been interviewed on NPR and CBS Mornings. She hopes to speak to Richmond at some point.

About one in six American adults has low literacy – 36 million “who cannot compare and contrast written information, make low-level inferences, or locate information in a multi-part document,” Smart writes. . Worse still, “socially disadvantaged parents in the United States, compared to those in other countries, are more likely to pass on lower skills to their children.”

Reading among young people was on the decline even before the pandemic. Smart notes that in 2020, 29% of 13-year-olds surveyed nationally said they “never or hardly ever” read for pleasure, up from 8% in 1984.

Technology is part of the problem, she says, noting how cellphone scrolling has supplanted reading books. “But it’s not fun to read if you’re not an experienced reader.”


Maya Payne Intelligent


For parents who fit this category, Smart has recorded an audio version of his book.

“What should be encouraging is that even parents who don’t read very well themselves and parents who don’t read well themselves are quite capable of teaching those early lessons that children need.” , she said.


For this literacy plan to take hold, cities must provide greater support and education to parents on pre-literacy skills. Schools need to re-emphasize the teaching of phonetics. And America must not only embrace affordable infant education, but also paid parental leave so parents can actually be home to have those essential conversations with their infants.

Smart writes that literacy affects our health, wealth, employment, housing, and even the likelihood of incarceration.

“We need to be the kind of society that wants everyone to read, participate, and have the opportunity to have a job, thrive, and raise healthy families and children,” she said. declared.

To this end, reading is fundamental. The quality of our lives depends on it.

About Shirley L. Kreger

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