Geoff Johnson: Early exposure to books gives kids a step up

Children arrive on the first day of kindergarten bringing with them a wide range of backgrounds. Some can read simple children’s books while others, never having had a book read to them, have no understanding of words on the page.

Now, thanks to a number of initiatives that focus on both preschool and kindergarten kids, there seems to be evidence that there are significant ways of improving chances for school success even from an early age.

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Since 2004-05, kindergarten teachers have used the Early Development Indicator scales to rate the “vulnerability” of individual children related in five core development areas: physical health and well-being, social competence, emotional maturity, language and cognitive development, and communication skills.

The EDI questionnaire was developed by Dr. Dan Offord and Magdalena Janus at the Offord Centre for Child Studies at McMaster University.

That work has been carried on at the University of B.C. as part of the Human Early Learning Partnership.

The EDI indicators are known to be good predictors of adult health, education and social outcomes.

“Vulnerability” in this context refers to the likelihood of kids experiencing challenges in school and beyond without extra care and support. If that sounds like making assumptions about very young children and subsequently clouding teacher expectations, it is quite the opposite.

The EDI provides the community, including public health, social services and early-learning centres a means to monitor, understand and address the needs of preschoolers. It also provides other groups, especially those community-based groups working with preschool children and their families, with a way of determining if their efforts are making a difference.

That is not an easy question to answer with certainty, because there is seldom a single causal factor for success or lack thereof.

For example, Peninsula Connections for Early Childhood began the 1,000x5 Children’s Book Recycling Project in April 2008 by providing free books for preschool children.

Since its inception, the 1,000x5 project has kept weekly tallies of books screened as “just-right” for reading to the very young. More than 80,000 books have been placed in the hands of preschool children on the Saanich Peninsula alone. Similar projects operate throughout Victoria and Sooke school districts.

The folks involved in 1,000x5, most of them retired educators, believe that with greater access and parental involvement, it might be possible for 1,000 books to be read to every young child by the age of five.

At the same time, another push toward enhancing early learning are StrongStart Centres, introduced in 2006 throughout B.C. Three centres were established in Saanich district schools (at Sidney Elementary in 2007, Brentwood in 2008 and Lochside in 2009).

In 2010 and 2011, full-day kindergarten was introduced in the Saanich district and across the province.

Thanks to an analysis of EDI questionnaire numbers by retired school principal Daphne McNaughton, there is now some empirical data that seem to support the notion that all of the above are making a difference.

Data reported by Saanich district kindergarten teachers indicate significant decreases in “vulnerability indicators” on the scales most related to early literacy development. The reductions in deficiencies in language and cognitive development alone are dramatic, ranging in one neighbourhood from 37 per cent of children in 2006-7 to four per cent in 2011-12.

Other neighbourhoods show declines in developmental deficiencies over a five-year period from percentages in the high 20s and low 30s to single figures, all of this since community literacy and other developmental initiatives became available to preschool kids and their parents.

All of which supports the conventional wisdom that the first five years of a child’s life are the foundation that shape improved development and success at school.

Projects like 1,000x5, along with StrongStart and full-day kindergarten, could just be the springboards to more satisfying school success for many kids.

Then there are many other researchers who say just reading to and with your preschooler makes an enormous difference.

Simple as that.


Geoff Johnson is a retired superintendent of schools.

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