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Caroline is available for talks about the importance of reading to babies. She also contributes to on-line magazines on the subject of language and literacy development.
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Every Word Counts
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Sample Pages from Every Word Counts
Fun and Interactive Ways to Help Your Little One Discover the World of Words

To most parents of newborns, kindergarten seems a long way off. Five years can seem like an eternity when you're dealing with diapering, nursing, bathing, and laundry. Yet before you know it, the months quickly go by, and your precious little one will be walking, talking, going to preschool, and suddenly starting her first day of kindergarten. In those short five years—and especially the first two—even though you may not realize it, you will be the first and most important teacher your child will ever have.

In fact, your influence will determine whether or not your child succeeds in school. No schoolteacher has the power that parents have to insure academic success. What is this power? It's the power to give your baby the gift of words. That's right! Words! Short words, long words, common words, and uncommon words. Lots and lots of words everyday. Recent research tells us that what determines future academic success is the amount of words per hour babies hear before the age of two.1

As elementary school reading specialists, we see children who by the time they become of school age haven't heard enough words in their first years of life and thus lack the basic language building blocks necessary to learn how to read. Reading and writing skills begin at birth when baby is first exposed to language. Learning to read doesn't spontaneously happen when a child goes to school. It only comes easily when children have been immersed since birth in the world of words through a steady diet of hearing read-alouds and talk from their parents.

What is so magical about words that make such a difference in your baby's future? When you think about it, most communication and everything you learn in school involves words. Words are the basis of literacy, the ability to read and write. In order to succeed in school, children need to pay attention to, listen to, remember, understand, and speak words. These basic skills form the building blocks of literacy. Your baby acquires these building blocks naturally in the first years of life, but only if you set aside time every day to lovingly read and talk to your baby.

As caregivers you need to begin early, talking and reading with your babies before the age of two, while they are experiencing a critical period of brain growth and receptivity to language. Babies begin to start talking at around two. This means that from birth to two their brains have been absorbing the language in their environment at a pace and intensity that only happens in the first years of life. Although during the first couple days after birth your baby may be a little weary from the birth process, her brain is far more active than that of her parents. Her brain is working overtime preparing for her life's journey ahead. Parents play a critical role in this journey by supporting their baby's language and literacy development. However, just as babies need to be fed, loved, and nurtured, they need daily language nourishment to complete their brain development.

As you look at your peaceful, angelic newborn that only periodically opens her eyes to your loving gaze, you may ask whether reading to her can have any worthwhile effect. You might even feel silly reading when it appears there is no response. However, beneath your baby's seemingly passive demeanor is an active brain that is fed by the loving sounds of language, and its rhymes and playful noises. As early as six weeks, babies will respond by looking and listening intently and smiling. Before six weeks many of your baby's responses to your reading are invisible because they take place only in the brain. Even when baby is asleep the brain is busy making new brain cell connections in response to your reading aloud.

Babies come into the world with about 100 billion brain cells (neurons).2 It's what happens to those brain cells after birth that is crucial to brain development. After birth, a baby needs stimulation from the parents, and everyone and everything in his environment. That stimulation promotes new connections among brain cells that resemble a massive, wired communication system. At birth, there are few connections. But soon afterward, cells begin sprouting wiry antennae that are called axons and little receptors called dendrites. The axons transmit signals, and the dendrites receive information across a minute gap called a synapse, or connection. This activity accounts for the increases in brain and head size we observe as babies grow.3 By the age of two, the number of brain connections escalates to 1 quadrillion (1,000 trillion).4 That is roughly the number of stars in the universe.5 As Emily Dickenson noted, "The brain is wider than the sky."6

Every word you say and read to your baby creates a brain connection that results in your baby's brain growth.7 Think of your words as baby brain food. Every time you read and reread a book, your baby's brain is absorbing information that will form his lifelong literacy foundation. This will lead to the thrilling milestones that you'll record in your journal, photographs, videos, and messages you tell your family and friends: your baby's first spoken words, your toddler's first full sentence, your child's first attempts to read, her successes at school, her graduations, and professional accomplishments. This is why reading aloud to your baby is the best investment you can make in your child's education.

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