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At A Loss For Words

At A Loss For Words: How America Is Failing Our Children

Betty Bardige
Foreword by T. Berry Brazelton
Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: Temple University Press
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    At A Loss For Words
    Book Description:

    Drawing on the latest research on development among toddlers and preschoolers, At a Loss for Words lays out the importance of getting parents, policy makers, and child care providers to recognize the role of early literacy skills in reducing the achievement gap that begins before three years of age. Readers are guided through home and classroom settings that promote language, contrasting them with the "merely mediocre" child care settings in which more and more young children spend increasing amounts of time. Too many of our young children are not receiving the level of input and practice that will enable them to acquire language skills—the key to success in school and life. Bardige explains how to build better community support systems for children, and better public education, in order to ensure that toddlers learn the power of language from their families and teachers.

    eISBN: 978-1-59213-394-9
    Subjects: Education

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-xii)
    T. Berry Brazelton

    Language is an important and virtually inevitable part of a child’s development. Communication with important adults is built in at birth, as a way of being sure to be taken care of. Right after birth, a baby communicates. He is born with six different cries: hunger, pain, boredom, fatigue, discomfort, and a cry that accompanies letting off steam at the end of the day. These cries attempt to draw an important person to him and get that person to meet his needs. They are a baby’s first language—a language that his parents will learn from him in his first...

  4. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  6. Part I: Every Child’s Birthright

    • 1 Jack and Jill
      (pp. 3-20)

      Why do some students learn easily and joyfully while others in the same classrooms continue to struggle? Why are so many of our children coming to kindergarten so far behind their peers that “All children shall start school ready to learn”¹ is an unrealized national goal rather than a safe assumption? Why is there an “achievement gap” between haves and have-nots, and why is it so difficult to close?

      The answers to these questions are complex. Yet it is becoming increasingly clear that much of the explanation lies in what we are doing—and not doing—as parents and teachers,...

    • 2 Prime Time for Language Learning
      (pp. 21-31)

      Humans are social animals, and their children come into the world primed to communicate. Language and symbolic thought, the hallmarks of humanity, develop very early. The first five years of life, and especially the years between one and four, are prime time for language learning. The brain is growing and developing rapidly, forming new connections as it learns. These connections, in turn, enable rapid information processing and new learning.¹

      Virtually every child who can physically speak and hear (and many who can’t) masters at least one language by age five.² Their learning is so rapid that some scientists have postulated...

    • 3 Why Early Language Matters
      (pp. 32-48)

      If you’re a parent or a grandparent, you’ve probably seen a poster that quotes Robert Fulghum’s classic essay, “All I Really Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.”

      Here, according to Fulghum, are the essential guidelines for a meaningful life, phrased in the simple language in which they are communicated to young children during their first experiences with schooling:

      Share everything.

      Play fair.

      Don’t hit people.

      Put things back where you found them.

      Clean up your own mess.

      Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.

      Wash your hands before you eat.


      Warm cookies and cold milk are good...

    • 4 Supporting Early Language at Home
      (pp. 49-58)

      Children who are in group care, whether at a center or in a family childcare home, can learn a lot of language from teachers and peers. What about at home? How can parents who are home with their children provide the communication challenges and rich language support that welltrained teachers infuse into children’s days? How can parents who worry that their children are in less than ideal child-care situations make up for what may be missing? Individual parents are asking these questions; increasingly, they are also becoming matters of public concern.

      When Cambridge, MA, decided that the city needed to...

    • 5 Supporting Early Language in Group Care
      (pp. 59-73)

      Statements like these, once common among parents and politicians alike, are slowly giving way to an understanding that young children need more than custodial care and that educating young children in groups is a challenging task. If you’ve ever tried to run a birthday party for even five or six preschoolers, then you know that keeping a group of children happy for just a few hours requires energy, ingenuity, preparation, and a lot of patience and flexibility. Imagine doing it day in and day out, for six or eight hours at a time, and you’ll gain a new appreciation for...

    • 6 You Don’t Speak My Language
      (pp. 74-86)

      Young children need a “critical mass” of engaging and informative language input, along with lots of opportunities to “use their words” with adults and other children. What happens if the input and communication practice come in more than one language, as is increasingly the case for young children in the United States? What happens when the language a child learns in early childhood is not the language that he will use in school? The answers to these questions are complex—and fascinating. What we as a society do with these answers is affecting more and more of our children—including...

  7. Part II: The Quiet Crisis

    • 7 The State of Early Care and Education in the United States
      (pp. 89-100)

      We’ve seen how early language learning is shaped by daily experience, and how the quality of that experience sets the stage for later achievements or difficulties. But what level of quality is a typical child likely to encounter on a daily basis? How likely is she to have experiences that are more like Jack’s than like Jill’s? How likely is it that the adults she spends time with will engage her in frequent conversations that hold her interest, nourish her curiosity, and build her communication repertoire? How serious are the gaps between what we would hope would be the norm...

    • 8 A Perfect Storm
      (pp. 101-114)

      The United States is a country that values education and innovation, yet we can’t seem to get our children off to a good start. Parents are increasingly frustrated by the difficulty of finding affordable child care. Professionals bemoan the low quality of much of what is available. Researchers report a dearth of settings that provide children with a strong language foundation. By the time they enter kindergarten, significant numbers of our children are already being left behind. And the problem seems to be getting worse.

      Why are so many children in the United States coming to school without a strong...

    • 9 Truth, Justice, and the American Way
      (pp. 115-124)

      The facts presented in previous chapters are not new: we have known for a long time that early experience makes a difference to children’s later success, that the early experiences of American children are vastly unequal, and that large numbers of our children start school already “left behind.” A series of national reports and White House conferences presented the facts and called for public solutions:

      In 1970, the White House Conference on Children highlighted child care as a major problem facing the American family.¹ The conference called for free comprehensive programs to meet the developmental needs of poor children, with...

  8. Part III: Changing Course

    • 10 A Parent’s Guide to Early Childhood Programs and Policy
      (pp. 127-143)

      The problem can be stated simply: Too many of our children are not getting the input, practice, and responsive caregiving they need during their prime time for language learning. As a result, they start school significantly behind their peers in vocabulary and language use. The ensuing achievement gap can be stubborn; it often widens rather than narrows as time goes on.

      A third of our children are at risk today. If we do not change course, that percentage is likely to grow as more and more families place increasing reliance on an undereducated, undercompensated, and increasingly overburdened early childhood workforce...

    • 11 Supporting Parents
      (pp. 144-157)

      Parents are their children’s first and most enduring teachers.¹ When a child is thriving, we say she is a credit to her family. When a child is failing or not getting what she needs, it is often the parents who are blamed. When too many of our children are coming to school with too few words, requiring disproportionate resources of money and teacher attention and often continuing to lag behind in spite of remedial efforts and repeated grades, it makes sense to include parents in the solution.

      Parents help their children to build a sturdy language foundation for later learning...

    • 12 Improving Programs for Children
      (pp. 158-169)

      The majority of young children in the United States are spending significant parts of their days in the care of people other than their parents. Bringing these programs and settings up to a level of quality that is good enough to support robust language development for most children has become a national necessity. It is also surprisingly easy. It has been done many times, in many places, using many different strategies. It has been done one center or child-care program at a time, and it has been done on a national scale. Let’s explore some examples.

      In Allegheny County, PA,...

    • 13 Building Systems that Sustain Quality
      (pp. 170-186)

      Early childhood education in the United States is often described as a “nonsystem,” a patchwork of public and private programs that meet the needs of some children but allow many to fall through the cracks. Unfortunately, the children most likely to receive inadequate supports are those under four, especially if they are from families with modest incomes.

      If our goal is to provide every child with a sturdy early language foundation, then we must address the systemic barriers that keep parents, providers, and programs from getting the supports they need to succeed. We don’t need to put babies into public...

    • 14 We Can Get There from Here
      (pp. 187-204)

      In 1989, President George H.W. Bush convened the nation’s governors to set educational goals for the nation. The summit led to the adoption of six educational goals, which Congress later expanded to eight. These goals were codified in the Goals 2000: Educate America Act,¹ signed by President Clinton in 1994. The National Educational Goals Panel, made up of governors, state legislators, members of Congress, and representatives of the administration, was charged with monitoring progress toward the goals.

      In 2005, we have not yet achieved Goal 1: “All children will come to school ready to learn and succeed.” Yet this goal...

  9. Appendix: Resources and Connections for Parents, Policy Makers, and Advocates
    (pp. 205-212)
  10. Notes
    (pp. 213-244)
  11. Index
    (pp. 245-254)