Early childhood literacy – a view from the American Academy of Pediatrics

Earlier this week the American Academy of Pediatrics launched a new toolkit to encourage early childhood literacy.  There’s a lot to be said for it:

It seems really desirable that medical practitioners are being encouraged to work with all the families they meet to encourage children’s literacy development.

It’s great that reading together is being encouraged, and that talking about texts is seen as part of reading, as is singing.  Perhaps best of all, the lively illustrations with the campaign show that reading can be a social activity.  Children are shown clearly enjoying themselves, with others.  There are many links made between cognitive development, positive affect and reading.

The initiative is being supported by high profile contributors including Hillary Clinton.

I think if you’ve read this far, you might be expecting a “but” or two.

OK.  I’m not enthusiastic about the emphasis on “toolkits” and programs, although to be fair, what this toolkit mostly consists of are lists of tips, rather than the promotion of commercial programs that bedevils so much of early literacy policy.  This side of the pond, I think many of us still agree you don’t have to equate encouraging reading with the purchase of programs.  You can mention libraries, (independent) bookshops, and, dare I say it, suggest that people, including young children, might choose their own reading materials.  There are plenty of inspirational ideas out there, such as the Guardian’s diversity in children’s books week being celebrated at the moment. This  initiative is associated with the charity Seven Stories.

The American Academy of Pediatrics’ toolkit is accessibly written and contains some sensible advice.  However, my biggest “but” is the idea that only printed books, bound between covers, count as suitable reading material.  I do appreciate the suggestion that it’s fruitful to set aside some time to focus on doing things with your child.  But it’s not the same thing to insist that this is necessarily without “TV, texting and other distractions” as is repeated many times or to suggest that you should “turn off the television and other electronic devices.”  This ignores the point that popular culture, in the form of TV shows, screen-based books and games might actually provide opportunities to engage in mutually delightful reading opportunities with a child.  To switch everything else  off and treat the printed book as necessarily more worthy than other media might at best lose opportunities for engaging early literacy and at worst, create a divide between “serious” and “fun” literacy activities that could turn out to be counter-productive.

It’s ten years since Jackie Marsh was making this point through, for example, her book Popular Culture, New Media and Digital Literacy in Early Childhood and there were predecessors.  And indeed I see that Seven Stories, with the fabulous National Media Museum in Bradford, has put on an exhibition Moving Stories – Children’s Books from Page to Screen.