One of my earliest childhood memories was snuggling up to my mom on the couch on Sunday mornings. She would read the comics to me. It didn’t matter that I may not have understood the humor the cartoonist was presenting, because mom would explain what was going on in the pictures. I still remember bringing other materials to her, and saying, “Read me,” when the comics were finished.
As I got older, my parents bought a record player for me. Not so I could listen to the music of The Beatles or The Dave Clark Five (although that came a couple of years later), but so I could play a record that came with the book, “The Little Engine That Could.” The narrator of the story told me, before starting the story, that when I heard the train whistle, it was time to turn the page.
The spoken word is powerful. It’s how we’re immersed in communication. As an only child who lived with my parents and my grandmother, everyone had their sections of the newspaper as well as their favorite magazines to read, and I had my books with records when my elders needed to read about what was going on in the world.
Dare I say that doesn’t happen anymore.
When a six-year-old uses language that would make even the foulest-mouthed adult blush, one wonders where the child learned to talk like that. Today, there are five places – television, music, the Internet, their parents/guardians, and their friends. The interesting thing is that all those influences, except for the Internet, were around 50+ years ago. Perhaps today it’s the lack of parental involvement, and the propensity to allow television, music and the Internet to entertain the child. Back when I was a kid, we needed to sit away from the television because the radiation emanating from it was harmful. Interestingly, we were also told not to get to close to microwave ovens when they first came on the scene. We don’t seem to have those fears anymore.
As for the content delivered via television (including cable or satellite-delivered programming), music, and the Internet (including streaming content), it’s not simply “mindless entertainment.” Everything a child experiences from birth to age 6 is a learning experience. There are no such things as “time wasters” for that age group.
My wife and I made it a point to read, sing to and with our kids, and although record players were no longer sources for read-along books, cassette tapes were.
As my time to do longitudinal research relative to academic performance has passed me by, I believe we would greatly benefit by a research study which starts when young parents have newborn children. If 50 sets of parents were selected, then the control group of 25 would be asked to do nothing out of the ordinary in raising their children, except to track their activities from the time they were born to the time their children graduate from high school. The test group of 25 new parents would also be asked to track their activities in raising their children, but would also be asked to sing to them every day while they’re being rocked to sleep as infants, and read to them once a day from the time they are able to focus their attention until the time they are 5 years old and enter kindergarten. I wonder which group would perform at a higher level academically. I’ll bet you can guess which one would even without performing the study.
But there is research that explains why attention spans, particularly in students, are getting shorter and shorter. A study of over 2600 students found that attention deficits begin when children are exposed to greater and greater amounts of television starting at about age 2 (Christakis, D.A., Zimmerman, F.J., DiGiuseppe, D.L., & McCarty, C.A. (2004). Early television exposure and subsequent attentional problems in children. Pediatrics, 113, 708-713.). When television programs like Sesame Street have shorter and shorter segments that demonstrate the sound and usage of a particular letter of the alphabet, then, two minutes later, show different ways to add 2 and 3, then, two minutes after that, teach the English and Spanish meaning of a particular word, it’s no wonder that when children enter the classroom, they have a difficult time focusing on one subject area for an extended amount of time.
Even in the school setting, the opportunity to simply be read to is now gone in many schools. Elementary school librarians are required to submit lesson plans that support educational standards for K-4 students. Of course, students’ IEPs need to be reviewed, and lessons need to be developed which can appeal to the learning preferences of visual, auditory and kinestheic learners. Sure, that happens in every classroom, right? But, when the librarian is also the media specialist, and her schedule is split between two elementary school buildings since students have their library period once per week, that means teaching every child in two schools – over 1,000 students – and preparing appropriate lesson plans. Just try to recall over 300 IEPs when interacting with a child just once a week. Read to them? Sorry, that’s not a standard.
So let’s attempt to lengthen that attention span. If you have young children, read to them. Sit next to them. Share your voice with them, and don’t just read, add some inflection, using various tones of voice for different characters in the book. What’s really cool is seeing my daughter and son-in-law doing this for our 11-month old granddaughter. She LOVES books, as they make the words on the printed page come alive! Doing this allows the children to form storyboards and characterizations in their minds as they begin and continue to read. It can provide them with a lifetime love of reading, since a parent’s time is one of the most precious gifts a parent can give to their child.