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Bridge Michigan
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Chelsea Clinton visits Wayne County to push parents’ role in child literacy

Chelsea Clinton
Chelsea Clinton reads to young children at Starfish Family Services on Monday. The Clinton Foundation and Great Start Collaborative Detroit/Wayne are encouraging parents to talk, read and sing to their children to increase their children’s language skills. (Photo courtesy of Clinton Foundation/Megan Maher.)

What do childcare facilities, grocery stores and doctor offices have in common? 

They all serve as places where parents can learn about the importance of talking, reading and singing to help their babies and young children develop early literacy skills.

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Chelsea Clinton, vice chair of the Clinton Foundation, visited Wayne County Monday to tour facilities that are working to empower parents to help nurture their children’s brain development. 

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Brains develop rapidly in the first few years of life. The brain is most flexible or “plastic” early on, meaning there is a prime opportunity for developing language skills early on.

But not all babies have the same exposure to sounds and words that help the brain grow. In a widely cited study, researchers estimated that by age four, children from low-income families have had 32 million fewer words spoken to them than other children. Though that study’s findings have been met by mounting skepticism in recent years, researchers generally agree that adult interaction positively impacts young children’s learning and brain development.  

So education leaders in Wayne County and the Clinton Foundation say they are aiming to change the future of these babies by finding ways to encourage parents to spend more time talking, reading and singing to their children.

It’s part of the Great Start Collaborative Detroit/Wayne County’s “Talking is Teaching: Talk, Read, Sing” initiative. The Clinton Foundation’s early childhood initiative Too Small to Fail is a partner in the program. 

The message is simple: children benefit from being talked, read and sung to. Parents can do this during ordinary tasks like bath time, cooking and laundry time. 

“So we very much are mindful that parents are very busy,” Clinton told Bridge Michigan after visiting a child care center in Inkster. “And yet, we're also mindful that the children do need to be spoken to, read to, sung to and kind of how families do that will vary family by family. And yet we not only kind of believe but know from research, that even 15 minutes of talking, reading or singing to your child a day has enormous lifelong benefits.”

Wayne RESA Superintendent Daveda Colbert said aunts, uncles, siblings, grandparents, neighbors and community leaders including church pastors can also play a role.

“It's just foundational and it adds value to every single family and as we continue to want to improve outcomes to stop poverty, these are the ways in which we do it,” Colbert said. “Because every student should have an opportunity regardless of zip code. And that’s why this is so powerful.”

The program provides high quality learning materials and lets parents know there are plenty of places children can learn  including laundromats, playgrounds and doctor office waiting rooms.

Too Small to Fail CEO Patti Miller told Bridge that having high quality materials is necessary because parents may know that reading is important, but if they don’t have books at home, they may feel stuck on how to develop that skill with their children.  

She said the trusted messengers, such as doctors or faith leaders are “really magical and important in terms of making this work sing.”

In Inkster, Clinton visited Starfish Family Services, a childcare center, where she read a book to young children and toured the center’s story walk, which features prompts for children about the book.

Ken Koehler and Tammy Alfaro-Koehler
Honey Bee Market La Colmena co-owners Ken Koehler and Tammy Alfaro-Koehler are excited to have signs in their store in Southwest Detroit that encourage parents to talk and read to their children. (Isabel Lohman/Bridge Michigan)

Miller told Bridge the goal is not to create more work for parents, but rather to meet them where they are at. 

At Honey Bee Market La Colmena in heavily Hispanic Southwest Detroit, shoppers can find signs throughout the store that prompt them to ask their children questions. There are also signs in Spanish. 

Honey Bee Market co-owner Tammy Alfaro-Koehler said she knows the pandemic and online learning have left many children behind in school. 

“I would like to help, somehow, the community catch up,” she said.

She hopes her store can be a place where families can have fun and learn.

“Grocery shopping should be an experience, so now you get to be a family experience,” Alfaro-Koehler said. 

Leaders of the program hope these lessons will change the trajectory for young children across Michigan, better preparing them for kindergarten and beyond.  

During the 2018-2019 school year, only about 45 percent of third-grade students scored as proficient or advanced in Michigan’s standardized test, the M-STEP, for English Language Arts. That’s a problem, given that research shows that children who are not reading a grade level by third grade are at higher risk of future academic challenges. 

The Michigan Legislature passed a law in 2016 that requires schools to hold back third-graders whose reading levels are a grade or more behind. Last summer, families of at least 3,477 students received letters recommending their children be held back, but the law has numerous loopholes that allow children to continue on to fourth grade. 

Clinton said she supports the work of getting children on track by third grade, but hopes that at the same time, there is more investment in early childhood since having strong literacy skills correlates with several things including children having the vocabulary to express their emotions. 

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Out of the state’s 83 counties, 79 are implementing or planning to implement a Talking is Teaching campaign, according to the Michigan Department of Education.

The American Institutes for Research (AIR) is collecting data on the statewide program by doing interviews, focus groups and surveys over three years to assess family and community awareness related to talking, reading and singing.

Clinton, who is raising three children, said she loves watching her children’s “brains firing” when they ask questions or reference a book they read before.

“I really do feel like it is tangible to me, and I want every parent to have that experience with their kids.”

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