Susan B. Neuman: Living in a World of Words Surrounded by ‘Book Deserts’ - Early Learning Nation

Susan B. Neuman: Living in a World of Words Surrounded by ‘Book Deserts’

Editor’s Note: The Early Learning Nation Studio recently attended the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s annual conference where we spoke with early learning researchers, policymakers, and practitioners. The full collection of video conversations can be found here.

Language development is critical to young children’s development – indeed, the foundation for early literacy. So what are the straight-forwards ways teachers and parents can bring more words into children’s lives? Professor Susan B. Neuman explains.


Chris Riback:                 Susan, welcome to the studio.

Susan B. Neuman:         Thank you, it’s nice to be here.

Chris Riback:                 Let’s start with the overview. What is the connection between vocabulary and learning? Why would you say we live in a world of words?

Susan B. Neuman:         We do live in a world of words. Oral language development is so critically important to young children, it’s the foundation for early literacy, and their vocabulary actually predicts not only their achievement in elementary school, but in high school and beyond.

Chris Riback:                 For so many lay people, we might believe, well words just come. We listen, babies listen, they see, they hear their parents, they will listen to television and they learn. But there’s a science of reading. What is it?

Susan B. Neuman:         We call vocabulary an unconstrained skill. And what that means is that you and I are learning vocabulary and new words throughout our lifetime. So there are studies that show that our intelligence grows as we develop more vocabulary throughout the years.

Chris Riback:                 Which comes first, does the growth of vocabulary drive intelligence, or does intelligence, and I put that in quotes, drive one’s ability to gain new vocabulary?

Susan B. Neuman:         It’s a great question. One of the things we know is that when I use sophisticated vocabulary words, I’m creating knowledge for young children. Vocabulary and knowledge are synonymous, and so when I use more sophisticated vocabulary words it encourages children to really learn and extend what they already know beyond their colloquial language.

Chris Riback:                 And you promise you won’t use sophisticated language with me, right?

Susan B. Neuman:         I promise, I won’t.

Chris Riback:                 I appreciate that.

Susan B. Neuman:         I’ll use regular jargon – good old teacher jargon.

Chris Riback:                 Just simple teacher jargon, single-syllables would really be helpful. You have written that word and world knowledge are reciprocal, mutually reinforcing processes related to gains in conceptual development and comprehension, which is a little bit what you were just discussing. What guidance, tangible guidance, specific guidance can you give teachers and parents? Are there easy ways to, and I put easy in quotes, but are there easy ways to connect the world and words for children?

Susan B. Neuman:         Yes, definitely. There are wonderful, easy ways to help children. And that is, the key thing that we could do is to be responsive to that child’s queries and interests. So every time the child asks a question and I answer it and I extend it, letting the child know that I’m responsive to their language, and I’m extending it in ways, that is the key to vocabulary development. It’s the responsive adult interacting with child.

Chris Riback:                 What are book deserts?

Susan B. Neuman:         We study book deserts all the country, and book deserts are something that we as a country should be aware of and should really move on. And that is, what we’ve discovered is that there are areas in the country, in communities, where there are virtually no books for children. And so this problem is particularly poignant during the summer because many of our school programs are closed, some of the libraries actually go on hiatus, and so these children are without books.

Susan B. Neuman:         And so in one community we noted, and this is in the capital of the United States, we noticed that 833 children would have to share one book in order for them to read over the summer. This is a tragedy that we have not ameliorated in our country.

Chris Riback:                 And correct me if I’m wrong, because it’s a common misperception in the world, laundromats are not just places to do laundry, are they?

Susan B. Neuman:         Well, I’m known as the laundromat queen now.

Chris Riback:                 Excellent! I’m sure your family appreciates that. But what does it mean to be the laundromat queen?

Susan B. Neuman:         We can’t do it alone. In other words, what goes on in the classroom, as good as it is, and what goes on in the home, as good as it is, is not enough to educate our young children. Too Small to Fail approached laundromats and said, “Could you help us? Could you support our children in terms of playing, reading, talking, and singing?” And they were eager to do something good, because laundromats often have a bad rap. People have to do their laundry, they don’t want to be there.

Chris Riback:                 Laundry has a bad rap, I mean who wants to do the laundry?

Susan B. Neuman:         Who wants to do that? Furthermore, you have to bring your children very often on the weekend, and those children sit and stare for two hours at a time. So what happened is in New York, and now in Chicago, and now across the country, we’re creating literacy-related play centers where children can come and play in those centers, and interact and do lots of interesting things. And then in addition we’ve brought in the children’s librarians. So instead of the children’s librarian saying there’s a story hour at the public library, the public library is coming to the laundromat. I mean it’s kind of brilliant if you think of it. And these children’s librarians are showing children how eager and exciting early literacy is.

Chris Riback:                 That’s fantastic. So at the risk of appearing greedy, because we are all grateful for that work and other things that you have done, what’s next?

Susan B. Neuman:         Well, hair salon and barber shops.

Chris Riback:                 Truly?

Susan B. Neuman:         Truly.

Chris Riback:                 That’s a great idea.

Susan B. Neuman:         We’re in car dealerships, we’re trying to say that every child, no matter where are, no matter where they traverse during the day, they’re going to get some messages about the importance, and the excitement, and the joys of learning about literacy. And we’re going to encourage parents to talk to their children, and to engage them in a rich dialogue, telling them about their history. I mean, one of the things that a parent can do that is so poignant and so powerful is the child will say, “Tell me how I was born? Tell me about those first minutes when I came into this earth, tell me what it’s like.” And the parent can start a rich dialogue on the very basis of personal kinds of experiences.

Chris Riback:                 Susan, thank you. Thank you for coming by the studio. Thank you for the work that you do.

Susan B. Neuman:         Oh, absolutely. It’s wonderful. Thank you.


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