A new Science of Learning Institute partnership will help caregivers support their children's early literacy through research-based museum exhibits and resources.
Babies and toddlers learn at an astonishing rate, particularly when it comes to language and communication. But are their parents equipped with the knowledge and tools they need to nurture children's abilities to their fullest during those critical early years? The Johns Hopkins Science of Learning Institute and several community partners recently launched The Road to Reading, an initiative that will inform exhibits and other resources that can help these caregivers support children's literacy development.
"Language learning begins before birth, and the vast majority of it is completed by the age of four," says Kristin Gagnier, PhD, an outreach and evaluation specialist for the Science of Learning Institute and an assistant research scientist in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. "Parents have enormous potential to influence their child's future literacy. If you think all literacy happens in school, then you have missed an opportunity."
The project, supported by university funding and philanthropy, is a collaboration with the Children's Museum of Manhattan and Baltimore's Port Discovery Children's Museum. The Institute kicked off the project with a needs assessment survey of parents and caregivers in New York and Baltimore. Following administration and analysis of the survey, the Institute will share the study's results and recommendations with the museums, helping to develop literacy-focused exhibits that can reach a large number of families each year.
"As scientists, we are interested in understanding the basic mechanisms of learning along the lifespan, and we are equally interested in seeing the knowledge we create make its way into solutions that will improve learning," says Barbara Landau, the Dick and Lydia Todd Professor of Cognitive Science in the Krieger School and director of the Science of Learning Institute.
The timing of The Road to Reading dovetails with the Baltimore Grade Level Reading Campaign. This initiative seeks to ensure that all children in Baltimore City Schools are reading on their grade level by third grade. The B'More for Healthy Babies Initiative, part of the Baltimore City Health Department, partnered with the Science of Learning Institute and Port Discovery to conduct the survey of parents and caregivers of children ages 0-5 in high-risk neighborhoods.
Angela Vaughn-Lee, a B'More associate, helped complete the 110 surveys. She noticed that many caregivers — especially working parents and grandparents — indicated they understand the importance of early literacy, yet encounter challenges when finding time to read with their children. Others said they didn't feel confident in their own literacy and ability to guide their children. Many families would benefit from resources demonstrating the variety of activities that can build a strong foundation for literacy, she explains, such as having frequent conversations or looking at pictures together.
"You don't have to be a perfect reader to sit down, spend some time, and have communication back and forth with your child," Vaughn-Lee says. The Institute will conduct an evaluation of The Road to Reading to determine whether the museums' exhibits and resources helped parents and caregivers understand how their children learn to read and write, and feel empowered to guide their children in this critical literacy development process. Should the project be successful, it could expand to other cities. For Landau, The Road to Reading exemplifies one of the Science of Learning Institute's goals: to apply its research in the service of real-world solutions.
"We move from basic science to translation, then the results of those activities feed back to basic science again," she says. "The cycle produces a real impact, helping to optimize learning for all learners."
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