Isabella Van Etten, 3, began her journey of learning to read before she was even born. "I got a book when I was pregnant called 'Oh Baby, the Places You'll Go: A Book to Be Read in Utero,'" recalled the child's mother, Celeste Russi of Newbury Park.
Russi, an actress, recalled reading the Dr. Seuss-inspired book to her growing abdomen throughout her pregnancy. The book lover and her husband continued to read to their daughter as an infant and a toddler. Now a preschooler, Isabella shares her parents' love of books and is already beginning to sound out small words.
While theories on early literacy have changed over time, the importance of the emotional bond between parent and child continues to be a driving force in helping young children learn to read.
In the United States, only 32 percent of fourth-graders are reading at grade level. In the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the number is a staggering 11 percent. In reaction to the dramatic statistics, communities are pushing early literacy. While the No Child Left Behind Act, signed by President Bush in 2002, provides grants for state and local schools, the country is still in crisis. Here in the Southland, the Jewish community is taking action.
Last year, Esther Elfenbaum, the early childhood education head consultant for the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education, served as a facilitator for HeadsUp! Reading, a college-level course in early literacy for Jewish preschool teachers. Elfenbaum noted that the program emphasizes fun, interactive teaching methods, rather than "ineffective practices" such as relying on worksheets. Parent involvement is key.
"Our goal is to help teachers incorporate early literacy into all our Jewish preschools in an appropriate way and to encourage them to work with parents," Elfenbaum said. "Early literacy is a partnership between parents and teachers."
She plans to teach additional HeadsUp! Reading courses this fall and spring.
Nestled inside a classroom at the Conejo Valley Jewish Community Center for Early Childhood and Family Education in Agoura Hills is a "reading center," a miniature living room-like area where preschoolers are encouraged to cuddle up with a good book. The cozy corner includes a small couch, a lamp, an assortment of stuffed animals and dolls and a rack full of picture books and magazines. Staff members said the point is to mimic and reinforce the comfy association with books on which the children have hopefully grown up.
In addition, Director Joann Hulkower and her staff have created a "print-rich environment" where items around the classroom are labeled for emerging readers. Little signs are posted on the classroom door, the mirror, the table and even the pet rabbit's cage so that the children may begin to recognize the words. Above all, Hulkower said, parent reinforcement breeds success.
"It used to be that you'd send your kid to school and the school took care of educating the child," Hulkower said. "Now the theory is that the parent is involved beginning when the child is an infant."
Betsy Hiteshew, project director of LAUSD's Early Steps to Reading Success and former president of the California Association for the Education of Young Children, said that neglecting to establish a positive connection between parent and child in regard to reading can be detrimental to youngsters.
Unfortunately, many Jewish families are unaware of the local resources for early literacy. The Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles, which is located in the mid-Wilshire area, is an often untapped resource.
"Children's Jewish literature is one of the finest vehicles for learning culture and tradition," said Abigail Yasgur, library director. The library offers free "storytime programs" throughout the year where storytellers, musicians, authors, artists and experts provide Jewish-oriented reading activities for infants and children of different ages.
To help Los Angeles' effort to combat the literacy crisis, residents are encouraged to get involved with KOREH L.A., the largest partnering literacy program in the city. The organization is part of The Jewish Federation and is funded by the Winnick Family Foundation. KOREH L.A. trains volunteers to go to LAUSD elementary schools to help children who have reading difficulties.
"The point is to expose children to books as a pleasurable thing. They might not have had that [experience] in their home," said Elaine Albert, director of KOREH L.A.
While finding resources outside the home is important, early literacy experts encourage parents to utilize their greatest asset -- themselves.
Hiteshew said, "It's been said many times that the best reading machine is a mother's lap."
For more information on the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles, call (323) 761-8648 or visit www.jclla.org. To get involved in KOREH L.A., call (323) 761-8153 or visit www.korehla.org .