By Jamie Swinnerton
This Thursday, Jan. 25, a local literacy enthusiast and a team of medical professionals and reading enthusiasts will kick-off a community read “Thirty Million Words: Building a Child’s Brain” by Dr. Dana Suskind, a professor of surgery at the University of Chicago. Brigid Hubberman has been helping connect the local community to books since she started The Family Reading Partnership, a non-profit organization that promotes early literacy, over 20 years ago. Now she has a new, but similar, cause with her new organization the Children’s Reading Connection. The event starts at 6 p.m at The Space at Greenstar.
The concept behind “Thirty Million Words” is relatively simple: when parents talk and interact with their babies in a loving way they are helping the child develop. According to the Thirty Million Words Initiative website, in 1995 a study by researchers Betty Hart and Rodd Risley found that some children heard thirty million fewer words by the time they turned 4 years old than others. Children who heard more words were better prepared for school, had bigger vocabularies, were stronger readers, and got bigger test scores.
“After years of really working so hard to connect babies and children with books, I’m excited about this additional piece of words,” Hubberman said. “Like going back to the foundation of words.”
Although the idea behind the read had been on Hubberman’s mind for years, this initiative really got going after a visit to South Africa where she was part of a forum called “Babies, Books and Loving Words.” When she returned she met up with two friends who also had a stake in helping babies learn and grow: Sue Brower, a clinical instructor and Registered Nurse at Cayuga Medical Center (CMC) Cayuga Birthplace, and MaryAnn Simpson, a retired early childhood speech language pathologist. All of them agreed that more people needed to know about the power of loving words in a child’s development, so they decided they would try to get Dr. Suskind’s books in front of as many people as possible.
“At its most fundamental, parents really have what they need already, their face and their voice,” Hubberman said. “How do we make sure people know that?”
To start, Hubbarman started to spread the book to influential community members that already are involved with early childhood development. The reaction, Hubberman said, was positive, with specialists telling her they had already become more aware of how they were speaking to the children that they work with.
An extensive Leadership Planning Circle for the initiative includes two neonatologists from CMC, professors from the local colleges, special education teachers from the Ithaca City School Dsitrict, two pediatricians, and community members. All are working as ambassadors of the book within their own circles and fields of expertise, spreading the good word about Loving Words. One of them is Sue Brower, who helped introduce Hubberman to the book.
“I’m trying to get the nurses here – who are pediatric and OB nurses – interested in doing the read,” Brower said. “Then we can come back and say ok, we already are doing a lot to encourage reading to babies, and we’ve already done much over the years – for more than 20 years – of having that as an integral thing in what we teach parents, to read to your baby, and to take this new information and say in addition to reading, just talking.”
Brower has already created a bulletin board within Cayuga Birthplace that highlights the positive effects of interacting and reading to babies in a loving and positive way. Recent parents have contributed to the board on heart-shaped sticky-notes with the loving words they want their own new babies to hear. Brower wants the words to spread.
“To just be able to think big and think how can we do our part for the beginning of life to get the message to parents,” Brower said. “So, then it gets picked up everyplace else in our community as a norm that that’s just what you do, you talk to children and you don’t have to talk baby-talk to them. And when you are talking to them when you’re trying to teach them you’re doing it in a loving way, rather than a negative way.”
Brower’s colleague at CMC, neonatologist Dr. Ramesh Vidavalur, is also on the Leadership Planning Circle. He said there are multiple ways that they are trying to get the information about the benefits of talking and interacting with a baby to new parents.
“Every baby, when they go home they get a packet of instructions to take care of them,” Vidavalur said. “We can develop a family-friendly information sheet, or something like that, that every parent gets. We can develop AV material. We have a hospital channel that every parent watches before they go home.”
Although the benefits of talking and interacting with a baby have been measured through school performance, Hubberman said the benefits go beyond good grades and test scores.
“This isn’t just about school readiness,” Hubberman said. “It’s about life readiness. And it’s about shaping a child’s very being. This is growing human beings.”
Too often, Hubberman said, brain development is only thought of in terms of intellectual development.
“But the social and emotional part of it are never separated out of the intellectual, the three are always coupled together,” she said. “So, brain development is always heart and mind. That’s what this book does so beautifully. It illustrates that words are so much more than vocabulary. This isn’t just about vocabulary, this is about everything.”
Vidavalur said studies show that interaction is also good for the health of very young babies.
“There have been a number of studies when they have skin-to-skin contact and the mothers speak to their babies, the variability of the heart rate and the breathing patterns is very minimal when they are with the mom, talking to them,” Vidavalur said. “Rather than when they are staying in the incubator, stuck to the alarms and the monitors.”
This upcoming community read, which will last for 14 weeks (two weeks for each chapter), is just the beginning. Another read is already being organized in Binghamton for later this year. The book will be supplied for free to event goers and community members. Local public libraries, Buffalo Street Books, Cornell Cooperative Extension, and Village at Ithaca will all be supplied with copies for community members to pick it up.
“This is about our future, and when we give babies words it helps them succeed in the world,” Hubberman said. “Including giving them the power to change it.”
Correction: an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the community read event will start at 6:30. Th event will actually start at 6 p.m. We apologize for any inconvenience.