A FEW MONTHS ago, I interviewed 8-year-old Caitlin Smith, a Catonsville Elementary School second-grader who had - amazingly - read 1,000 books. A few days after my column appeared, Caitlin's mother, Carol Walter, volunteered one secret of her daughter's voracious literary accomplishment.
"I have to admit," Walter said, "that I read to her in the bathtub even before she was born."
There's no way to prove, of course, that prepartum reading is linked to postpartum literary interest, but Walter added quickly that she continued to read to - and eventually with - Caitlin virtually every day of her young life.
A growing body of research shows that literary activities in the home, particularly reading to children before they begin formal schooling, is crucial to later success. Reading to kids helps them become good readers as it develops their background knowledge, builds their vocabulary, helps them understand what stories are about and identifies reading as pleasurable.
This last advantage is the ice cream on the strawberries. Casting reading as entertainment is something any parent can do in any setting - and usually for free. Moreover, it's been endorsed by research conducted in Baltimore.
Researchers in the psychology department of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County set out nearly a decade ago to study the home and school literary cultures of dozens of Baltimore City families. The Early Childhood Project followed as many as 90 families, black and white, poor and middle-class, for five years, spawning nearly 20 UMBC master's and doctoral theses.
Among the project's findings: Middle-income families, regardless of race, more often than low-income families identify literacy as a source of entertainment. Poor families - and there are always exceptions - tend to see literacy as a set of skills to be learned. And when middle-class children are first formally tested in the early elementary grades, they do better in reading.
It's not that the two income groups disagree about the importance of reading. Indeed, says UMBC Professor Robert Serpell, "Parents, even those with little formal education themselves, have a systematic set of beliefs about reading. They talk in reliable, consistent ways. They care about their children, and they understand the importance of literacy."
Nor do low-income parents insist that their kids spend hours on dull drills. Indeed, says Serpell, drills can be fun, too. But middle-income parents tend to be more relaxed, knowing that the skills will come through play. Reading is not only fundamental; it's fun.
At work here is what the UMBC psychologists call "appropriation." Children gradually appropriate language, explains Professor Linda Baker. "They assume ownership. Reading becomes their own thing rather than someone else's, like the teacher's."(Serpell saidthat when members of a group decide that schooling is owned by someone else - as some African-Americans feel that schooling is owned by whites - the result is that they reject education because they believe they can succeed only by "acting white," said Serpell. "It's incredibly destructive.")
Adds Serpell: "Children and adults who genuinely enjoy reading and playing with language manifest their ownership precisely through their lack of self-consciousness. The very act of focusing attention on the mechanisms of such intuitive understanding is liable to undermine it."
Sixteen years ago, a formative national report, "Becoming a Nation of Readers," identified reading aloud to children as the "most important activity" for building eventual literary success in young children. Jim Trelease, author of "The Read-Aloud Handbook," recommends doing it from infancy: "Every time we read to a child," he writes, "we're sending a `pleasure' message to the child's brain ... conditioning the child to associate books and print with pleasure."
Parents can encourage early literacy development in many other ways, says Baker: talking to children, engaging in imaginative play, looking at cereal boxes over breakfast, talking about words and their meanings, playing with nursery rhymes, reading signs at the zoo.
Many kindergartens have "literacy corners" where children go alone or in small groups to engage in play that's designed to promote reading development. The UMBC researchers say such corners can be set up at home, too.
Serpell, for one, says there's little use in the early "force-feeding" of reading. "We should ... [regard] literature as a part of the texture of everyday life."
Even in the bathtub.