Early literacy matters
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Choi Naya The author is a professor of child development and family studies at Seoul National University.
We’ve been living with Covid-19 for two years. Elementary first and second-graders could be more unfortunate than college freshmen and sophomores who have missed out on the early fun and excitement of campus life. Kids rarely went to school and could not mingle much with new friends on the playground. Virtual classrooms and learning were novel and frustrating for both the kids and their parents.
The basic academic performance of Korean kids seriously worsened over the last two years, largely owing to the pandemic. Teachers say the learning gap has widened from virtual schooling. Around 20 percent of the early graders struggle in reading, writing and comprehension. The so-called summer learning loss or summer setback in the United States, where student literacy skills decline over the summer vacation, has appeared with Korean kids. Classroom learning has that much of effect on reading, writing, and comprehension.
Literacy is a basic necessity for modern humanity. It not only affects academic achievement, as well as social and economic status, but also the drop-out rate, the crime rate and the cultural standards of a society. The future generations must have a solid foundation in literacy to ensure a balanced society.
The Matthew effect, summarized by the adage “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” often explains reading ability. Good readers in the early elementary period build faster literacy abilities and excel in academic performance. As poor readers shy away from reading, the gap with better students worsens as the school year progresses. A turning point often happens in second grade. If reading is underdeveloped by the age of 10, literacy capabilities and academic performance could lag.
Parental role becomes important to prevent slow starters. Parents should read books to children and play word games to help them build more interest in letters and vocabularies. Without sufficient home education, first-graders cannot keep up with school learning. Parents must check literacy levels of their children and read good books or newspapers to motivate their reading.
But homes cannot be solely responsible. The state is responsible for public literacy. There are many cases of famous people like George Bush, Bill Gates and Agatha Chrisitie who overcame their learning disorder called dyslexia, a brain-based type of learning disability that specifically impairs a person’s ability to read. But many kids who suffer in reading and writing grow up to struggle with their low literacy level throughout their life.
Under the Korean elementary curriculum, hangul education starts with first graders from 2017. The South Jeolla Provincial Education Office was the first to introduce the basic learning teacher program last year. The program was also adopted in the North Chungcheong, North Gyeognsang and Ulsan Metropolitan City education offices. But the program has been less effective due to a lack of professional teachers for slow learners and short-sighted programs. Individual teachers cannot be sufficient. The program should be reexamined, and more teachers should be trained through systematic programs.
In advanced countries, professionals with masters or doctoral degrees are responsible for teaching slow learners. Instead of wasting time and money by leaving each provincial offices to handle this responsibility, the government must initiate research to enhance literacy and designate an institution responsible for the task.
Children of low-income, double-earning and multi-racial families also are often lacking an environment to enrich literacy and experience. The state must understand the serious consequence of learning loss and underdevelopment in literacy in early elementary age and set aside a money to address to the problem. It must check the literacy level of early graders and intervene if government help is needed. Spending to enhance literacy will bring about multiplied economic effects. A best timing to prevent the loss in learning is during the early elementary stage.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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