After Stephanie Wardlaw and Debbie Ingle, pre-kindergarten coordinator for Walker County Schools, recently read the children's book "Pete and P.J." to a group of 4-year-olds from North LaFayette Elementary, Ingle discussed the importance of reading and talking to pre-K children so they would be ready to read at the age of 6.

School officials want parents to understand the importance of early childhood reading and language is critical to a child's success, not just in school but in life.

Even though they cannot read by themselves, pre-K children need to know that words —spoken or written — have meaning. Early childhood reading is essential, Ingle said, and has a direct bearing on whether they graduate from high school.

If a children are not reading when they complete third grade , they are four times less likely to graduate from high school, Ingle said. Add poverty to an inability to read and a student is six times less likely to graduate, she said.

"LOL" is changing language

Preparing children to learn how to read is a goal of pre-K education and part of that preparation includes creating a "word rich" environment.

"A child needs to hear 21,000 words before the age of 6 in order to learn to read at 6 years of age," Ingle said. "Which is the appropriate age for most kids."

But the technological world we live in, with texting and social media, means adults are spending less time speaking to others, either adults or children.

"We are not talking to our children as much," she said.

Even in restaurants, family members will focus more on electronic devices and less on one another, which means children hear fewer words and do not learn how to interact and make eye contact with others.

That is one reason pre-K children are encouraged to talk all day long in classrooms, Ingle said.

"It's a loud environment on purpose," she said. It's a learning environment where there is a lot of talking going on."

When asked how language is being affected by texts and social media — with the use of acronyms like "LOL" — Ingle said language changes throughout history.

"Our culture is redefining what is going to be acceptable for the upcoming generation," she said. "There are those of us who are hard-line grammarians and we want to see our language preserved and see it as a sense of professionalism to write in a certain way.

"And then we have a group of kids who are living in a world where 'LOL' is a word.

"A lot of our pre-K parents are young. Their children are young, so they're young families just starting out. They may not understand the importance of literacy,"

Ingle said this makes it tough for educators to show the students why formal language is so important.

Community involvement and reading

As part of LaFayette's Heritage Day, Ingle discussed with parents the importance of talking, reading and spending "face time" with children.

"This is not a hard thing for any parent to do, regardless of their education level," she said. "Any parent can talk to their child. And by doing so, increase their likelihood for school success and high school graduation."

Ingle said it is important for parents to be intentional and not just place a young child in front of the television.

"Play leads to talking," she said. "Play with your child. You will figure out what to talk about."

And reading can be a time of play too, Ingle said. Parents should pour their heart and soul into a story and do fun voices to engage the child, take them to a library, register for Imagination Library books and just let their children play.

"Words have meaning," she said. "Get them around books."

Josh O'Bryant is a general assignment reporter and covers the Walker-Catoosa County area. He can be reached at the Walker County Messenger office at 706-638-1859 and by email at jobryant@npco.com.