Spell it out

Published 6:09 pm Monday, March 27, 2017

According to early childhood education specialists, young children need to hear 20,000 words a day in order to be up to speed when they start kindergarten.

In elementary schools, the emphasis is on third-grade reading levels — getting all third graders up to the grade level where they should be reading.

By eighth grade, however, the percentage of students who are reading at their grade level has dropped. By graduation from high school, that number has dropped still more in a gradual journey toward the percentage of adults who are functionally illiterate in Beaufort County, a number that hovers somewhere around 24 percent.

Where literacy comes from and why it diminishes can’t be summarily explained. There are many contributing factors, but hearing many words before one can even read, then establishing a love of the written word once one can read weigh heavily.

For example, the Washington Daily News hosted the Downeast Regional Spelling Bee at the Turnage Theatre, in partnership with PotashCorp-Aurora. For 25 years, winners of spelling bees at schools across eastern North Carolina have come to Washington to compete for a chance to go to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C.

Watching these children step up to the microphone and hear a word and proceed to spell it in their heads before spelling out loud for the assembled crowd of parents, grandparents, siblings and more, is an interesting experience. One starts to see a pattern developing between the hearing of a word and the spelling of it. Each of the spellers who made it through the first several rounds had something in common. As the words became more challenging, there would be a pause, then a moment of recognition, as if that speller not only understood the word, but could actually see it written on a page.

It became apparent that each of those spellers, ranging in age from 8 years old to 14, many spelling words high above their grade levels, is a reader.

In this era, children, following the example of adults, reach for their smartphones for entertainment or watch a video on demand, instead of picking up a book. It’s the job of adults — parents, grandparents, siblings, peers — to not only set a better example, but to encourage a love of the written word so no child gets left behind.