“Talking is Teaching: Talk, Read, Sing” is a campaign with support in Bethlehem, that empowers parents to talk, read and sing to their babies with creative messages so children from all socioeconomic backgrounds read at grade-level.
According to United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley, students who do not read at grade-level by the end of third grade are 13 times more likely to drop out of high school. In many cases, these students come from low-income backgrounds, said Akshara Vivekananthan, the assistant director of Early Childhood and Summer Learning — a department of United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley.
“By just parents starting to talk, read and sing — something really simple that they can do with their two-month old or within a month they are born — it starts to build their brain development, which then helps to build a stronger foundation for becoming school-ready later on in life,” said Celeste Hayes, the school readiness coordinator of United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley.
In an effort to solve this problem, the campaign focuses on early childhood education by distributing baby blankets, posters, handouts, tote bags and toddler-sized t-shirts with simple and artistic messages, such as “Let’s talk about color.” These are designed to help spark conversations between parents and their children.
The materials are given to the trusted “messengers,” which Vivekananthan describes as spaces that families frequent and trust the most. These “messengers” include local barber shops, bodegas and faith-based institutions.
In order to reach a wider audience, the campaign relies on volunteers who can deliver the materials around the community.
“Without voluntarism, this public awareness campaign would not be possible,” Vivekananthan said. “They are the ones who are really establishing relationships with our trusted messengers out in our communities and connecting them with this message and advocating for it as well.”
Ashley Sciora, the assistant director of the Center for Community Engagement, is the Lehigh representative for the management committee of the campaign. Her role is to organize student volunteers to help distribute posters and handouts to the trusted messengers in Southside Bethlehem.
“When it comes to early childhood, people don’t really know that a lot of that language and literacy piece can start right when you’re born and can actually put kids behind if they are not necessarily learning things with developmental milestones that early in their lives,” Sciora said. “So I think there is a lot of valuable outreach that we are trying to do in order to make that a larger message for folks.”
As of now, the campaign has 22 volunteers and 85 trusted messenger spaces. Hayes and Vivekananthan hope these numbers will increase and impact more families in the Lehigh Valley and beyond.
“Too Small to Fail,” an initiative of the Clinton Foundation, began the campaign nationally in 2013. Localized in June 2019 by United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley, “Talking is Teaching: Talk, Read, Sing” has outreach efforts in central Allentown, South Side Bethlehem and the West Ward of Easton.
“The purpose of it is to be a really positive, fun campaign,” Vivekananthan said. “We’re encouraging parents, caregivers, families and all to really recognize that they are their children’s first teacher right off the bat, beginning as soon as the child is born.”
By connecting families to the message of talking, reading and singing to their babies, the campaign aims to expose children to as many words as possible beginning at birth. In doing so, the plan is to ensure that children are not lagging behind their peers in critical language and reading skills in school.
“Our goal is that by the end of 2025, 100 percent of third graders are reading on grade-level,” Vivekananthan said. “We hope that with the conversation around early childhood education, we’ll collectively impact that goal when the end of 2025 comes around.”