Literacy is the foundation of every child’s success story, both in the classroom and in later life. That’s why Literacy is for Everyone (LIFE), Cayman’s education charity, is on a mission to write a happy ending for every child’s unique story with its life-changing work in early literacy education. Juliet Austin tells Cayman Parent more about the valuable work that LIFE is undertaking in the Cayman Islands.
Imagine a Cayman free from poverty, crime and discrimination, where every child has equal access to quality education, where every child feels empowered to achieve their dreams. If, as former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon, states, literacy is “a foundation for human rights, gender equality, and sustainable societies,” LIFE is leading the charge to harness its transformative power, starting at the very beginning.
From conception to age five, a child’s brain undergoes the most significant period of development ever to occur in the human lifespan. During this unparalleled growth, the developing brain shapes a child’s future, with literacy at its heart. Yet, according to UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics, despite a heartening upward trend in global literacy rates, there still remain 387 million children across the world who cannot read and lack access to books. Hence, the UN Sustainable Development Goal 4.6, for, “all youth and most adults to achieve literacy by 2030.”
Erica Dell'Oglio, the Executive Director of LIFE, works tirelessly to raise awareness of literacy’s power in overcoming social, cultural and economic barriers which hinder equality and agency on the global stage. As she reflects, “LIFE’s team is witness not only to the daily challenges faced by so many members of our society, but also to the countless parents, teachers and community partners committed to improving the lives of Cayman’s children. We know our efforts to increase literacy levels are making a difference and will continue to do all we can to ensure that there is equal access to quality education for all.”
Founded in 2012 by members of the Rotary Club of Grand Cayman Sunrise, LIFE delivers literacy programmes and resources for present and future generations in the Cayman Islands via advocacy, education and community outreach. As the International Reading Association states, “[Adolescents] need literacy to feed their imaginations, so they can create the world of the future.” (Moore, et al., 1999, p.3 as cited by Clark and Rumbold, 2006). Comments Chairman, Woody Foster, “As a business leader in Cayman, there is no doubt in my mind that communication is 21st-century currency. Adolescents entering the adult world today need to read and write more than at any other time in human history. LIFE is committed to doing its part in equipping students and teachers with skills and resources to compete and succeed in today’s fast-paced world.”
Documented by the UK’s National Literacy Trust, poor literacy skills hold individuals back at every stage of life: children struggle in school; young adults are locked out of the job market, often resulting in deprivation and marginalisation; parents cannot support their children’s learning; and, unable to read and understand information, forms or instructions, adults lack agency in areas like healthcare. These intergenerational cycles make social mobility and a fairer society an ever-distant dream. Just when the information age requires perpetually advancing levels of literacy from school leavers not only to perform jobs, but to run households, act as citizens and conduct their personal lives. Offering an antidote to inequity, LIFE is intent on turning dreams into reality.
Respected for its collaborative, multi-agency approach and finger-on-the-pulse responsiveness to events like the global pandemic and cost of living crisis, LIFE consistently positions itself as a change-maker within the Cayman community. Scientifically-based programmes target long-term, optimal impact tied to explicit, locally-identified needs and the latest neuroscientific, educational and economic research. Following recent data analysis released by the Office of Education Standards (OES Annual Report 2022), there is clearly work to be done. Yet, while 60% of Caymanian students attend schools judged to be not yet meeting expected levels of performance, there are pockets of hope like the intelligently designed John Gray High School campus where, celebrating the importance of books, the library sits at the heart of the school, announcing to all a proud culture of literacy.
LIFE in Action
Books matter. Research demonstrates this time and again. Fictitious worlds offer youngsters powerful coping tools for managing anxiety and promoting wellbeing. In fact, according to a University of Sussex (UK) study, reading for pleasure helped reduce stress,“…tension eased, and heart rates slowed down in subjects who read silently for as little as six minutes.” Reading was reported to be 300% better at reducing stress than going for a walk and 700% more effective than playing video games. Successfully narrowing the children’s book gap, LIFE’s Book Donations programme is the largest donor of books to Cayman’s public schools, contributing over 80,000 new and gently-used titles to local schools, community groups and families.
Simultaneously, LIFE’s signature Paired Reading programme provides one-on-one reading buddies for struggling readers for 30 minutes each week. Active in JGHS and government primary schools where, in the 2021-2022 academic year, only 42% of Year 6 students achieved expected reading levels, trained LIFE volunteers employ reading support strategies tied to the curriculum, with an emphasis on reading for pleasure. According to Dr. Alice Sullivan’s study from the University of London’s Institute of Education, children who read for pleasure made significantly more progress in vocabulary, spelling and Maths than children who rarely read. “Reading for pleasure was more important for children’s cognitive development between ages 10-16 than their parents’ level of education.”
Right From the Start
With time ticking to achieve UN Sustainable Development Goal 4.2, “By 2030…all girls and boys [will] have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education,” forward-thinking governments are placing early childhood development at the forefront of global and political agendas. With proven societal gains resulting from increased economic productivity and savings on remedial social spending on education, the criminal justice system and healthcare, economic studies underscore the lucrative return on investment of 7-13%. It’s a win-win: invest in the ‘preventative years’ or suffer the wrenching cost to children and societies of failing to do so. Enter LIFE and its groundbreaking campaign to offer a new way forward, by getting it right from the start.
So, just how do Cayman’s preschools stack up? With the lion’s share of the 36 registered early childhood centres under private, for-profit ownership, affordable provision in underserved districts remains scarce. Working collaboratively with the Ministry of Education’s ECCE Unit and the Department of Education Services to develop long-term solutions to the lack of quality early childhood provision, interim enrichment programme, Smart Start, offers roaming community care for young children and families. Says Lyneth Monteith, Acting Chief Officer at the Ministry of Education, “In the absence of early learning facilities in North Side and East End, the Ministry of Education aimed to develop a programme to enhance toddlers’ readiness for school and assist families in creating suitable home learning environments. We are pleased with the programme’s positive impact thus far and thank LIFE Cayman and others for supporting this important initiative, which provides early stimulation to some of our most vulnerable members of society.”
You Can’t Know What You Don’t Know
We know that parental efforts to support the learning and literacy environments at home are positively related to preschool children’s emergent literacy skills. (Sénéchal, 2006, Weigel et al., 2006) However, failing local statistics, the latest, most comprehensive UK study of its kind reveals concerning parental attitudes towards early childhood. Conducted in 2022 for the Princess of Wales’ Royal Foundation, the 500,000-person survey reported 36% of respondents showing little or no knowledge of how children develop in early childhood, with very few recognising the unique importance of the 0-5 period compared to other stages of life.
Consider that by three, a child’s brain can form three quadrillion neural connections; that 90% of the architecture of the brain develops before the age of five, before ever setting foot in formal schooling; and that pruning of the neurological pathways begins at just 12 months old, and the critical role of LIFE’s work becomes clear. When a child is exposed to a love of language, finds joy in nursery rhymes and lullabies, or comfort in shared bedtime stories, they are held at the centre of the adult gaze and the foundational bond with literacy is formed, written forever into the brain chemistry and creating a blueprint for later learning.
Reading Rockets states, “what children learn from listening and talking contributes to their ability to read and write and vice versa… Both phonological awareness and vocabulary development begin early with participation in rhyming games and chants, shared book experiences, and extended conversations with adults.”
Focusing long overdue attention on early childhood since 2021, LIFE promotes quality, language-rich adult-child interactions, recognising language as the foundation of thinking, self-regulation and the strong socio-emotional skills that underpin learning. Given Cayman’s colourful storytelling culture and the high interrelation of literacy and rich oral language, the organisation encourages parents and families to talk with their children – to share stories, songs, rhymes and childhood experiences. Comments Dell’Oglio, “By focusing time, expertise and resources on creating nurturing social, emotional learning experiences for the youngest members of our society, we stand to make a very real impact on positively shaping developing brains and setting future generations up for healthier, happier and more successful futures.”
Thrive By Five
Sponsored by Deloitte, LIFE’s evidence-based Thrive By Five programme offers hope to families of preschool children. Developed in partnership with Nicola Williams, President of the Cayman Islands Early Childhood Association, it supports eight preschools to ensure that fewer children enter the school system with delayed language abilities. Free vision and hearing screening for the programme’s three to five-year-olds, courtesy of Optical Outlook and Cayman Hearing Center, are literally changing lives by detecting and remedying physical barriers to learning from the outset. Deloitte Partner, Francois Lamontagne says, “Early literacy skills are essential for a child’s overall development and academic success. As parents, educators, and corporate citizens, it is vital to prioritise and support literacy skills by reading and engaging with our children from their earliest years. Deloitte is proud to partner with LIFE on this programme, which is so positively impacting the future of many children in Cayman.”
Promoting print-rich environments, Thrive By Five donates diverse curated classroom libraries with representation at the core so that children see themselves reflected in stories, characters and illustrations. According to publisher, Penguin Random House, the books of our formative years should reflect the societies in which we live: “Books create belonging. They help us see each other and understand one another.” Furthermore, established research indicates that high-quality childcare experiences featuring responsive, stimulating environments provide a protective mechanism for children from disadvantaged homes, resulting in higher scores on tests of language development and cognitive functioning compared with similar children without this kind of childcare experience. (Burchinal, Campbell, Bryant, Wasik & Ramey, 1997; McCartney, Dearing & Taylor, 2003.)
Ensuring highly capable, well-qualified practitioners is pivotal to the programme mandate. LIFE offers professional development for all staff to support best practice, with emphasis on emergent literacy and language in individual or small group engagements, and cognitively stimulating, naturalistic conversations around child-led topics. Practitioners develop a sound understanding of language modelling strategies, as well as learning to employ various methods to monitor literacy development and interpret assessments to inform sound instructional decisions. Training modules include Playing with Sound, Phonological Awareness, Print Rich Environments, Shared and Responsive Reading, Caregiving Routines, Making the Car Count, Please Tell Me More, Pointing Out Print, Reading Routines, as well as The Growing Brain™ Communication and Language Development delivered by certified trainers from The Wellness Centre. Director/Psychologist and early childhood advocate, Shannon Seymour states, “Partnering with LIFE’s Thrive By Five early childhood programme is important to me as this is something I am passionate about. Research shows clearly that high-quality nurturing early childhood care is critical to healthy brain development. Healthy brains learn better, they solve problems more easily, and they respond to the typical stressors of life more robustly. The best spent money in mental health prevention and education is spent between birth to five.”
Family engagement workshops invite parents to actively foster positive dispositions towards early literacy by supporting language, sounds, letters and print in authentic, developmentally appropriate ways at home, even before children learn to read. Children reared in families where parents provide rich oral language and literacy support do better in school, whereas children raised in language-poor families that tend to use fewer different words in everyday conversations do not. Exposure to more sophisticated vocabulary at home – words that go beyond the typical 8,500 most common words in the English language – relates directly to children’s vocabulary acquisition, placing parents at the heart of children’s success.
Embedded in all aspects of the LIFE programme is a foundational love of reading, learning and communication, supported evidentially by a 2011 National Literacy Trust survey revealing that “Young people who enjoy reading very much are nearly five times as likely to read above the expected level for their age compared with young people who do not enjoy reading.” As such, trained LIFE volunteers visit preschools weekly for animated read-alongs and to model best practice. If reading just one picture book a day with a child exposes them to approximately 78,000 words a year, bedtime stories just got a whole lot more important.
Working shoulder-to-shoulder with preschool practitioners and families, LIFE’s work is already paying dividends. “We may not have a fancy report,” admits Dell’Oglio, “but LIFE witnesses first-hand the hunger for learning every day. Parents show up to our sessions curious to know how to support their children’s development and practitioners are eager to know more and do better for the children in their care.” And, if the outcome of the latest inspection cycle at Thrive By Five’s pilot preschool, Precious Gems, is anything to go by, the future looks bright. Judged ‘Weak’ in its December 2019 inspection, the preschool’s recent March 2023 ‘Good’ rating shows palpable progress. Proud to boast a new library, Owner/Principal, Asha Singh largely credits LIFE, “Our partnership with LIFE through the Thrive By Five programme has made significant improvements in literacy in our preschool. The initiative has immensely impacted the attitude of all stakeholders to the extreme importance of the development of literacy during the foundational years.”
The Moral of the Story
Poet, author, literacy advocate and former Children’s Laureate (2007-2009), Michael Rosen sums it up perfectly. A vociferous advocate of creating a culture of reading for pleasure for young people, he calls on school leaders to prioritise the development of “the will to read, not just the skill… to weave reading for pleasure into every class across the curriculum and into the daily life of all students.” One thing is for sure: LIFE will be there, championing the cause right from the start.
What can you do?
2) Join LIFE’s mission by donating funds or new/gently-used children’s books.
3) Educate those in your circle – each one, reach one, teach one.
4) Spread the word! Follow LIFE across all social media platforms – like, comment and share.
5) Visit LIFE’s website at www.life.org.ky for full programme details.
6) Promote reading for pleasure wherever you go!