Early Literacy Matters at 2014 Essence Fest

At the 2014 “Family Day” at the 20th annual Essence Festival, ESSENCE and Too Small to Fail announced a new partnership to improve the lives of African-American children, from birth to age five. The initiative seeks to close the “word gap.”


Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence Communications, Inc..  Vanessa K. Bush, Editor-in-Chief, and Dr. Christy  Valentine
Michelle Ebanks, president of Essence Communications, Inc.. Vanessa K. Bush, Editor-in-Chief, and Dr. Christy Valentine

Why does the “word gap” matter?

Children living in poverty hear less than a third of the words heard by children from higher-income families. Imagine the long-term impact of this gap on our youngest generation.

My 21-month-old daughter and I attend story time at our local library branch every Monday. I can always count the African-American participants on one hand. Some of my friends think I’m overly concerned about my daughter’s development. They remind me, “She’s just a baby. She has time to learn.”


However, research shows that the more words children hear directed at them by parents and caregivers, the more they learn. By age four, children from low-income households hear 30 million fewer words than their higher-income peers, and, as a result, have more than double the vocabulary as those children who have heard fewer words. At the June 2014 Clinton Global Initiative, The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) announced new guidelines for pediatricians to promote early literacy—beginning from an infant’s very first days—as an “essential” component of primary care visits.

Literacy impacts wellness.

Dr. Christy Valentine is helping to close the “word gap.” I was honored to interview her at Essence Festival’s Family Day at Woldenberg Park. Dr. Valentine is a New Orleans native, Xavier University alum and a member of the Artemis Medical Society. AMR’s mission is to nurture and mentor women of color in the medical profession. Here’s an excerpt of our interview at the park:


175Why is the medical field concerned with literacy?

As a pediatrician and internal medical physician, I talk to parents everyday about the importance of reading to their children. I urge them to make time to turn off the television, get the family to together and introduce new words to their children because it gives them a true head start.

What are some of the challenges you see with getting parents to read to their children?
Well some parents have their own literacy challenges and it gets passed down to the next generation. We need everyone to be educated on what’s best for children. Reading is cool. It’s fun to do. The more opportunities a child has to read, the more he or she may want to read and will ultimately thrive. It’s our job as physicians to constantly make sure the families we serve know about resources available. Artemis Society and the Clinton Foundation are valuable resources.

As a physician, what is one thing you would like to emphasize to communities of color?
It’s important to have a primary care physician. You need a person you can go to so that you are not waiting in the emergency room for things that we (primary physicians) can help you with. Often times, we can help families stay connected faster and easier to excellent health.

Last question. Dr. Valentine, what’s your favorite children’s book?
Judy Moody and the Not So Bummer Summer


Dr. Valentine, Doc McStuffins and a doctor-to-be are all smiles at the 2014 Essence Festival.


Four Ways You to Narrow the “Word Gap” in your Child’s Life:
1) Take simple actions during your child’s first five years of life — like talking, reading and singing — to foster language and early brain development.

2) Go to your local library. Get a library card. Check out books and attend programs.

3) Create a “No TV Zone.” Turn off your TV and appoint a family member or friend to read a book aloud and discuss it as a group.

4) Look for more information from Essence.com


Dr. Valentine and  Founder of BrassyBrown.com, Kelly Harris
Dr. Valentine and Founder of BrassyBrown.com, Kelly Harris
Kelly Harris is the founder and editor of BrassyBrown.com and is passionate about literacy. She serves on the board of STAIRNOLA.org and is a storyteller for Prime Time Family Reading Time.