Parents, teachers, and caregivers are the key to preparing kids to read. That's because learning how to read isn't like learning how to talk or learning how to walk. Reading expert Phyllis Hunter puts it this way:
"One of the myths that gets in the way is the misconception that reading just happens. That it's much like learning to talk. It isn't. You could surround children with books on a desert island and unless somebody read to them, they would not pick up those books and just read them. Reading must be taught."
Reading doesn't just happen
What is astonishing is how soon parents, teachers, and caregivers can teach early literacy skills. Even nine-month-old babies are able to tell which sounds are from their native language and which are not.
Simple things make a big difference – like having books and newspapers and other "print" around
the house, letting children see you reading, pointing to words and letters in the car or on a walk, and holding a child
close and reading to him or her each night before bed. Time spent with a book shows a child that reading is a skill worth learning. In fact, "lap time" is
much more than a chance to cuddle.
What parents and caregivers choose to do definitely has an impact. Says Gail Fischbach, a teacher at the Thomas Johnson School in Baltimore, "I know which kids are doing reading every night and which aren't. It's that evident."
Strategies that work
The first program in the Reading Rockets: Launching Young Readers television series, "The Roots of Reading,"
visits parents, teachers, and researchers who are using strategies that work. "The Roots of Reading" lays the
groundwork for helping kids in the earliest stages of learning to read.
- Dr. Debra Jervay-Pendergrass has identified cues that parents and caregivers can watch for in order to respond to a toddler's first efforts to communicate. Her work shows that tuning in to a child's attempts to connect with language helps increase conversation, boost vocabulary, and propel toddlers toward literacy.
- The dialogic reading technique of Dr. Russ Whitehurst is easy to learn. It encourages adults to
stop often and ask kids lots of questions about what they're seeing and reading. For parents and caregivers who are used to
reading a book straight through, dialogic reading may come as a surprise. "It has a lot of payoff," says Dr. Barbara Foorman of the University of Texas. "It's been shown to benefit children's listening comprehension and their vocabulary development."
- Some strategies for helping kids learn to read happen at school. The Thomas Johnson School
serves a low-income area where kids' literacy rates are improving. Four years ago, 37 percent of the students were reading at or
above grade level. Today it is 71 percent. "That doesn't come by accident or coincidence," says the school's principal, Thomas Bowmann, who instituted a school-wide reading effort. "It has to be a strategic plan to get there."
- The Georgetown Even Start program aims to break the cycle of low literacy and educational failure
for children of parents who are homeless or in temporary housing in Washington, DC. Parents receive free meals as an
incentive to attend literacy training sessions that take place in the same building where their kids are in daycare.
Says instructor Regina Thomas, "To see these parents who never read books, who never engaged their children, get up and get everyone involved in reading – these same parents who were withdrawn, parents who thought they didn't have skills at all — it was just magnificent."
What you can do
Talk to your children. Read to your children. And listen to them read and talk to you. For
practical strategies you can use today, see our Parent Tips. Or send a fun and
encouraging e-card to a special reader in your life.