Reading Rockets: Launching Young Readers
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Reading Rockets: Launching Young Readers

Russ Whitehurst

Dr. Grover (Russ) Whitehurst is Assistant Secretary for Research and Improvement at the US Department of Education.

Reading Rockets: Launching Young Readers
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An Interview With Russ Whitehurst

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Preparing children to read...
The desirable conditions for preparing children to learn to read start early in life. Book sharing during infancy would be an excellent place to start long before a child can understand what a book is, or understand the words or story in a book. A child can learn that a book, an object, is an opportunity for pleasurable interaction with parents. And parents in turn can learn that sharing a book with an infant is a source of pleasure, a source of opportunities to enjoy the infant and see the infant learn. And this can happen in the first twelve months of life. So that's a place to start.

As children get older, as children become two years of age, as they start to have an expressive vocabulary, as they start to say words that are understandable and put them together in sentences, there are many opportunities for parents to interact verbally with their children. Driving along in a car one could have a conversation with a child, and use that as an opportunity to teach a child new language and engage the child in the processes that are going on around the car. Where you are going, signs and restaurants that you pass, and what goes on there.
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When to start dialogic reading...
Around 24 months of age, around two years of age, would be a perfect time to introduce dialogic reading. This is an opportunity for a parent and child to sit together with a book, for the parent to initially read the book to the child. But in repeated readings of the book, place more and more emphasis on the child telling about the pictures in the book. A parent might ask a child, "Tell me what's going on on this page," or "Tell me what this is." "What do you think will happen next?" and other simple questions that can prompt the child to start telling the story himself or herself...

These sorts of interaction techniques around books and in conversations in general can encourage children to develop a more extensive vocabulary and that, then, can lead into more advanced interaction techniques as children arrive at the pre-K period.
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Talking about a book...
When you ask a child to talk about a book, it provides many opportunities for new learning. It provides, first, for children to focus on information that's on the page of a book, whether in pictures or in the story itself, that the child might not have focused on had the child simply been listening to the adult. If you ask a child, "Tell me what's going on here," the child has to attend to the book, pay attention. In a way, it's quite different than if the parent is saying what's going on on a particular page, or simply reading the words on the page of a book.

Also, because the parent is now in the role of the listener, the parent has the opportunity to detect what the child knows, what the child is able to talk about, and to add useful information that the child can then add to his own abilities, to his own knowledge, to his own vocabulary, and the child can use that information the next time the parent and the child share a book.
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Pretend reading...
Pretend reading is a wonderful sign. It indicates first that the child's quite interested in books and quite interested in what they can be used for. And the pretend reading of a book is very close to what we see as an outcome of extended dialogic reading interactions around the book. So a child can sit down with the book and tell the story of the book in a way that seems almost as if the child is reading the book if you don't know the child is unable to do that. So, I would view a pretend reading child as a wonderful sign of that child's interest in book reading and the child's understanding of what a particular book conveys.
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Parents and vocabulary development...
Low vocabulary development in children often results from a lack of opportunity to have rich linguistic interactions with parents at home. That can be because parents don't devote sufficient time to interacting verbally with their children. It can be because they devote the time, but their own vocabularies and education attainment are not at a level that really provides a lot of stimulation for their children.
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Helping children from low-income backgrounds...
The issue of enhancing opportunities for language learning for children from low-income backgrounds is extremely important. There are a number of ways to do it. In the home we can encourage parents to engage in more verbal interactions and make those verbal interactions richer. Shared book reading is one available mechanism for doing that. In Head Start programs and other organized settings that serve children from low-income backgrounds, we can have the staff, the teachers, the aides, engage in more verbal interactions with children. Again, shared book reading would be one opportunity to do that.
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