It's Bigger Than the Book: Building Strong Readers with a Daily Dose of Read Aloud
an interview with Cathy Puett Miller
The Literacy Ambassador®
The Literacy Ambassador®
This morning we welcome Cathy Puett Miller to Share a Story - Shape a Future event. Cathy is The Literacy Ambassador®. She conducts training workshops for parents and educators; writes the monthly "Reading Coach" column for Education World and is a regular contributor to online and print publications, including peer-reviewed educational journals such as the Georgia Journal of Reading. Cathy has received awards for her Reading is for Everyone tutorial model, and won the 2003 National Silver Award for investigative educational reporting from Parenting Publications of America. Currently, she is the president of TLA, Inc., an educational consulting firm focusing on literacy PreK-12 - with both educators & families. Cathy holds a library science degree from Florida State University. Cathy believes there is a book and a story for every child. She currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Reading Tub.
RT: First, let me say thank you for joining us for our Share a Story – Shape a Future event. I appreciate you taking the time to talk with us today about reading aloud with kids. I guess we should start with a basic question: why is reading aloud important?
Cathy: I believe so passionately in the power of literacy in the lives of families and individuals. There are so many answers to that question. A major national research project in 1983 confirmed what many of us had already believed: reading aloud to children is the activity that sets the foundation for their abilities as readers. I have always found it interesting that it wasn’t worksheets, flash cards, or even interaction with a teacher that counted most. It was reading aloud with a child.
Reading aloud can teach more key skills simultaneously than almost any single classroom activity. They range from growing listening skills and comprehension to building strong vocabularies. As we have become more focused in this country on leveled reading in the classroom, exposure to higher levels of text through read-alouds (with more complex sentence structure and vocabulary) is even more important.
Finally, there is a secondary by-product of reading aloud with children. The experience impacts motivation to read, and just as importantly, builds relationships as the reader and the listener interact with the story and each other. It is bigger than the book.
RT: What really IS the right amount of time to spend reading with your child? It used to be that 15 minutes was a universal marker. Now, the public service announcements on PBS recommend 20 minutes, and I’ve also seen “at least 30 minutes.”
Cathy: Well, there are really two answers to that question. The first one comes from my years of experience interacting with families, teachers, and children. You cannot strictly formulate the layering effect of multiple experiences with text. Having said that, I believe Mem Fox is on target when she says that if young children would hear at least three stories read to them every day we would wipe out illiteracy in a generation and a half. Most picture books only take two to five minutes; roughly 15 minutes for three books.
For independent readers (third through fifth grade), the guidelines recommend more time. Full-text books take more to time. I follow the advice Lauren Resnick and Sally Hampton offer in their book, Reading and Writing Grade by Grade (Revised Edition). They suggest that independent readers should read 30 chapter books a year and listen to and discuss at least one chapter read aloud each day. For middle school and high school, we really need to focus on giving young people time to read, giving them choice and materials that are meaningful to them.
RT: Fifteen minutes seems like such a small amount of time. Can I really make a difference in my child’s reading development in that short time span?
Cathy: The secret is the layering effect. Look at the benefits of regular exercise. It doesn’t really help unless it is consistent, but experts tell us that as little as ten minutes at a time is beneficial. In the gym, we are working physical muscles; in the case of reading, we are working mental “muscle.” Within that context, read alouds can develop:
|• Richer vocabulary|
• A strong concept of story and print
• Proper grammar and syntax
• Prediction and sequencing skills
• Background knowledge and schemata
• Comprehension and listening skills
• Increased attention span
• Increased ability to summarize, and identify main ideas
• Excitement about learning and reading
|• Reinforcement of letter sounds and blending (how our language works)|
• Understanding of a variety of genres and rich literature, even those beyond the reading (but within the comprehension) abilities of students
• An understanding of the importance and role of fluency (sounding like we are talking when we read)
RT: What is the difference between “pre-literacy” and learning the alphabet?
Cathy: These days the term used is emergent literacy. I like that because it helps us understand the spectrum of development. Think of the process of a chick coming out of an egg – it takes time.
Forty years ago, we didn’t even begin to address all the incredible brain development that goes on in the first five years of life. Now we know that preparing to be a literate individual begins at birth. Simply engaging your child with talking sets a foundation, and children as young as three can begin to grasp concepts such as rhyming. Many children raised in a rich literacy environment become interested in reading before they go to kindergarten. If the child is taking the initiative to pick up a book, she or he can actually learn to read early. But if a parent or teacher is pushing and the child isn’t showing signs of readiness, then pushing a child to read to early can have detrimental, negative effects.
Regardless of when a young child learns to read, all the emergent literacy experiences grow skills that make it possible for children to learn to read through phonics, which is almost exclusively the way our children are taught to read.
Learning the alphabet is just a sliver of the pie. It is one of the predictors of reading success simply because learning to read requires us to understand the “code.” To get to the next step, we need to know how our language is put together in print and how those squiggles on the page represent sounds in our language.
RT: Can you tell us more about reading readiness? If a child walks over and picks up a book or a magazine, does that mean they are ready to start learning to read?
Cathy: That means they are showing an interest and parents should feed that. It doesn’t alone show a readiness for the complex activity of reading. Positive experiences with reading and books contributes incredibly – no pressure or forcing (e.g., word drills) – to a child reaching the point of readiness.
Reading readiness is not the same specific point in time for each child. As I mentioned before, getting ready to read is a multi-year process. Each child’s reading readiness is determined by the maturation of the child’s visual, cognitive, emotional, and small motor abilities. Here are some indicators you will see in a child who is ready to learn to read: reading readiness.
If you see these in your child, try to do more pointing to words, talking about words (how they sound, how they are shaped, which letters are in them). If your try and your child balks, he may not quite be ready. Keep giving him positive experiences and try the next time he gives you a prompt.
The other factors, of course, are motivation and perhaps the presences of a learning disability. Don’t be afraid of possible learning speed bumps. Catching problems early and getting early intervention (speech, hearing, etc.) can make the problem a non-issue by the time your child goes to school.
If parents surround their child with a rich literacy environment – having books to explore, as well as hearing lots of read alouds, having daily rich conversation, modeling reading as “a good thing,” then most children will be ready to read.
RT: Does reading aloud mean that you need to find books to read every day?
Cathy: Every day that you possibly can, you need to spend time with printed material. It can be a book, it might be a magazine or the newspaper. If you look at reading in snippets, there’s always time for one story. If you simply cannot squeeze it in, try telling a story while you are driving or walking. What I find most beneficial to children is not only to read books every day, as much as you can, but also to integrate reading and writing into everyday life.
RT: Are there other ways of reading aloud?
Cathy: Just by reading this blog, you are using reading as a tool to gain information. Print is everywhere in our text-dense society. Letting your child see you using reading as a tool for life helps your child tap into the world they will live in. It doesn’t take much extra time to explain how you do that in a natural, conversational way. That’s true for teachers, too. If you create an environment without walls where reading and writing (and learning in general), the child will become a strong reader.
You can also play games with the sounds of letters and words (singing rhyming songs, hunting for alphabet letters in print inside and outside your home, and even hunting for things that start with certain letter sounds like /b/ or /s/). Again, the main emphasis is that you show children that reading and writing are part of everyday life. If they learn that message from you, they will be readers and writers in and out of the classroom.
Even with purposeful planning, there are days when parents and teachers just simply don’t have any way to squeeze in reading time in a conventional sit-down, shared experience. So don’t limit yourself to just books. There are always a lot of other opportunities to use literacy as a tool for life. Read signs or billboards while running errands; read recipes together while cooking dinner; and read labels at the grocery story. Every day, have at least one “eyeball to eyeball” back and forth conversation – where everyone is paying full attention and communicating. For teachers, the school is full of text. Use it!
RT: It seems we use the words literacy and reading interchangeably. Are they really synonymous?
Cathy: The elements of literacy as defined today include not only reading but writing, listening, communicating and viewing – they all work together.
RT: How do we explain the difference between literacy and reading to the Moms and Dads in a way that doesn’t sound like we’re talking AT them?
Cathy: As simply as I just explained it. Start with asking what they think – begin a dialogue. Find out how families interact with text and language. The question is simple:
what does reading, writing, listening, and communicating look like
in my _________ [insert: home or classroom]?
Listen first. The “it” missing in the home environment of disadvantaged communities varies: some may not have books; others may not be able to read English; and some may not use formal grammar. But we must acknowledge the literacy that they do have. They do listen, communicate, and watch. If we recognize and honor the home literacy and look for ways to build bridges for their children to academic literacy, we will make friends for reading, writing, listening, communicating, and viewing.
RT: Do you have suggestions on ways that we can engage –and participate in – our communities that don’t sound like preaching or look like crusades?
Cathy: First of all, we lecture too much. As Jim Trelease says, “forcing is rarely effective.”
Following up on my comment about environments where home and school literacy don’t match, we must focus on what is common between us: a care for the child. Most families really do want their child to have a better life than they have had). A tip for teachers here: please don’t start with “you should do this…” Because we say it so often, “You should read with your child...” sounds almost as hollow as “how are you?” when we greet someone in passing. Families may not know what “read with your child” means or how to do it. Instructions coming from an educator, even with the nicest voice, can sound intimidating. Sometimes those of us who believe in reading and literacy forget to look beyond our own passions. We can’t be surprised that some people will hesitate to take our advice.
We must tap into the motivations and aspirations of children and families and tie literacy to those goals. We must start where they are, not where we want them to be eventually. Reading and writing, listening, communicating, and viewing are tools for life. We start with listening and continue by communicating. It will all come together, but we need to start by identifying the assets and strengths we have and build from there.
In closing, I’ll tell you a little story about how powerful this is. Years ago in Georgia, I was part of a volunteer tutoring effort at an elementary school. I was working with Miguel, a bright, inquisitive, and well-mannered child who was in danger of failing first grade. His mother could only say “hello” in English. His teacher and I were determined to connect to his home literacy and help enrich it. Our first intervention took place during a brief parent-teacher meeting. It included the two of us and a translator whom the mother knew. Before the meeting, we came together as a team and put together recommendations on ways Miquel’s mother could help him. We focused on two things: looking at wordless books together and creating an oral story together about what was happening in the book. This helped develop “book awareness,” and did not require her to understand the print.
When we held the meeting, we began with positives, describing all of the good things we’d noticed about Miguel. That put her at ease. Then we showed her how she could help Miguel.
“Look at the shape of this letter. Never mind what its name is. Can you tell that this letter is the same shape as this one?” She answered “si” in Spanish.
“When Miguel brings home his spelling words to practice, after he has written them as required, compare the shapes. If you see that he has perfectly copied the shapes of the letters, give him a big hug and praise him. If one or more aren’t the same shape as the letters on the list, point it out to him and he will correct it.” She agreed to try.
It was a simple start, but Miguel finally had someone at home who was working “academically” with him. As part of the tutoring program, he received bi-lingual books. In the beginning these were simple picture books with a Spanish and English word below. He had never owned a book, and the books became very important to him. He and his mother started spending time with books and before you know it, she had learned a few English words and wanted to learn more. Miguel became more confident and competent in his school work. He had a growing library on top of his refrigerator, away from his pencil-happy three-year-old brother. This family now had a path. Literacy became a tool in the life of this little boy and his family was contributing.
We just have to care enough to look beyond the obvious and connect with families where they are. And that applies not only for disadvantaged families but for families of all types. Sometimes parents who read regularly with their child look at it more academically. Reading together doesn’t always have to be about memorizing words. This forced approach can be just as detrimental as not reading to them at all. Reading is a powerful, liberating doorway to success. Educators, librarians, and community advocates want so much to help kids and their families open that door. They serve as both powerful resources and motivators.
Thanks so much for letting me be a part of this event. I look forward to seeing the responses.
Visit Reading is for Everyone for more ideas and programs designed to get kids excited about reading. Cathy is offering her read aloud booklists for free as part of this event. Click the links below to Email Cathy for the list that fits your audience.
Request a free K to 2 booklist
Request a free booklist for readers in grades 3 to 5
Request a free booklist for Middle School readers
You can also Education World to take advantage of her free monthly column.
image/photo credits: Elizabeth Dulemba, Cathy Miller; Getty Images (Royalty Free) ZZVE Illustrations 78001980 , Digital Visions #dv1302076, Jamie Grill - 77817715