Every parent wants their child to excel in school, and a big part of succeeding is learning to read well. Some parents try to teach their children to read when they’re toddlers, but is that too early? When should children be taught to read and how? Our two guests, one a professor specializing in early childhood, the other an author of children’s books, share their opinions on the subject.

Host: Gary Price. Guests: Margaret Owen, Director of Children and Families at the University of Texas at Dallas. She’s also the Robinson Family Professor of Psychological Sciences, and head of the program in Human Development and Early Childhood Disorders. Mark Gonyea, children’s writer and author of Monkey Suit.

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Preparing Kids to Learn to Read

Gary Price: If there’s one subject in school that is really the basis for all of the others it has to be reading. Parents often worry that their child will have difficulty reading when he or she gets to pre-school or kindergarten. There are ways, however, that moms and dads can help prepare a child for the formalized education that’s to come. Communication – in all of its forms – is the key according to Margaret Owen, Director of Children and Families at the University of Texas at Dallas. She’s also the Robinson Family Professor of Psychological Sciences, and head of the program in Human Development and Early Childhood Disorders…

Margaret Owen: What I focus on more is what prepares children to learn to read, but starting before they even have their first words. So, when you talk about a program that teaches them to read, I’m hoping that such a program is focused on helping them to communicate and learn how to use language because the strongest predicator of how well they read in third grade is actually their vocabulary when they’re three.

Price: Children who come from poorer families where the parents have little formal education often have the most difficult time learning to read. Owen says that there was a big push in education to have these kids hear more words, thinking that the sheer volume of vocabulary would help them become better readers. Educators found, though, that it’s not just the quantity of words but the quality of the communication that counts…

Owen: We think, from research that’s been going on for a number of years and some of the latest research that it’s not just a matter of number of words. It’s not about filling the gap by pouring in more words. There’s something about the ways in which children and their parents learn to communicate together, and that starts before there are any words. But certainly words are coming from parents but you’re using symbols and gestures and a shared focus of attention and talking about what the child’s looking at, is interested in that you can elaborate upon. Then more words are coming.

Price: Owen says that focusing attention on children when you’re communicating with them helps them figure out that conversation isn’t just about hearing someone speak, but also a social interaction between two people…

Owen: I think that this terminology came out of a Harvard Center for the Developing Child, and I think it’s very clever. We’ve started talking about “serve and return.” And serve, from the baby, could be turning a head to look at the dog across the room. And a return is perhaps asking, “Oh, do you want Fido to come closer? Should we go over there and see what our friend is doing?” That’s a serve and return. And it’s serve and return, and return, and back and forth and back and forth. That’s about communication. And so the child is learning about communication and in the course of that is hearing words, and words get simplified, explanations are simplified, same things get talked about in the same kinds of routines that provides a context for learning those words. We’re still talking about the seeds of reading.

Price: When you talk to a very young child, should you use what’s been called “baby talk”? Or should you converse the same way you would with an adolescent or an adult?

Owen: There is actually something to be said for baby talk. We’re calling it now parenteze. It had been called mothereze, and we’re being a little bit more inclusive now. But it is a simplified, slower, little bit higher pitch way that we all have of talking to a baby. “Oh, I see what we’re doing, what you want now. Let’s try this.” You hear the tone of my voice, how it changes a little bit? But if you just use the same, intellectualized or wordy, too wordy sentence without that engagement, that catch, the words can just wash over and not be taken in. There is some need to do some simplifying. This is a new world, a new language. Everything’s new – to the baby.

Price: Parents who read to their young children are doing more for them than just telling a story. Owen says that there are techniques you can use to expand on the material on the page and introduce them to the rituals of reading a book…

Owen: I think what is best is to check, is the baby looking at this picture? Usually they are. Let’s elaborate on what caught the child’s eye and talk more about that. You may want to read the words that are on the page. You may want to point to those words. It almost becomes a ritual that they’re engaged. And they see the turning of a page. That’s part of what’s being learned about as a child learns to read. Those are reading skills as well. We turn the page and the baby can get engaged in turning the page. Might be having more fun with that part of the book, or may enjoy hearing the same words again and again. It’s the literary experiences that are also a contributor to learning to read.

Price: What makes a good children’s book? Is it the story? Or are there other qualities that spark a child’s interest?

Owen: At the youngest ages, bright colors and simple designs have the biggest attraction. And you can have a book reading ritual with a very young baby, and it can be a ritual that happens every night, it can be a step towards calming down and going to sleep. But that’s a part of an early love of books and what you share in that book-reading situation. Then, as you get older, simple stories, hearing that story again and again, predicting what comes next, talking about what you enjoy about that storybook, is wonderful.

Price: We asked that same question to a man who writes books for children. His name is Mark Gonyea and his latest book is titled Monkey Suit. It’s a board book about occupations, featuring a monkey dressed in the outfit of the job that’s being depicted. It’s also an alphabet book, with A is for Astronaut, B is for Ballerina and so on. The pictures are simple and the costumes and backgrounds are in bright colors…

Mark Gonyea: For me it’s about a simple idea done really well. I had done a graphic design for kids book a while ago, and the subtitle of that book was, “Complicated doesn’t make it good.” If you have a solid foundation and you have a solid concept and you keep the artwork simplistic, but it can still have a lot of detail, but there’s that level of simplicity to it, I think that’s colorful, simple shapes, I think that goes a long way. I like to keep things basic.

Price: The text is minimal, but the words aren’t the usual ones you’d hear a three-year-old using in conversation, such as O is for Optometrist. What small child, who’s reading a board book knows what an optometrist is?

Gonyea: Maybe if they wear glasses they do. One of the things that I’ve always done in all of the children’s books that I’ve written and illustrated is, I write books and I illustrate books that I like, that I would buy. And I have a whole collection of kids’ books. As an adult, I buy and enjoy kids’ books. There’s something really pleasant about the simplicity of it. I think a lot of kids’ books do underestimate what kids are interested in. They try to minimalize what they might have interests of, and I definitely try not to do that. I’ll write what I would like to read, even as an adult.

Price: Gonyea says that even if the child isn’t sure what a jockey or a wizard is – two illustrations in the book – they can ask a parent or older sibling to explain. Better yet, the parent can read with the child and, as Owen said, discuss the story with them…

Gonyea: And they can ask questions like, “Oh, there’s a fireman. What do you think a fireman does? What do you think? I did B for Ballerina, but I could have done baker, and that’s another question, like “What are some other B occupations?”

Price: Most children have their favorite books, and they want their parents to read them over and over again. Although the parent might tire of The Cat in the Hat or Monkey Suit after awhile, Owen says that rereading the book helps children feel more comfortable with the language…

Owen: You say the same words over and over and it’s hearing those words repeated is really important, like in rhyming songs and Dr. Seuss games, very important for children in making sense of the language that’s going on around them. A young baby can babble, and more and more and more they’re playing with sounds. You might repeat the new sound that they make, and then they hear themselves making that sound, then they hear you making that sound. You may move that into a specific word or you may just get into the back and forth, “I can repeat what I’m hearing. I can mimic,” and mimicking happens. That’s all part of communication and learning language.

Price: Owen says that parents shouldn’t try to push their children to read before their formal education begins. In fact, she says that teachers have different expectations of children entering school than their parents might expect…

Owen: What kindergarten teachers say in surveys from across the country is that the skills they most that children have when they enter kindergarten are the skills of learning how to listen to teachers, how to pay attention, how to sit still, how to follow directions. Having children who can do that, then they can teach them the reading and writing skills that they know how to foster.

Price: Margaret Owen says that parents who are interested in reading up on child learning should pick up Ellen Galinsky’s book Mind in the Making and visit their website at MindintheMaking.org. You can learn more about Professor Owen and her work at bbs.utdallas.edu. For a fun alphabet board book to read along with your child, pick up Mark Gonyea’s new book Monkey Suit, available at stores now. He also invites listeners to his website at Mark Gonyea.com. For information about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on i-Tunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.