Lisa Ripperton

Author Archives: Lisa Ripperton

1

Every Word Counts

by Lisa Ripperton
​May 30, 2019

A couple of weeks ago I happened on a copy of Every Word Counts at the local Friends of the Library book sale. I was much taken with the story of the authors, Caroline J. Blakemore and Barbara Weston Ramirez, who as elementary school reading specialists regularly encountered kindergarten and first grade students who had not been exposed to "enough words in their first years of life and thus lack the basic language building blocks necessary to learn how to read."  Once they learned of Risley and Hart's research showing that future academic success is contingent on the number of words heard per hour before the age of two, they set out to write the book Every Word Counts to persuade parents to bathe their children in words from their earliest days, and to present them with a well-laid out path for doing so. 

Parents, they say, have it in their power to give their baby the gift of words. And they can do that, not just by reading to him, but by engaging in conversation with him, hour after hour and day after day.

Wonder why you should read to your baby?

Here are ten benefits the authors list for reading aloud to your baby from day one:

  1. 1
    ​ Read-alouds promote listening skills.
  2. 2
     ​Read-alouds increase the number of vocabulary words babies hear.
  3. 3
     ​Read-alouds develop attention span and memory.
  4. 4
     ​Read-alouds help babies learn uncommon words.
  5. 5
     ​Read-alouds help babies learn to understand the meanings of words.
  6. 6
     ​Read-alouds help babies learn concepts about print.
  7. 7
     ​Read-alouds help babies learn how to get information from illustrations.
  8. 8
     ​Read-alouds promote bonding and calmness for both baby and parent.
  9. 9
     Read-alouds stimulate the imagination and all the senses.
  10. 10
     ​Read-alouds instill the love of books and learning.

​Still not sure that babies are ready for books?

For those who think children below the age of two are not interested in books, the authors demonstrate otherwise, both in pictures and in words. Throughout the book there are dozens of illustrations depicting fathers and mothers reading to their ​offspring with the children obviously engaged. Other illustrations show young children interacting with books on their own, deeply absorbed in the experience. In videotaping one read aloud session with a mother reading several books in succession, the authors noted afterward in reviewing the videotape that the 14-week-old baby was attentive for the entire 25 minutes, an attention span much longer than their kindergartners and first graders who had never been read to.

Setting the stage for reading aloud to an infant

​The authors make a number of helpful suggestions for getting started with reading aloud to an infant, including casting aside the notion that books must be read from start to finish, with no omissions and no interruptions!

  1. 1
    ​Newborns need a quiet reading environment.
  2. 2
    ​Newborns are comforted by the sound of your voice.
  3. 3
    ​Hold and cuddle your baby when you read.
  4. 4
    ​When choosing a book, allow your baby to be your guide.
  5. 5
    ​Start reading at any page.
  6. 6
    ​You don't have to read all the words in the book.
  7. 7
    ​Repeated readings are good for baby's language development.
  8. 8
    ​Use "parentese" when reading and talking to your baby.

What is "parentese," you might ask?

​Parentese is a time-honored way of speaking to infants​ that involves speaking more slowly, articulating clearly, using shorter sentences and longer pauses, often in a melodious tone with variation in loudness and pitch. It differs from baby talk in that in "parentese" all words are pronounced correctly.

​Introducing the stages of ​baby read-alouds

​The authors divide the ages from birth to twenty-four months into six stages based on developmental milestones. Each stage gets its own chapter, with all chapters following a similar pattern. As you might expect, each chapter includes the types of books appropriate for each stage and a list of recommended selections. Although the section on recommended books comes last in the individual chapters, I ​include two titles for each stage here by way of introducing the various stages.

​The Six Stages

​STAGE ONE: The Listener 
                       (Birth to Two Months)

​STAGE TWO: The ​Observer  
​                       (​Two to ​Four Months)

​STAGE THREE: The ​Cooer  
​                           (​Four to ​Eight Months)

​STAGE FOUR: The ​Babbler  
​                         (​Eight to Twelve Months)

​STAGE FIVE: The ​Word Maker  
​                       (​Twelve to ​Eighteen Months)

​STAGE ​SIX: The ​Phrase Maker
​                     (​Eighteen to Twenty-Four Months)

​Specific suggestions on how to proceed

What distinguishes Every Word Counts from other ​titles about books for young children is that for each of the ten or more books recommended for each stage, there are helpful tips for using the books, including what to talk about.

And for one of the recommended titles in each stage there is a transcription of an actual read aloud session. You can see in the sample Stage 3 session below all  the words the mother spoke. The ones she reads from the book are in italics, the language she improvises is in plain text. The reactions and gestures of both the child and the parent are included in parentheses.

On the top of the left-hand page you can read a bit about how the mother prepared for the read aloud experience. On the bottom of the right-hand page are four things to notice in this read-aloud demonstration. Believe it or not, the list of things to notice continues on the following page with 11 more items!

The six sample read aloud sessions, one for each stage, with points to notice immediately following, seem to me to be the most valuable part of Every Word Counts, modeling for parents, who may not be familiar with babies, exactly how to conduct a read aloud session.

Other information in each of the stage chapters

Each stage chapter begins with a lengthy descriptive snapshot of a child in that stage. Then follows a catalog of expected developmental milestones: their listening abilities, their ways of vocalizing, their visual capacities, as well as their ability to move in various ways.

Practical matters come next, with step by step instructions for getting baby ready for the read-aloud session, interacting with him during the reading, and handling the inevitable challenges that arise during the course of the reading. Since babies change so rapidly, the parent's role does too! But the step by step instructions for each stage will help to prepare you.

​Frequently asked questions

​A whole chapter is devoted to frequently asked questions. Discussion of challenges that arise while reading aloud continues. Some examples of reading aloud with special needs children are offered. But the greater part of the chapter is devoted to two topics: how to handle TV and other screen media, and what to do if more than one language is spoken in the home. With this last topic, all sorts of situations are considered: what to do when parents speak different languages, what to do when the language used at home is different from the language used at school, what to do when the caregiver speaks a different language than the one used in the home, and so on. The answers the authors provide are grounded in research, and seem both sensible and practical.

The Takeaway

Jim Trelease, author of the million-copy bestseller The Read-Aloud Handbook, says of Every Word Counts: "If I were in charge of American parents, my first law would be that all new parents had to read (or listen) to this book. It's not only soundly researched, but also filled with practical strategies that any parent can use."

I concur wholeheartedly. In fact, I am going to make it a practice to give it as a shower gift to all expectant parents in my neighborhood, along with a basket of read-alouds recommended for the early months.

​How about you?

​Will you join me in putting a copy of Every Word Counts into the hands of as many prospective parents as possible? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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First Steps in History

by Lisa Ripperton
​May 23, 2019

“It is a great thing to possess a pageant of history in the background of one’s thoughts.”

​Charlotte Mason
A Philosophy of Education (V​I.178)

​We recommend that you start introducing historical figures to your child around the age of six through short anecdotes of their daring adventures, vividly told. As your young listener travels with Daniel Boone across the Kentucky mountains, holds the bridge with Horatius, attends a tournament with Richard the Lion-Hearted, paddles down the Mississippi with Marquette, or steams up the Hudson with Fulton, he becomes the comrade of great adventurers, the interested spectator of great deeds.

​Start of a  Pageant of History

All the while he is storing images in his mind of these figures who have played their parts on the world's stage and forging connections with them that may last a lifetime.

Here is a story of the type you might employ for this purpose . . .

Alexander and Bucephalus

​ONE day King Philip bought a fine horse called Bucephalus. He was a noble animal, and the king paid a very high price for him. But he was wild and savage, and no man could mount him, or do anything at all with him.

They tried to whip him, but that only made him worse. At last the king bade his servants take him away.

"It is a pity to ruin so fine a horse as that," said Alexander, the king's young son. "Those men do not know how to treat him."

"Perhaps you can do better than they," said his father scornfully.

"I know," said Alexander, "that, if you would only give me leave to try, I could manage this horse better than any one else."

"And if you fail to do so, what then?" asked Philip.

"I will pay you the price of the horse," said the lad.

While everybody was laughing, Alexander ran up to Bucephalus, and turned his head toward the sun. He had noticed that the horse was afraid of his own shadow.

He then spoke gently to the horse, and patted him with his hand. When he had quieted him a little, he made a quick spring, and leaped upon the horse's back.

Everybody expected to see the boy killed outright. But he kept his place, and let the horse run as fast as he would. By and by, when Bucephalus had become tired, Alexander reined him in, and rode back to the place where his father was standing.

All the men who were there shouted when they saw that the boy had proved himself to be the master of the horse.

He leaped to the ground, and his father ran and kissed him.

"My son," said the king, "Macedon is too small a place for you. You must seek a larger kingdom that will be worthy of you."

After that, Alexander and Bucephalus were the best of friends. They were said to be always together, for when one of them was seen, the other was sure to be not far away. But the horse would never allow any one to mount him but his master.

Alexander became the most famous king and warrior that was ever known; and for that reason he is always called Alexander the Great. Bucephalus carried him through many countries and in many fierce battles, and more than once did he save his master's life.

​What is your reaction?

Doesn't the strong opening at the beginning grab your attention? Aren't you eager to find out what happens? Won't your child be as well?

Don't you imagine that he will wonder what the future has in store for Alexander after this incident and his father's ​suggestion that he seek a larger kingdom?

Narrating the story

With a story this vivid your child may spontaneously retell it. If not, you may want to gently encourage him to share it with a family member not present for the initial reading. It is surprising how powerful the act of narration can be. In fact, Karen Glass has written a whole book about it, Know and Tell: The Art of Narration.

In the simple act of narrating the story, the child selects the details most significant to him, and in the process of putting the story into his own words, moves it into his long-term memory. 

​Fuller picture will emerge

The next time ​the young listener encounters Alexander he will likely greet him as an old friend, and expand his understanding of him based on the new context he finds him in. At this point his interest may be aroused enough to seek additional reading material, more so if he has become an independent reader in the interim.

Where can I find more stories of this sort?

The story above comes from James Baldwin's Fifty Famous Stories Retold. ​This title ​together with its sequel, Fifty Famous People, contain one hundred episodes in the lives of well-known heroes and famous men. Most are historical figures, a few are legendary, but "nearly all are the subjects of frequent allusions in poetry and prose and in the conversation of educated people," according to author James Baldwin.  Nearly all have their roots in Europe.

In contrast, Stories of Great Americans for Little Americans by Edward Eggleston, focuses exclusively on American historical ​figures​.  There are several stories each for some of the characters, including Franklin, Washington, and Audubon.

​What ages ​are these stories good for?

​All three titles listed above were originally published over a hundred years ago as textbooks for a second grade audience. ​Checking the text against modern readability formulas, though, ​yielded a third grade reading level for the Eggleston book and a fifth grade reading level for the Baldwin books. ​All can be used with younger children as read-alouds and with older learners (including adults) who want easy-to-read stories as an introduction to historical figures. I count myself in the latter category, with many years of Social Studies under my belt, but little knowledge of history to show for it.

​One more thing, William Bennett thought enough of Fifty Famous Stories Retold and Fifty Famous People to include a dozen or so stories from these ​volumes in The Book of Virtues, a book with appeal for all ages.

​The Takeaway

​Not only do these short accounts of historical characters appeal to the child's imagination and love of adventure, but they lay the groundwork for further historical inquiry, and furnish background knowledge that enhance his appreciation of other cultural offerings. He may meet the historical figure in literature or encounter allusions in the media, view representations in art museums or in dramatic productions. But if he has been deprived of his rightful heritage and knows nothing about these personages or the part they played in the history of the world, his experience, not being as rich as it might be, will be diminished.

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