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.
Here are ten benefits the authors list for reading aloud to your baby from day one:
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.
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!
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Maybe some of you, like me, did not grow up in a "Read Aloud family", and are wondering what steps you can take to establish a culture of reading aloud in your home when you did not experience one yourself, and what you might do to get started. So, in this post I share my experience of reading as I was growing up and the first steps I took to prepare for reading with my children.
I was fortunate to grow up in a family where both my parents read regularly, even though they never read to us. They both had books going all the time, with my mother reading mostly fiction and my father reading more broadly. And, for the most part, they did their reading in the family room, so we caught the habit from them. Rather than reading together, we watched our favorite TV shows as a family several evenings a week.
I learned to read before entering first grade from a Dick and Jane primer lying around the house. When I got to school, years of more Dick and Jane readers stretched out before me. I remember one of the reading textbooks was called Just Imagine! though there was nothing imaginative in it at all. With dull stories, followed by pages of workbook exercises, I am amazed that my love for reading was not extinguished!
I have no memory of any of my elementary school teachers ever reading aloud to my class, but I do remember visits to the school library. It was housed in a space about the size of a deep janitor's closet, with bookshelves along three sides and barely enough room for three children to browse at a time. Here I discovered Curious George, the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and a generous collection of Hardy Boys books.
The first grade I remember having a classroom library was the 4th grade with three built-in shelves holding dozens of elementary biographies in the Childhood of Famous Americans series. I read them all! The next year in the 5th grade there were a dozen or so books on government displayed on the windowsill that we were required to read by the end of the year.
I have no memory of being taken to the public library as a child. I do recall going there by myself when I was in middle school and being overwhelmed by so many choices that I left empty-handed.
At home we had a small bookshelf in the upstairs hall that contained some children's books that I am guessing had been my father's, among them Lang's Red Fairy Book and Blue Fairy Book and The Christmas Reindeer by Thornton W. Burgess.
But my best source of books were gifts bought by my Granny and Uncle Ralph at the Wide Awake Bookshop in Wilkes-Barre, PA. (Isn't that a wonderful name for a book store?) My favorites were Rumer Godden's The Fairy Doll and Holly and Ivy, d'Aulaire's Benjamin Franklin, Marguerite de Angeli's Skippack School, as well as Stories That Never Grow Old and Scrambled Eggs Super! I read these volumes over and over again, lingering over the text and poring over the illustrations.
When I was almost nine, my younger sister Meg arrived on the scene just days before Christmas. She soon became a ready audience for my first read aloud attempts. We made our way through Pat the Bunny, Chicken Soup with Rice, Little Bear, and If I Ran the Circus. But when she could decipher the text herself, our read aloud sessions stopped. Fast forward a couple of years and she entered my room while I was immersed in Andersen's "Great Claus and Little Claus." I started reading aloud and we were soon howling with laughter, giving me a glimpse of what family read aloud time might look like.
A couple of months before my first son was due to arrive, my sister Judy paid me a weekend visit. Among the advice she gave me was to not expect our mother to gush over this new baby of mine. She would not be any more affectionate with him than she had been with us, Judy warned. But she did say that I could become the kind of mother that I wished I had had, and in that there was healing. That idea sent my hopes soaring!
One of my first purchases after Nathan was born was Nancy Larrick's A Parent's Guide to Children's Reading. I was ready to begin reading to my little bundle of joy. But Larrick's guide overwhelmed me with page after page that listed titles, with minimal description of the contents. I needed someone to hold my hand and take me step by step through the process.
With one story after another about why to read aloud, how to read aloud, and what to read aloud, Jim Trelease's first edition of The Read Aloud Handbook was the guide I sought. It was so helpful to me that I still recommend his handbook today as the first title to read about reading aloud. All editions of The Read Aloud Handbook are worth reading. Trelease estimates that he changed about 40% of the text in each new edition, changing the stories, and updating the research, as well as revising the book selections to include only those currently in print. The 7th edition, recently released, is the final one, according to Trelease.
With Trelease's recommendations limited to books in print, I felt the need to educate myself about worthy books from the past. Two books by May Hill Arbuthnot I found especially useful: Children's Reading in the Home (1969) and Children's Books Too Good To Miss (1971).
Children's Books Too Good To Miss lists fewer books, but as the title implies, the ones they do list are exceptional, as seen in the page spread below.
Children's Reading in the Home is comprehensive in scope, with lengthy entries describing books in a variety of genres. Sample page spreads below feature selections from Biography, Animal Stories, and Historical Fiction. Many of the descriptions were so memorable that I remembered them years after I first encountered them. The name of Reginald Ottley, for example, author of Boy Alone included in the last page spread, immediately leaped to mind when I spotted a sequel of this title in a bookshop a couple of months ago.
There are dozens of other books about books that I can heartily recommend, but, not wanting to overwhelm you, I will share those little by little.
Finally, start reading! Here are three titles, sure to spark laughter, that are enjoyed by all ages:
I read Mr. Popper's Penguins and My Father's Dragon to the great delight of all my children. But somehow Daniel missed out on Owls in the Family, so I read it to him recently at the ripe old age of 27. We both had a hard time containing our laughter and hated to have the book come to an end!
Start where you are! If you were not steeped in books as a child, don't bemoan your lack of advantage, but commit to providing a different sort of environment for your family. For inspiration read any edition of Trelease's The Read-Aloud Handbook. Then, gradually become familiar with the best of children's books by doing a little reading every day in one of the books about books that we recommend. Make that easy by keeping a copy in the bathroom or on your nightstand and make the reading of it a regular habit. You will be surprised how quickly your knowledge of children's books will grow, making it easier to zero in on worthy titles whenever you find yourself at the library or the book shop.
What sorts of information would be most helpful to you as you are building a culture of reading in your home and beyond? Please share your thoughts in the comments.