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 Read-alouds promote listening skills.
- 2Read-alouds increase the number of vocabulary words babies hear.
- 3Read-alouds develop attention span and memory.
- 4Read-alouds help babies learn uncommon words.
- 5Read-alouds help babies learn to understand the meanings of words.
- 6Read-alouds help babies learn concepts about print.
- 7Read-alouds help babies learn how to get information from illustrations.
- 8Read-alouds promote bonding and calmness for both baby and parent.
- 9Read-alouds stimulate the imagination and all the senses.
- 10Read-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!
- 1Newborns need a quiet reading environment.
- 2Newborns are comforted by the sound of your voice.
- 3Hold and cuddle your baby when you read.
- 4When choosing a book, allow your baby to be your guide.
- 5Start reading at any page.
- 6You don't have to read all the words in the book.
- 7Repeated readings are good for baby's language development.
- 8Use "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.
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.