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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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Returning to Children’s Books as an Adult

by Rebecca Ripperton
May 28, 2019

As I was writing our All-of-a-Kind Family post two weeks ago, I was struck by the many similarities between the final book of that series, Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family, and the penultimate book in the Betsy-Tacy series, Betsy and the Great World. Both are later books in a children’s book series, but neither could reasonably be considered a book for children. In fact, they’re much more books for young women than for children. I know that I personally first read these books well over a decade ago, but it is the more recent re-reads that have impacted me most.

This fact prompted me to consider the role that these books have played in my own life as I’ve grown up, and also to think about how returning to children’s books as an adult can be an invaluable and rewarding activity. In keeping with that idea, today’s post explores how re-reading these books can serve as a source of guidance and solace for young women, in addition to serving as beloved chapter books for younger children.

A markedly different tone

In both Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family and Betsy and the Great World, the author establishes a markedly different tone from the rest of the series. The topics addressed in these books are more mature than those of prior books in the series, and the tone of both books reflects that fact. In each story, the protagonist is in the earliest years of her adulthood and is seeking both direction and purpose in her life. Both Betsy and Ella also struggle with feelings of isolation. Betsy’s isolation is due to geographical separation: she is in Europe on a year abroad, while her family and friends have remained behind in Minnesota. Ella is closer in proximity to her family, but she is still separated from them through her work and the decisions she must make about her career as a singer and performer. Both characters are bright and accomplished, and are consequently grappling with the question of how best to make use of one's education and intelligence as a young woman at a time when women routinely did not work outside the home, at least not on a full-time basis.

Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family

In Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family, Ella is given the opportunity to perform as a professional singer, but instead of singing arias or other classical music, she is cast in a vaudeville show. She faces the question of whether or not she loves performing so much that she would be willing to do this kind of work until she has her big break. She feels a fair amount of shame over the kind of performance she’s a part of, but still she longs to have a career in music. Another obstacle is her long-term beau Jules’ resistance to the prospect of her working outside their home. Her challenging task is to figure out a way to do what she loves and to be with those whom she loves simultaneously.

Betsy and the Great World

In Betsy and the Great World, Betsy takes a year off from university to travel in Europe. Her dilemma is less defined than Ella’s and her family is also much more fortunate in their circumstances. Betsy has been frustrated in her university classes and wants to pursue a cultural education, one more appropriate to her aspirations as a writer, and her parents willingly support her in taking a year abroad. Lovelace’s descriptions of Europe in the 1910s are exquisite, even as Betsy is suffering from extreme homesickness and unhappiness throughout the story. This book, coupled with Betsy’s Wedding (the book about Betsy’s first year of marriage), provide good insight into the emotional experience of leaving behind your childhood home and entering into foreign territory, both figuratively and literally.

Emily of Deep Valley

Another book in this same vein is Emily of Deep Valley, again by Maud Hart Lovelace. In the story, Emily was orphaned at an early age and lives with her aging grandfather. The book focuses on her wrestling with the question of what to do with her life after she graduates from high school, since she is unable to continue her studies at the University. Both because of her old-fashioned -- albeit very kindly -- grandfather’s perspective and for financial reasons, a college education is simply out of the question. Emily was an incredibly bright and involved high school student, and she falls into a kind of depression after graduation, since she has no clear path or idea of what significant work to do next. But slowly she begins to forge new friendships and carve out a rich and meaningful life for herself. 

To me, this is the saddest of all of the Sydney Taylor and Maud Hart Lovelace books, but I think I also appreciated it the most for that very reason. Emily doesn’t have the same large and supportive family that Ella and Betsy do, nor does she have the same resources and opportunities. Yet she remains quietly resolved to better herself, her own life, and the lives of those around her. It isn’t always an easy book to read, but it is well worthwhile. 

Creating a path where none existed

I first read all of these books when I was probably 12 or 13, but then I found myself eagerly reading them again in my late teen years and early 20s. When I read them originally, it was impossible for me to fully appreciate the nuance with which Maud Hart Lovelace and Sydney Taylor approached the subject of young women transitioning into adulthood.

Both authors show young women struggling with wanting to do something with their talents, but feeling thwarted. These characters all must work to create paths for themselves where none previously existed, and they experience loneliness and isolation along the way. The authors also honor their characters’ desires to have families and to find harmony between their work and their ties to their own parents, as well as their ties to their partners and future children.

While re-reading the books as an adult, I was struck by the penetrating honesty with which Lovelace and Taylor approach these more sensitive topics. Children’s literature is so often idealized, and while these books are, too, in many regards, there is also a surprising degree of candor and openness in the characters’ thought processes and conversations with others. That openness is something I greatly appreciated at times in my own life when I wasn’t sure what my next step was, or was struggling with my own transition from late childhood into early adulthood.

So, I would definitely recommend that if you do read these series with your children, you might consider letting them read the later books by themselves and then absolutely keep a copy around for them when they are older. They’ll appreciate it more than you know!

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