Talking & Books

Over the last few weeks I’ve seen a number of articles about programs that provide books to young children affected by poverty because data indicates that many kids are growing up in families without books at home. Two nation-wide programs that have stood out are a plan for doctors to give books and some information about the power of reading to the parents of their patients and a program sponsored by publishing companies and children’s book authors that provides new books to schools to send home to kids affected by poverty.

Photo courtesy of Salem (MA) Public Library
Photo courtesy of Salem (MA) Public Library

I’m so impressed! Folks are really working hard to address a significant problem and they’ve used some data to try and figure out what is the right thing to do. In this post I’m going to strongly recommend a program for your school. It is cheap and really fills a profound need. But first a little background.

In my practice as a teacher of young children and as an elementary school administrator, I worked with many agencies and staff members to try to accomplish the same thing as the programs mentioned above. But…giving out books by themselves did not always produce literacy for all children. Why not? What does? Obviously the answer is complex and individualized. However, at the risk of being criticized for oversimplification, I’ll go on.

We’ve seen the data comparing the vocabularies of children entering school correlated with socio-economic status. The differences between kids from poor families and those from more affluent families is staggering. Thirty years ago, when I began using data to help me decide how to work on the literacy development needs of my kindergarten and first grade students, I made similar observations. There were kids who had some literacy pre-skills and kids who had none. At that time I wondered if preschool might be the variable, but no, there were kids who had not had preschool who were fully prepared, if not advanced. What was the factor that made some kids prepared for school?

SunnySide7Yes, they had books at home, but something else was at play…someone had consistently read to these children! However, just telling the parents to talk and read to their kids didn’t solve the problem. Based on my experience working in and leading schools serving extremely diverse families, I have come to believe that the knowledge about how to talk and read to children is disappearing. (This of course is based on the assumption that it was ever really broadly known that you were supposed to regularly talk and read to your child and how to do this. I’m really not so sure, even about that.) In my experience, problems with home reading cut across the lines of socio-economic status. Some parents don’t allocate any time at all to reading. I’ve also worked with parents who were absolutely dedicated to their child’s reading success and were spending vast amounts of time at home drilling, timing and otherwise killing their child’s desire to read anything. And now there is the pod, the pad and the other devices that advertise that they will make your child smarter. Maybe…but…will they teach your child to want to read? I really don’t think so. So…what to do?

Here is the pitch. Thanks to IRIS Ed for letting me tell you about this program as it is not their product. I have no financial interest in this product. I just think it is really good.

Those of you who know me or have read other posts know that I believe in breaking things down to the simplest behaviors, teaching people how to do those things and noticing them for doing them. Washington Learning Systems has done just that with the skill of sharing books with children. The parent training video I’m suggesting is called Talking & Books. It is part of a program called Language is the Key, which includes a companion program, Talking & Play. It is targeted at parents of preschool children and is designed to develop vocabulary. (We used it with our kindergarten and first-grade parents.) I first learned of this program when United Way and the Bethel School District in Eugene, Oregon passed it out to every family with a preschooler in the school district. The three simple skills taught to the parent are easy to understand and do. The videos provide ample examples.

Several years ago we began to implement this program at Holt Elementary, where I was the principal. We made it the central feature of our Title I family nights for kindergarten and first grade classes. We used a few selected segments of the DVD but also included a lot of conversation and live modelling of the Talking & Books strategy. We gave parents a copy of the complete DVD to take home so that they could review as needed. We also gave them an orientation to our library services and invited each parent to get a library card.

SunnySide16Finally we gave the parents a great book, one selected for rich vocabulary, great illustrations and an engaging story. We had the parents scatter around the library, sit their child on their lap and share the book. It was beautiful…brought tears to my eyes every time. The number of dads that came and participated was astounding. The feedback from parents was eye-opening. From some parents we heard, “I didn’t know I could still do this when they could sound out words on their own. I thought they were supposed to read by themselves.” From others we heard, “I thought I was supposed to be making them sound out hard words. It was always a struggle. I’m so glad that we get to talk about the book.” For others, it was clear that the idea sharing books with their child was a completely new idea.

At Holt Elementary, we’ve done our Talking & Books nights for several years. We’ve taught hundreds of parents how to invite their child to sit on their lap and share a book together. It is one of our finest accomplishments.

Editor’s note: Talking & Books is a wonderful product. Here’s a few IRIS Ed videos that also share the love of looking at picture books with preschool-aged children: Ready to Read and for Spanish-speaking parents, Padres Preparados.

Padres Preparados
Padres Preparados

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