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two preschool teachers doing a read aloud for a group of young kids

From Babbling to Books: Building Pre-Reading Skills

In this webcast, Todd R. RisleySharon Landesman Ramey, and Julie Washington discuss research-based strategies for developing language and pre-reading skills in young children.

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Program description

Young children who perform better than their peers in reading do so for several reasons, but one of the most overlooked is this — lots of family talk. Far too many young children come to school with poor oral language skills because they just don’t know enough words. The good news is that helping a young child is simple. By engaging kids in rich stories and having meaningful conversations with them, you— as a parent or a daycare provider or a preschool teacher — can help improve their oral language skills, which will eventually help them become better readers.

This 60-minute webcast stresses the importance of working with young children early to develop language and pre-reading skills. It will provide adults who work with young children with research-based strategies that can help lay the foundation for building strong readers.

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This free webcast is made possible by funding from Scholastic, the global children’s publishing, education and media company.


Todd R. Risley is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Alaska and former professor of human development and senior scientist of the Bureau of Child Research at the University of Kansas. He is the co-author of Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children and Learning to Talk.

Sharon Landesman Ramey is the director of the Center for Health and Education at Georgetown University. Drs. Sharon and Craig Ramey are widely considered to have done the most extensive work to date on what permanently enhances development in young children. Their numerous studies have shown dramatic gains in learning and accomplishment as the result of nurturing care in early childhood.

Julie Washington is a professor in the department of audiology and speech language pathology at Wayne State University. Her research focus is language development and language disorders in African American children at the time of school entry and emergent literacy skills of high-risk preschoolers.

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Discussion questions

  1. Describe, in your own words, the relationship between family talk and school-age literacy.
  2. Discuss the barriers to family talk that might exist for the families with whom you work.
  3. Create a list of simple, low cost activities you would recommend to these families that support oral language growth.
  4. Share with your group some of your favorite books for reading aloud to children. What makes those books your favorites? Describe the reactions of the children when you read your favorites.



Delia Pompa: Hello, I’m Delia Pompa. Welcome to this year’s second teleconference in the Reading Rockets series — Achieving Success in Reading. Today we’re going to look at how what happens before children enter school affects their ability to learn to read. Here to help us are three of the nation’s leading experts in early childhood education. Dr. Todd Risley is the co-author of the seminal research study “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children.” He is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Alaska.

Dr. Sharon Ramey is co-director for the Center on Health and Education at Georgetown University.

And Dr. Julie Washington is a professor in the department of audiology and speech-language pathology at Wayne State University.

We would also like to welcome our audience of parents, teachers and professionals who care deeply about improving the lives of children. Later on in the show we’ll be taking some of their questions. We’ll start with Dr. Risley.

Dr. Risley, you and your colleague, Dr. Betty Hart, produced a study that documented the types of daily interactions parents have with young children. In a nutshell, what did you learn?

Dr. Todd R. Risley: What we learned was that, before the child is three… Remember a child is awake about a hundred hours a week — that’s learning opportunity time. The question is how is that time filled up, or is it empty? What we learned was the incredible differences between families in amount of talking that parents did with their babies.

For example, the average child by the age of three has heard 20 million words addressed to them. Children of very talkative, socially interactive families have heard 35 million words addressed to them by the age of three. Children of very taciturn or non-responsive families have heard less than 10 million words addressed to them.

This plays out in the child’s vocabulary size. So, the average child has about a 700-word vocabulary by the age of three. Children of very sociable, interactive families have a vocabulary of about 1100 words. Children of very taciturn, non-reactive families have only about a 500-word vocabulary.

Those differences before age three — we’re talking about babies before age three in the, kind of, the bosom of their families in the home. 15 thousand hours of experience has got to be filled up, or remain empty. And that difference is extraordinarily great and extraordinarily important, way before we even start talking about reading.

Delia Pompa: So the amount of talking that happens at home matters. But what about the quality — does it matter what we’re talking to kids about?

Dr. Todd R. Risley: That’s another discovery we found. And that is: the more you talk, the higher the quality of what you say. If you only… everybody says a certain amount of business talk, “stop that,” “get down from there,” “don’t do that” — something they think to get something done. Everybody does that whether they only talk a little or talk a lot. But if you only talk a little, that’s all you’re saying. When you’re talking a lot, all the complexity and everything else, it’s about something else. It’s chit-chat, it’s gossip, it’s commentary. All the richness is in the extra talk.

So the message is don’t worry, talk a lot; it will automatically be rich. It’ll be positive and rich because it’s not about business.

Delia Pompa: So hanging around while my mom gossiped was a good thing.

Dr. Todd R. Risley: That’s true.

Delia Pompa: What factors contribute to a richer language environment?

Dr. Todd R. Risley: Well it really is the amount of talking and ‘dancing’ the parents are doing with the baby that is the richer environment. You know, with young babies, the important part of their world is their care-giver, is the interaction of the adult who has to take care of them, who has to be there to protect and nurture. And so the amount of dancing that adult is doing with the baby is the richer environment, automatically; that’s the focus, so to say, with babies.

Now with older kids you’re talking about content, you’re talking about more important things to teach children. But with babies it’s all about the everyday experiences that are in front of babies all the time. And it’s whether you add words to those experiences in interaction with the baby or not. That’s the simple message. You don’t have to worry about how to talk to your baby, just talk a lot.

Delia Pompa: Thanks, Dr. Risley. Let’s take a look at a pre-school in Silver Spring, Maryland, where care-givers use everyday conversation to improve children’s oral language skills.


Daphne Jones: I think Tyree picked out this book. Did you pick out this book?

Tyree: Nope.

Daphne Jones: Who picked the book?

Announcer: At a Maryland day care center, two- and three-year-olds are engaged in conversation by care-giver Daphne Jones.

Daphne Jones: What kind of truck is that?

Tyree: Go-cart!

Daphne Jones: A go-cart truck? Have you ever been on a go-cart truck?

Girl: Go up and down!

Daphne Jones: Up and down. That’s what the truck did. The truck went up and down.

Announcer: Dr. Debra Jervay Pendergrass is co-director of this program, called STORIES.

Dr. Debra Jervay Pendergrass: We believe that every child regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, disability has a story to tell.

Announcer: When adults respond to a toddler’s efforts to communicate, they help the development of spoken language. Jervay Pendergrass has identified 15 specific clues that adults can watch for. Dr. Debra Jervay Pendergrass: It may be a word, word combinations, a sentence, or a series of sentences put together. A gesture, a facial expression, a cry…

Zoe: Ow!

Dr. Debra Jervay Pendergrass: Zoe is saying “ow, something happened.”

Announcer: Jervay Pendergrass videotapes the kids. To train care-givers, she picks out good examples of when adults tune-in to a child, or instructive cases when they miss an opportunity to connect.

Dr. Debra Jervay Pendergrass: And then we have Amber who’s saying, “Daphne, we got stuck,” which means “we got stuck again.” But she’s using a two-word combination to communicate that story.

Announcer: By opening our eyes to young kids’ efforts to communicate Jervay Pendergrass hopes to increase conversation, boost vocabulary and propel toddlers towards literacy.

Dr. Debra Jervay Pendergrass: With young children, things that we take for granted, for them, are important stories, important experiences to share. Language is free. It’s a gift that we can give our children anytime and in any place. The only thing that it costs us is our time.


Delia Pompa: So Dr. Risley, we just saw three-year-olds who are learning to use language. At what age do children first start paying attention to the words they hear?

Dr. Todd R. Risley: From the very beginning. There isn’t any magical time. What we see is talkative parents are adding words and talking as much to infants and newborn babies as they are to toddlers. They’re talking a lot or they’re talking a little. It doesn’t change with the baby as the baby gets old. So talking, as far as we know, has an impact from the very beginning, adding words to experience.

Adding words whether it’s… you know, whether you know the full meaning of the word. You’re adding and associating words with everything that’s going on, that the child is looking at and tending to. And filling the child’s life up — in addition to what they’re seeing — with words and language seems to be the important variable.

Dr. Sharon Landesman Ramey: Babies hear prenatally. If you sing a song or say a poem, when the baby’s born they’ll recognize the cadence and the rhythm and the sounds. So babies are tuned in really early; even before birth.

Dr. Julie Washington: For those of us who like sports, one of the metaphors that I like to use with parents is that talking to your baby is like color commentary in a football game; just talk, narrate. Talk about what you’re doing, talk about what you see, talk about what’s going on. It may seem odd to people who are watching when you’re standing in the kitchen saying, “I think I’ll cook an omelet; I’m not sure whether I want mushrooms in it or whether I want peppers in it.” But to the baby it’s all talk, and it’s all engagement, and it’s all listening and learning and contributes to later language development.

Delia Pompa: Dr. Ramey, is there a difference between what babies learn about when they’re spoken to as opposed to what they learn from observing language as it’s spoken around them?

Dr. Sharon Landesman Ramey: Well for a little baby it’s all through the interaction. They see your eyes light up; they watch your mouth. They learn that it is, as Dr. Risley was saying, it’s a dance. They learn a great deal. In addition to vocabulary they’re learning this is a way of social interaction that can be rewarding. From a distance — like watching words on TV or listening to radio or to the stereo — when they’re little they don’t learn very much from a distance.

Delia Pompa: What about you, Dr. Risley? I’m curious; what they’re hearing versus how they’re hearing it, does it make a difference?

Dr. Todd R. Risley: Those are all intertwined. Because talkative families talk to everybody talking to each other. Taciturn families only talk business to each other. To the baby, you know, they only talk simple things. And so what you see as a child who’s talked to a lot is also immersed in a language culture where people are talking to each other a lot. Whereas a child who is not talked to very much is immersed in a culture where people are not talking to each other. So they’re hearing it addressed to him at the same time they’re hearing an interchange with other people. But they go together so tightly in a given family.

Dr. Julie Washington: And part of the dance we’re talking about is not just learning words, it’s the non-verbal social environment around talking that children are also learning. They’re learning about emotions. They’re learning about the social context that goes with the words that they hear in the family and with the interactions in the family. All of that comes from listening, from being talked to, from observing. And so they’re learning how to be social beings by listening to you talk.

Delia Pompa: Following up on that, how do children begin to assign meanings to words?

Dr. Julie Washington: We talk about children assigning meaning to words through a process called fast mapping. And that is: that children hear a word in the context of an activity, or in the context of an object, or a person and they map meaning on to it. And so, for example, if a child’s first exposure to an animal is a dog — we all know, if we have young children — from that point forward every four-legged animal with a tail and two ears is a dog.

And over time what children do is refine those definitions and differentiate so that eventually they learn that cows also have four legs, a tail, but they make a different sound and they give milk. And so they refine those definitions over time. And children who have world experience are the ones who refine the definitions. So the exposure to the cow, whether it’s through a book or through the zoo, allows them to refine the definition. And so when we’re teaching children the sounds that animals make it’s not just a game, it is the process of refinement for a young child.

And play is work when you’re a child, and so the more you learn through interactions and through the play and book-reading, you’re really learning about the world in a way that adults loose track of, I think. And if you pay a lot of attention to your child you can learn new things too as an adult by listening to them. But they map meaning on to words.

And so we want to be really careful in classrooms. I like to tell teachers about asking “does anybody know what something means” and having children give the wrong definition. Because there are several children in that room who are going to get that definition and hold on to it, that’s what fast mapping is about. So the next class, when you come back and you talk about that issue, you’re unteaching things that a few children in the room learned because somebody said a dog was something that it wasn’t.

And so rather than unteaching those things it makes more sense for the teacher to put those definitions forward in the beginning what you want them to learn; allow them to map on to it and then expand it from there.

Delia Pompa: Your colleagues had enthusiastic nods here. Dr. Ramey, would you like to add something to that?

Dr. Sharon Landesman Ramey: When you said play is work, I want to be sure it’s the good kind of work.

Dr. Julie Washington: That’s right.

Dr. Sharon Landesman Ramey: It’s the kind of work you want to get up and go to. Children love words. Words are actually sensuous. They like the feeling inside their mouth that their tongue moving and making new sounds. Children can often pronounce words that are difficult for us as adults. It’s quite amazing. They like multi-syllable words. So people often underestimate them because they’re so little and aren’t worldly yet, and only teach them simplistic words. But trying giving a toddler or a young child a great big huge word and let them get their hands and heads and mouths around that word; they just adore learning language.

Delia Pompa: Dr. Risley, what about parents, the taciturn families that don’t talk, what can we do to help them understand, and to do?

Dr. Todd R. Risley: Get examples and the message out. We don’t need to confuse them by saying you’ve got to talk differently to your child. We need to say it’s a matter of talking more, and you know how. Every parent, even the most taciturn parent, had a time they were up-beat and feeling good and were talking a lot to their child. And their language was complex and had all the good things to it too. So it’s a matter of getting that across to people who have grown up in taciturn families themselves, who’ve never seen people chit-chat and play and comment and gossip to their baby.

That’s something that’s alien to some families, some cultures, some sub-cultures. And it’s a matter of we need to get that message out: don’t worry about what it is you’re saying, talk a lot, because automatically it will be good if you talk more than just business.

The problem of course is that in a family micro-culture that’s very taciturn, it’s only business that people talk to each other. When the children themselves come to talk, they have a very low vocabulary and they don’t talk very much either. Because they only talk about business, too, about getting something done.

But it’s the message of getting it and saying don’t worry about content, talk a lot — this is to babies. We need to worry about content later on when we’re talking about schools and teachers. But with babies, just talking will give you, automatically give you the rich content.

Delia Pompa: Well beyond taciturn families, Dr. Washington, what can we do to help parents who themselves are reluctant readers or don’t have a rich vocabulary of their own?

Dr. Julie Washington: I think, I really resonate to some of the things that Dr. Risley is saying about talking. Because when we’re talking about reading, it’s the same issue: that you want to get the message out that it is important to interact around books. Reading is not necessarily the point, certainly with very young children it’s the interaction around the book.

And it’s also important, as we’re getting the message out, that as professionals we’re providing models for what this looks like and what we’re asking parents to do. A lot of times we tell parents to read to children. And for a parent who’s a reluctant reader or who doesn’t have good reading skills themselves, how to do that is something that they’re not quite sure about. And so modeling the interaction around the book… if you have a 30-page book and a three-year-old child, the point is not getting through the 30 pages. The point is the book, the narrative — you can use books that don’t have words, word-less picture books. It’s the story, it’s the interaction, it’s the talking, it’s being involved with the child.

And I think getting that out to parents and showing them, and telling them that the point really is the interaction — it’s not how well you read to your child, it’s not that you read the whole book. It’s that you have the interaction around the book, that you tie it to things that are important in your family. And make reading a fun activity and an important activity for children. Children have to realize the value of reading and that it’s an exciting thing to do; it’s a fun thing to do with your parents; it’s cuddle time with mom or dad; and reading becomes something that children want to do.

And that’s something we’re really trying to teach at these young ages before children are in school that books are good; reading is good and the experience is great.

Delia Pompa: I like how you all characterize it as the dance. It sounds like it is very much a dance.

Dr. Julie Washington: Yes.

Delia Pompa: Dr. Ramey, talk about the behaviors that care-givers should adopt to help build a young child’s language.

Dr. Sharon Landesman Ramey: Well, we have identified seven kinds of behaviors that parents, teachers, older siblings, anyone who loves and cares about children should adopt. And these are based on literally thousands of scientific studies. And what’s really neat about these seven learning essentials is that every one has been linked to brain development as well as to behavioral competence, to intelligence, to happiness, to a sense of well-being. So the seven essentials are learning…

Delia Pompa: You are going to tell us, right?

Dr. Sharon Landesman Ramey: I’m going to tell you. The first is to encourage exploration. That the child touches the world, tastes the world, looks at the world. And as the baby gets older you do it through talking and demonstrating. But to be open, to actively experience. Not passively, to actively explore the world.

The second is to mentor the child in what we call the basics. And mentoring is just teaching with love, with the well-being of the learner central to your activities. And some people say, “Well what do I teach them, what words?” Teach them anything that you like. Teach them anything that you know. Teaching is good.

Delia Pompa: Give us an example of mentoring, because we often think of mentoring as someone who comes in from the outside and engages with the child a short period of time, is that what you’re talking about?

Dr. Sharon Landesman Ramey: No. When I’m with my little baby granddaughter I teach her “up and down.” And I’m mentoring her, because I’m thinking about her well-being and her ability to learn the idea of up and down. And then I might say “up and down, those are opposite, they’re not the same.” And mentoring is really teaching where you care about the well-being of someone else. You’re not doing it to elevate yourself, you’re doing it for them.

So you encourage them to explore, you mentor, and then when they learn something you celebrate, you reinforce. Every culture celebrates walking and talking, but every day there’s something new to celebrate. It’s not just saying “you’re great” or “you’re smart,” it’s “oh, you did that,” and linking it to the child’s behavior.

Then after you celebrate the new behavior; practice time. So you rehearse, you review, you extend the new behavior because every behavior can be used in a more sophisticated way; it’s multipurpose. So you help the children get good at what they’ve learned.

And then in the whole process you always think about protecting the child from inappropriate punishment and teasing and a kind of harshness that’s not right for their age. We’ve watched teachers and parents who deeply care about their children, and they want their children to be well-behaved. And they’ll end up punishing them or being mean to them when they’re real little and they can’t understand why someone’s doing that. And being mad at them, I mean I child who’s crawling around is going to grab a cord. And if the baby is only 11 months old they don’t know it’s electrical and they don’t know it’s attached to something that can break. And you can yell and scream and get mad, but the child won’t get the idea because they’ve got little pull toys that you tell them… and they can’t tell the difference. So you don’t get mad at a child for something they don’t yet understand.

Delia Pompa: These steps sound like a lot that’s going on. How does that affect brain development?

Dr. Sharon Landesman Ramey: Well each of those effect different parts of the brain. But like when you celebrate there’s a whole lot of neurochemistry that gets changed when you feel happy. When someone says, “Wow, you were the best moderator for this panel,” there’s going to be some things happening in your brain. And it’s going to make you want to get in that situation again. You’re going to want to come back and moderate even more panels because people love the job you’re doing. And so there are a lot of things that happen.

With language we know if children don’t hear certain sounds, or perhaps if they don’t make certain sounds when they’re really little, it’s very difficult to acquire them later. It’s not that it’s all over or impossible, but you’ve really missed an important window of opportunity for brain development.

Delia Pompa: Talk a little bit more about rich language development because that seems like the most important step that we can take in schools and at home.

Dr. Sharon Landesman Ramey: Well again, a lot of children… I was hearing Todd Risley say these families that just don’t talk. There are those families, but we have seen a few families that don’t realize the importance of talking to the little ones, so it’s more a grown-up level of conversation. And the children are being more neglected before they’re talkers. And I think some parents don’t realize that children’s comprehension or understanding is much more advanced than their ability to say words. And so the rich language is really engaging the child.

I mean sometimes it’s “parentese,” sometimes its silly kind of behaviors. If a child makes a gurgley sound you can go mimic the child, and then the child might mimic what you’re doing. And you can play games with sounds. That doesn’t even have to be words or conversation.

And which, again, they’re understanding that sounds coming from me cause a response from the world: “The world pays attention to me when I make noise; and when I say words: wow.” And so you’ll see a lot of young parents now saying to a little child, “use your words.” So instead of a child just pointing like I want that, “I want an apple.” And you say, “Oh, you want an apple; then I’ll get you an apple.” And then you begin to talk about the apple and give the discourse and help the child learn. And so that’s what the rich language is all about.

Delia Pompa: Now, of the seven elements — I called the steps earlier but they’re really elements — of the seven elements, guiding and limiting behavior is one that our audience might have a little bit of a time understanding how that’s going to help language development.

Dr. Sharon Landesman Ramey: Well, if a child were not to tune in and pay attention you might miss things in certain settings. I mean there’s a time, again, with socialization. And I think the main reason that being a well-socialized — not a perfect kid, I mean you want kids to have fun. We’re not talking about conforming or restricting a child, but learning… you know, there’s different rules when you go to some places than in other places. When you’re on the playground you can use a different kind of voice and level of speaking than when you’re in a place that’s supposed to be quiet like a movie theater or a church or temple.

Delia Pompa: A refinement of language?

Dr. Sharon Landesman Ramey: It’s a refinement. But a child who’s perceived to understand that he or she belongs to lots of groups and to a community is a child that other people are going to want to spend time with. And if the child has people spending time with him or her, that’s when they learn.

Delia Pompa: Almost all children have learned to speak with ease by age three, but there are some children that haven’t and they have great difficulty. What is that?

Dr. Sharon Landesman Ramey: Well, there are a lot of reasons. I mean, there are children with special needs that can contribute. A specialist needs to be involved in that. Kids can of course have hearing problems and speech production. But in our own research we find that children who are lagging in their speech development, almost always it’s been a lack of experience. They haven’t had enough people talk to them in ways to build that vocabulary to keep pace with children their age. So very often it’s lack of the right kinds of experiences.

Delia Pompa: Dr. Washington, how does that track with your experience?

Dr. Julie Washington: I think that’s true when we’re talking about children who are typically developing. When we’re talking about children who have language impairments or who are not developing language like their peers, we find that more than half those children will have reading problems later.

Reading and writing are really language on paper. And so a child who has a good oral foundation will often make the transition to reading much more easily than a child who has speech or language problems that are impeding their movement toward relating to text in a different way.

And so those skills are really important. When I listen to Sharon talk about all the things that we’re teaching children when they’re young it’s like money in the bank; you are saving for later. Children are learning a lot about language now but the foundation that you lay when you’re three- or four-years-old is the foundation that you build on as you are getting older and you’re five- or six-years-old.

When that foundation is weak or nonexistent it doesn’t give teachers a whole lot to work with. And we have to think about a different starting point for those kids, that we need to back up, think about where we’re starting with a child. That’s that notion of individualizing, thinking about where a child is and moving forward. But children who really are having trouble developing language very often have difficulty learning to read and write.

Delia Pompa: Dr. Ramey, are children who are naturally more verbal going to develop better oral language skills?

Dr. Sharon Landesman Ramey: There’s certainly a tendency, because children who are more verbal will receive from others more verbal input. So a child who’s talkative is inviting to adults to engage in conversation. But there are some children who are shy and kind of quiet who are absorbing a great deal. I mean children are like sponges, and they certainly can be building that foundation to be successful readers, to be bright, accomplished children. So talkativeness, it’s useful but there are other ways of getting to a good end of being a great student and a good social partner that is not quite so talkative.

Delia Pompa: What about reading to a child, how does that affect their language development?

Dr. Sharon Landesman Ramey: Reading, again, I say for little babies, reading is a great thing for grownups because it’s a book and it reminds you about a lot. It’s an excuse for conversation. In my era, I don’t think parents read to babies, but my parents told stories and they sang songs, and they did nursery rhymes all the time. And so, it’s the oral language environment. And books are a part of it. Then when you read to young children they learn concepts of print, how to turn the page. They learn that books are filled with fun and adventure, and they are pretty, and they can be touched and, you know, all these wonderful books that have things that you can manipulate. And so, they can get turned on to books, but books are really integrated with the oral language tradition.

Delia Pompa: Thank you, that’s a lot for us to think about. Here’s a head start classroom in New York. Let’s see how teachers there use books to stimulate children’s language.


Teacher: Ring-around-the-Rosie

Narrator: Many of these 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds are at risk for reading failure. They come from poor families, and poverty is clearly linked to low reading achievement. But they are being given a great boost in this Long Island Head Start classroom. The teacher Grace Wilson will use a new method of reading aloud which increases vocabulary. Devised by Dr. Russ Whitehurst, the technique is called dialogic reading.

Dr. Russ Whitehurst: Dialogic reading is a type of shared book reading that is different in some respects from book reading as you would normally be exposed for it. Dialogic reading involves much more frequent verbal interactions, tends to place the child more in the role of the teller of the story, and the adult in the role of the listener — the person who listens to the child, who responds to what the child says, who prompts the child to say more.

Narrator: The classes here are small, a key prescription of dialogic reading. This allows Ms. Wilson to ask questions to each child. The simplest questions are: who, what, when, and how many.

Grace Wilson: Anisha, What colors are the flowers? White. There was very little grass in the valley and the billy goats were so hungry. First the youngest Billy Goat Gruff…

Narrator: Ms. Wilson uses a completion prompt, a straightforward fill in the blank.

Grace Wilson: Roared the mean old…

Class: Troll!

Grace Wilson: He was very…

Class: Mean! Ugly!

Grace Wilson: You’re right. Show me something that really looks ugly on this troll. What is that? Hair? That is very ugly, you are right.

Narrator: As kids get older, dialogic reading challenges them to connect the story with outside-the-class experiences. Ms. Wilson draws out these links with queries called distancing questions.

Grace Wilson: When was it that we touched a goat?

Grace Wilson: Two weeks ago we were at the Holtsville ecology site, and they got to see goats. So that should add to their input and hopefully they’ll remember that they saw goats there.

Narrator: Dialogic reading was designed to help kids who were slow in developing spoken language. But this simple technique turns out to help all children.

Dr. Barbara Foorman: This procedure, which is fairly easy to teach, but not something that everyone thinks of doing, has a lot of payoff. It’s been shown to actually benefit children’s listening comprehension and vocabulary development.

Narrator: With the new tool of dialogic reading, Ms. Wilson is helping her head start classroom live up to its name.

Grace Wilson: So, snip snap snout, this tale’s told out. Now what do we say at the end of the story, boys and girls?

Class: The End!

Grace Wilson: Excellent!


Delia Pompa: Dr. Washington, children are often identified for speech-language service in Head Start. What types of problems do you see?

Dr. Julie Washington: If a child… Typically, when children have speech and language problems and they are enrolled in Head Start, we’re talking about children who have mild to moderate speech or language problems.

We make a distinction between speech and language. Speech is difficulty with the sound system and so we’re talking about children who mis-articulate. So, you know, those children who you might hear say “fumb” instead of “thumb.” We’re talking about children with fluency problems, often called stuttering. Those are speech problems.

Language problems are the vocabulary issues. They’re putting words together for meaning, so, difficulty with sentences, difficulty producing and comprehending language are what we’re talking about with preschoolers. And those tend to be the kinds of difficulty that we see in preschool classrooms.

Delia Pompa: I see. How do you distinguish between the mistakes of a child who is experimenting with and still learning a language, and mistakes of a child who has a language problem.

Dr. Julie Washington: They really are qualitatively different. They look different. For example, if we’re talking about a speech problem, a child who is 4 years old will be saying “wabbit” instead of “rabbit.” That’s typical. If you have a child who is 3-years-old or 4-years-old who unintelligible to a familiar listener, that’s not typical. We’re not talking about your parents being able to understand you, because they can. But if the people at the bus stop have no idea what you’re saying, then we’re talking about something atypical.

In the case of children who are learning to put words together to make meaning, we have benchmarks that we see at that early age. If you have a 2-year-old, they should be putting two words together, “Mommy, up!” If they’re 3 years old, three words together “Mommy, up, please.” And that works until kids are about five years old and they start doing things that are more complex. Then that ‘two-words at 2-years-old’ and ‘three-words at 3-years-old’ after a while doesn’t work anymore. But it’s a good benchmark for when they are very young. Those are the kind of things we’re looking for.

One of the things that we commonly see parents very concerned about is what they call stuttering and what we know to be normal disfluency. At the time that the child is making the transition from using very simple sentences to using sentences that are more complex, we see them doing something that looks like stuttering. And it’s normal disfluency. So what your mother would say is “their mouth can’t keep up with their brain.” And that’s not a very scientific description, but it’s absolutely true. And so we consider that progress. And those kids look different from children who really are going to stutter. Often with those kids you see a tension in their neck, you’ll see behaviors like blinking, and you’ll see it’s hard for them to get the word out. In the case those for whom it’s just normal, it’s the, “I’m really excited, I really want to tell you something and I’m having trouble getting it out.” And we ask that adults be patient. It’s that idea Sharon was talking about earlier, we don’t want to call negative attention to it, make the child feel like there’s something wrong with to, because we don’t want it to develop into something that is not normal. But it’s absolutely normal.

So there are some real qualitative differences in the way that children who are having difficulty develop language and those who aren’t. If you are a parent who is concerned, your concern is great enough, then you should bring it up with your teacher or your pediatrician or another professional.

Delia Pompa: Dr. Risley, Dr. Washington just talked about when your concern is enough, it seems that’s a lot for a parent to know. In your experience with parents, do they know the difference?

Dr. Todd R. Risley: For most parents, remember they are talking — from my experiences with babies and toddlers — they’re talking. They are not as concerned with content at that age. But the real differences are in talkativeness and interchange and dancing with words. We can mislead parents by saying “you need to talk with your baby.” And what do they do? They start asking questions, they start quizzing the baby, and so on. That’s not what it is. It’s like what we see parents doing who are talkative, they give vocabulary to children or just parallel talk. Thinking out loud. “I’m going to turn left at this next corner.” “I think I’m looking for the peas are in the shopping mart.” It’s commentary about things. It’s commenting on what the child is doing — describing and labeling things that you see. Commenting on what you are doing. Commenting on what’s going on around you. That’s the input side, that’s the side that gives you a rich vocabulary. It’s that kind of amount, in meaning and in context. The child side of it, you just teach parents to comment and pause. You say something, and you wait. And you say something, and you wait. Children love to take their turns, so they step right in. As long as you give them a space. So you are kind of commenting and wait. Then they begin to take their turn at the dance, and that’s where the interchange and the conversation and discussion — that’s where the richness — happens is the interchange between parent and child, multiple turns.

Dr. Sharon Landesman Ramey: One of the neat things about children us when they have good experiences they take those other places. So if you have a great child care setting, a great pre-school, or Head Start program where the teacher pays a lot of attention, and does a lot of talking back and forth, that child will go home and bring out the best from his or her parents, and the child will get the parents to be more talkative. And the same is true for parents who talk a lot at home, that child will go into a school setting and get people to talk to the child so the child can keep on learning.

Delia Pompa: So it becomes very much an interaction.

Dr. Sharon Landesman Ramey: It is! The children — and this is from scientific research that shows — the children can change the adults.

Delia Pompa: Thank you. Now we have a clip of Dr. Washington at work from her days at the University of Michigan.


Announcer: Brianna Gore was waving a red flag for reading problems at 8 months old. That’s when her mother found out that Brianna was hearing impaired.

Carlotta Gore: Brianna was born prematurely, so they took a hearing test at birth and she passed the test. We did a follow-up when she was about 8 or 9 months, and that’s when I found out she had hearing loss.

Announcer: From the moment they are born, kids send signals on how hard reading may be for them. In the way they speak, the way they listen, they way they respond to us. It’s our job as parents to watch for warning signs like these. Speech and hearing impairments are of a critical concern when children are learning to read because, of course, we teach reading using sound. Carlotta Gore is meeting with Dr. Julie Washington, a researcher at the University of Michigan.

Dr. Julie Washington: Is she going to read easily? No. It’s going to be work. It’s going to be work for you, work for her, and it’s going to require the cooperation of a lot of professionals.

Announcer: Carlotta got help for her daughter right away. The decision was tough, but she decided that she would have surgery to receive a cochlear hearing implant. Then she took advantage of every early learning opportunity. From Head Start to summer learning programs at the university, and she’s watching Brianna carefully for problems.

Dr. Julie Washington: There are a number of possible signs as a child is entering kindergarten that may signal that they may have some difficulties in reading. A child who comes to school with a poor vocabulary, doesn’t comprehend directions, a child who can’t follow the classroom routine, a child who doesn’t seem to be able to interact with peers, those are all signs that a child may have difficulty.

Announcer: If Brianna had difficulty learning her numbers, letters or sounds or with rhyming, Carlotta would be right to be concerned.

Dr. Julie Washington: Children who are having difficulty in kindergarten are very likely to still be having difficulty in third grade. So that indicators like being able to recognize all the letters of the alphabet is a strong predictor of reading ability. If you have a child who knows half of the letters at the end of kindergarten, I don’t think an appropriate response is “he’ll learn the other in the first grade.” That’s one of those red flags that a child who is having difficulty even identifying the letters will be a child who is going to have difficulty with the next grade level.

Announcer: As a child moves up into the first and second grade, there are some new things to watch for.

Dr. Julie Washington: You start seeing some trouble with some of those kids remembering things they learned. So every time we sit down it seems like we’ve never done this before. That’s a real red flag that you have a child who is having difficulty learning. And that child almost 100% of the time is going to have trouble with reading.

Announcer: Once your child’s class begins reading, watch carefully. Is your child in the lowest reading group? Does he hate to read out loud? Does he struggle to sound out words? These are all signs that your child might have a real problem learning to read. But how worried should a mom or dad really be when their 6-year-old or 7-year-old is a little behind. What’s the big deal?

Dr. Julie Washington: Early intervention is key. We don’t want parents to think is our child isn’t identifies by 9 or 10, they are doomed. Because they’re not. There’s a lot we can do at those ages. But the job of the professionals, the parent and the child is made easier by early intervention.


Delia Pompa: So we know, Dr. Washington, that a speech language deficit in early childhood can lead to a reading problem later on. What’s the connection between speaking and reading?

Dr. Julie Washington: If you think about what children know, or what they’re able to do, in terms of oral language by the time the come to the reading process, an awful lot of what we will teach with reading depends upon them having those skills. So, for example, when they’re teaching the skills to break that early code, to make the sound/symbol correspondences, the child has to have some knowledge of the sound system, have a good knowledge of the sound system. So a child who is having difficulty producing sound is going to have a lot of difficulty with phonological awareness. That difficulty with production also affects perception as well. If you pronounce T-H with an F, do you hear it that way? Sometimes you do. And that perception is going to affect your ability to hear sound correspondences. That’s the sound system when we talk about language and vocabulary.

Vocabulary is something we talk about a lot, because the vocabulary that a child brings to the reading process through their oral language skills will really impact how well they do with the reading. If you’ve ever watched a young child learn to read, you see them start with trying to sound it out: “I know the sound, and I say the word, and when I do it’s the wrong word.” Then you watch that child go through their mental dictionary and match what’s in their head in that dictionary to what they say on the page. If the dictionary is deficient, we may never get to the word on the page.

Each one of those skills that the child brings to the reading process supports the reading process. It provides the foundation. So the things that Dr. Risley was talking about — as it relates to children being talkers and coming to school with a lot of words, with a lot world knowledge, with a lot of concepts — are the building blocks upon which reading will be developed. And in the absence of those building blocks, the process us not impossible, but it’s a lot harder.

Delia Pompa: On the clip you talked about children not being doomed at age 9 or 10.

Dr. Julie Washington: That’s right.

Delia Pompa: But is there a critical period for language development, or the development of language, I guess? And also should parents be worried if their child is a late talker?

Dr. Julie Washington: That’s the age-old question that everybody disagrees on. And we’re starting to learn a while lot more about it. Research in speech and language shows about 70 percent of late talkers will catch up. And so they will be fine. And that’s great — if your child is in that 70 percent. If they are in the 30 percent that doesn’t, then as a parent you are — you should be very concerned. Because those children are the children we’re seeing having delays. It’s not clear to us yet though who will be the children of the 100 percent who are going to be in the 70 percent that catch up. And even among late talkers who do start talking and do look like they’re are doing well, we start to see evidence that later they are having some difficulty with language and social kinds of language issues, and so we really want to pay attention to late talking. Every speech pathologist has a horror story about a pediatrician who tells a parent, “He’ll talk when he’s ready,” or, “My uncle didn’t talk until he was 5, and now he’s a doctor.” But you know, his uncle is the exception, not the rule.

So we see parents who bring kids to us who are 4 or 5 years old who aren’t talking yet. And yet that’s the age at which we’re starting to teach those children to read. And if you think about what I said earlier that language is the foundation for reading, a child who is not talking until they are 3- or 4-years-old and is in school where they are now starting to teach them to read will be at a tremendous disadvantage. So late talking is something we should pay attention to.

Delia Pompa: So, what is the role of a speech-language pathologist in helping children learn to read?

Dr. Julie Washington: Speech pathologists are just starting to understand the role we play. There was a landmark study in 1998 that talked about reading as a language process. That reading is language. And so the people who specialize in language are the people who are going to have the most expertise in terms of being involved in the reading process. For us as professionals, we’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years working on articulation and using that sort of old model of pulling kids out, working on their speech and language problem and not being as involved in the classroom with the reading process as we should be. And we’re now starting to redefine the way we interact with teachers in the classroom. So we’re not just there for the special education child who isn’t learning to read, but we’re there for the general education child who is now trying to take these oral language skills and turn them into reading.

And so the speech pathologist can be a real support in the classroom. Working on vocabulary-building activities, working on book reading, and our own research. The interventionists in the classroom are speech-language pathologists. They’re in the classroom, working with teachers, intervening, trying to help them learn to use the dialogic book reading process we talked about earlier, to pay attention to children’s language age instead of their chronological age.

Delia Pompa: You probably are saying there are some speech pathologists that have a greater role than others in our public schools.

Dr. Julie Washington: That’s right. It is my hope that speech pathologists will have an even greater role in the future. That general educators and speech pathologists and psychologists in the school systems will learn to work together in the reading process for children who are at high-risk, for children who are developing language normally, and for children who are having problems. That we become more of an integrated part of the reading process instead of just the people you go to if you have problems. We can be the language specialist, not the special education specialist.

Delia Pompa: A whole new role.

Dr. Julie Washington: Yes it is. It’s a paradigm shift.

Delia Pompa: Right. As promised earlier in the show, we now have persons and teachers and other professionals in our Studio audience who want to ask questions of our panel.

Audience member: What’s the greatest barrier you see to implementing strong, effective early childhood education that promotes literacy skills?

Dr. Sharon Landesman Ramey: I think we still need to get the message to everybody about how important early learning is and that learning is not stressful for young children. I think sometimes people have tried to take a first grade classroom and give it to 3-year-olds. And it’s atrocious. And parents will say, “Oh, we’re expecting too much of our little one. Let them be little. Let them play.” Well, they can play and have fun at the same time that they build this phenomenally strong foundation for school success. So I think it’s a little bit low-expectations and sometimes a misunderstanding about what learning means. Because many of us, unfortunately, and hopefully what will be called bygone generations, had teachers who didn’t know then what we know today from science. So we need to get the message out that early learning is fun and kids are ready for it.

Delia Pompa: Great. We have another question.

Audience member: I have a major concern about the widening gap between African-American students and non-minorities, particularly in reading. Why does this gap exist and what can we do to lessen it?

Dr. Julie Washington: That’s the million-dollar question. There is — I don’t know if the gap is widening as much as it’s not closing. And I don’t know that it matters which is the case. But it has been stubborn, it has been around for a long time, for longer than we’ve been documenting it, I’m sure. And we haven’t has much success in closing it.

I do believe that it’s a multifaceted issue. Some of the issues Sharon was talking about as well as and those issues of expectations — expecting that those children will learn and that they will learn to read. Some of the cultural differences that children bring to school and trying to integrate them in how we’re teaching children.

I think one of the major things that we’re talking about, that I think we do have to be concerned about, are the kinds of thing that Todd found in his study. And this inequality that happens long before children get to school. The achievement gap doesn’t happen after kids get to school, it’s present from the very beginning. The Department of ED did a study a few years back and showed the achievement gap was present in kindergarten. The reality it was present at kindergarten because that was the age they tested. If it had been pre-schoolers, it would have been present at that time. It would have been present at toddlerhood, at infancy.

And so a lot of the kinds of things we’re talking about, from babbling to books, we need to be concerned about not waiting until kids show up at school, and really go back to ‘babbling,’ and start from the beginning trying to close that gap. Because once kids get to school it’s not impossible, but an uphill battle.

Dr. Sharon Landesman Ramey: I want to say a ‘good news’ thing that we hear about the gap. Some people think that kids that aren’t performing as well aren’t learning. They are learning. There’s a landmark study in Baltimore that showed that the children that came from more challenged and low-resource homes actually learned more during the school year if they get good teachers. So it’s not an inability to make progress. And then what happens is in the summer, the families with low resources, where families are working two or three jobs, parents with chronic health problems and fatigue, in the summer those children don’t lose their skills, but they slow down. And the children from the high-resource homes are learning at the same rate, and that’s why the gap gets bigger every year. We need year-round learning opportunities.

Delia Pompa: There’s so much to talk about. The gap is so important.

Dr. Julie Washington: We could talk about this all day, the whole show.

Dr. Sharon Landesman Ramey: We could.

Delia Pompa: Let’s go to the next question.

Audience member: When working with children who come from multilingual homes, if a child has developed a speech delay or stuttering, should the parents just try to focus on communicating most with the primary language?

Dr. Julie Washington: That’s a good question. It’s some of the things that I was just saying earlier apply about normal disfluency and about speech issues. When children are learning two languages often we see a period where the kids slow down. And if the parents don’t freak out at the time, at the end of that slow-down you’re going to have a bilingual child. It’s a natural part of the bilingual learning process that you will see children slow down, become listeners and observers of language, and then take off.

We talk about children as being limited information processors. If you have a child who is 2 who’s learning to ride a tricycle, they’re not going to be learning new vocabulary. Because all of their effort is going into moving those legs and getting that tricycle moving. Once we get those motor skills, kind of, under control, and we learned this, then we see these same kind of spurts in language. The same happens for children who are learning two languages. And so we see that those kids slow down some and they may become bilingual.

Should the parents speak to the children in their primary language? My personal bias is that whatever your best language is, you should be using with the child. If you are learning English and don’t speak it well but speak Spanish well, speak Spanish because you are your child’s language model and you want to model good language skills.

Delia Pompa: Dr. Risley, I want to get this last question to you.

Audience member: There’s a lot of good information being discussed here today. How can we get the word out to the parents who need it the most?

Dr. Todd R. Risley: Well, that’s, again, a big issue. The first thing we do is not confuse parents too much with lots of complexity. With babies the message is very clear and we can address it. We know we can get parents talking more. We know — we’ve done that many times. We’ve done it, made parents better talkers. As long as they are not hesitant about what they are doing. It’s the parents’ side of the dance. Speak in your native language. If they’re the best dancers in their native language, then use it. But the message is clear for babies is to talk to your babies, interact with your babies a lot. And it’s not a complex message. It’s hard to do because parents who don’t talk have grown up in families that didn’t talk, so they haven’t seen people talking. So we need lots of examples. But the message is clear and simple.

Delia Pompa: So much more for all of us adults to learn so our children can learn. Thank you everyone. If you would like more information about this topic, please go to Reading Rockets .org and click on teleconferences and webcasts. While you are there, please fill out our survey. We would love to know what you think. You can watch this program and other shows in our reading rockets webcast series online at Thank you for joining us.