Skip to main content
Portrait of Fred Rogers wearing a tan zip-up cardigan

Roots of Reading

Share a love of reading with infants and toddlers. Hosted by Fred Rogers, this episode examines how parents, childcare providers, and kindergarten teachers can get children started on the road to literacy. 

Photo: Mister Rogers Neighborhood

On this page:

About the program

Children learn to speak and walk by instinct. But did you know reading is different? Reading needs to be taught. And a child’s first and best teacher is a parent. “If you look at youngsters who come into first grade who can read fairly well, watch what their parents do,” says G. Reid Lyon of the National Institutes of Health. “Parents can be extraordinarily good teachers.” In this program, you’ll visit a baby speech lab and a Head Start center — and also meet children’s book author and illustrator Rosemary Wells (Max and Ruby).

This 30-minute program is the first episode of our award-winning PBS series, Launching Young Readers.

Becoming aware of print

In San Jose, California, 32-month-old Mira gets a head start on reading from her parents.

Tuning in to speech sounds

At a baby speech lab at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, psychologist Janet Werker studies how babies develop skills that distinguish speech sounds of their native language.

Encouraging young storytellers

Two- and three-year-olds benefit from a project based in Washington, D.C., called STORIES, which is built on the premise that when adults respond to a toddler’s efforts to communicate, they increase conversational skills, boost vocabulary, and propel toddlers towards literacy.

Rosemary Wells: a writer’s secret

Children’s book author and illustrator Rosemary Wells (Timothy Goes to School) talks about how successful children’s literature appeals to the heart of the child — and to the sense of humor in adults.

Reading as dialogue

In a Long Island Head Start classroom, children who are at risk for reading failure boost their reading skills using a technique called “dialogic reading.”

The building blocks of reading

In Baltimore, a pre-kindergarten program called Children’s Literacy Initiative helps at-risk children meet the school’s high expectations.

Watch the program

Recommended resources

Parent Tip Sheets



Additional Resources

  • PBS Ready To Learn (opens in a new window) is public broadcasting’s on-going effort to ensure that children will begin school ready to learn through high-quality children’s programming and community outreach.
  • Reach Out and Read (opens in a new window)is a national program that works with pediatricians to encourage parents to read aloud to their young children and to give books to their patients to take home at all pediatric check-ups from six months to five years of age.
  • Reading is Fundamental (opens in a new window) develops and delivers children’s and family literacy programs that help prepare young children for reading and motivate school-age children to read.
  • First Book (opens in a new window) is national non-profit organization whose mission is to provide children from low-income families the chance to read and own their first new books. First Book provides an ongoing supply of new books to children participating in community-based mentoring, tutoring, and family literacy programs.



  • First Place Gold Camera award from the 36th Annual International Film and Video Festival
  • Four Silver Statuettes and a Bronze Statuette from the 24th Annual Telly Awards


Introduction: Roots to Reading

Announcer: Funding for the Reading Rockets Launching Young Readers series was provided by the United States Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs.

Fred Rogers: Hello. I’m Fred Rogers from the neighborhood. Long ago, I discovered that the best teacher is someone who loves what he or she does. And loves it right in front of children. You know, enthusiasm is contagious. Of course, that’s very good news for any book lover who’d like to help a child who is able to learn to read. Welcome to Reading Rockets. This five part series is for parents, caregivers and teachers of young children. And this first program shows how some adults are helping preschoolers get ready to learn to love to read. It’s not surprising that one of the important things that we adults do is read aloud to children. That way we help them to develop their ear for language and show them how books work.

Becoming Aware of Print (San Jose, California)

Two-and-a-half year old Mira couldn’t be getting a better start for life as a reader.

She can already name most of the letters of the alphabet.

Mira’s dad: Alright, and then finally A, where’s the A?

When it’s time to become a reader, she’ll have less to learn because of the head start her parents are giving her.

Mira: Mira.

Mira’s dad: Yeah, good job. Give me a high five.

Mira’s mom: Look Mira, melons. M for melons and M for Mira! Look we have melons in our list.

Mira’s mother does what reading researchers recommend: she finds opportunities to point out print and how it’s used.

Mira’s mom: Look Mira, C for cucumber, P for peppers.

Mira is learning that signs are different from shopping lists, which are different from stories.

Mira is also discovering that all of these kinds of writing are made up of words which are in turn are made up of letters.

Mira’s mom: C for cauliflower, M for mushrooms$#133;

When Mira starts learning to read, she’ll already know a lot about print, much more than she knows about self-control.

Mira: I want some of this.

Mira is getting such a rich exposure to books and print, it’s clear she can’t wait to read on her own. In fact, like many children, Mira pretends to read.

Her play reading reveals that she already knows how books work. This knowledge comes from watching her parents read to her. And that’s something they do every day.

Every evening, after dinner, Mira’s parents switch off the phone and television for reading time. It’s Mira’s favorite part of the day.

Mira’s mom: Eat a good breakfast and don’t forget to wash to dishes.

More is going on here than meets the eye.

From her mother’s moving finger, Mira learns that the print tells her mother what to say–she doesn’t just make up a story based on the pictures.

The details that Mira and her two-month-old brother Vijay are picking up are certainly important. But the most vital lesson this evening may be the simplest: reading is a pleasure.

Mira: Why is he going…

Mira’s mom: His mommy and daddy want him to get his little brother.

Phyllis Hunter: The single most important thing that a parent can do to help a child learn to read is to transmit a love of reading to their children. Let them see you reading as a parent. Let them see that you enjoy and love print. And I say this to parents even if you’re not a reader yourself you can still communicate to your children that books matter.

Vijay can’t yet follow the twists and turns of the plot, but he is paying attention to his mother’s voice, tuning his brain to the elementary speech sounds that make up English. He’s already laying the foundations for becoming a reader.

Mira’s mom: …and we’ll be home soon.

[foreign languages]

The human voice can produce at least 150 different speech sounds or phonames.

[foreign language]

English uses only forty or so of these sounds.

[foreign language]

Tuning into Speech Sounds (Vancouver, BC)

Dr. Janet Worker: Thanks again, Warren, for coming in. We really appreciate it.

Psychologist Dr. Janet Worker wants to know how babies distinguish speech sounds of their native language.

Worker: Babies, just like adults, are interested in new information. So when they hear something that’s different from what they’ve been hearing before, their interest perks up. And you can measure that in a number of ways. You can measure it through their sucking pattern or through their looking time or even through something like a head turn.

Worker trains babies to turn their heads whenever they hear a change in sound by rewarding them with a view of a musical bunny. Soon babies are turning their heads the moment they hear a change, anticipating the bunny. Headphones prevent the adults from hearing the speech sounds and accidentally cuing the baby.

Worker: Hey, Shane. Are you ready?

Worker can now find out if this six month old can hear the difference between two English sounds. She keeps the baby engaged until phonames are played over a speaker.

Baby: Da, da, da. Ba.

This baby can hear the difference between B and D. In fact, even newborns can tell them apart.

Worker: Good boy. Look Shane, look.

Next, Worker tests the baby with another pair of sounds. The phoneme will change from one kind of D to another. The two sound distinct to speakers of Hindi, but adults who only speak English can’t hear the difference.

Baby: Da, da, da, ba.

The baby hears the difference between the two sounds, one of which she’s never heard before. By the age of ten to twelve months, infants not regularly exposed to Hindi lose the ability to distinguish these sounds.

Baby: Da, dah, da, ba.

Twelve months old babies have already become specialists in their native language. We now know that in even very young children, the ability to hear language is highly developed. For parents of future readers, Workers’ research contains an important message.

Worker: As a parent, when you’re talking to your infant, you’re not only having a wonderful time and setting up a great emotional relationship, but you might also be providing them with essential information for them to become accomplished readers some several years later.

Encouraging Young Storytellers (Silver Spring, Maryland)

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

Tyree: No. Chandra did.

Daphne: Who picked the book out?

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

Daphne: What kind of truck is this?

Student: Go-cart.

Daphne: A Go-cart truck. Have you ever been on a Go-cart truck?

Student: Up and down.

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

Dr. Deborah Jerve Pendergrass is Co-Director of this project called Stories.

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

When adults respond to a toddler’s efforts to communicate, they help the development of spoken language. Jerve Pendergrass has identified fifteen specific cues that adults can watch for.

Jerve Pendergrass: There may be a word, word combinations, a sentence or a series of sentences put together, a gesture, a facial expression, a cry. Zoey is saying ow.

Student: Ow.

Jerve Pendergrass: Something happened.

Jerve Pendergrass videotapes the kids. To train caregivers, she picks out good examples when adults tune into a child or instructive cases when they miss an opportunity to connect.

Jerve Pendergrass: And then we have Amber who’s saying, Daphne, we got stuck, got stuck.

Student: Daphne, we got.

Jerve Pendergrass: Meaning we got stuck again. But she’s using a two word combination to communicate that story.

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

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

Rosemary Wells: A Writer’s Secret

Fred Rogers: My father used to leave pennies on windowsills. Because it gave him such pleasure to think to the people who would find them. The children’s author and illustrator Rosemary Wells is a kindred spirit. She places little delights all through her stories. And she has written more than sixty with unique characters such as Yoko, Noisy Norah and Max and Ruby.

Rosemary Wells: Children’s book illustration is much more than drawing. Or painting. Or using pens and color. It’s about telling a story narrative and not boring your reader. Children’s literature, if it is successful, must appeal to the heart of the child. And that child will grab hold of it and say, “Ma. I want it again.” But you’ve got to appeal enough to the sense of humor and the mother or father or teacher or older brother or grandmother who is reading to that child. So that the child will feel the laughter and the enjoyment in the reader’s voice and want the book again and again and again. This is the one form of literature that takes 500 readings aloud without flinching. And that’s a lot of use.

Rosemary: One of the things I use is mixed media. This painting itself has watercolor and a little pastel and some colored pencil. One of the other things I do is save the real line work until the end. I put down the color on a baseline of blue. And then do the line at the very, very end of the drawing. That way it sits between the actual edges of the two colors red and green and just catches the light right.

Rosemary: So you have to keep the pictures moving and interesting and colorful and different from one another. So that each page is a totally different experience and makes the child go ahh rather than ugh.

Reading as Dialogue (Patchogue, New York)

Lisa Thompson: The moments are every day when you arrive at work and you have twenty-five people, small people, waiting for you. When they see you, they smile. Their eyes light up. And you don’t…you’re not their teacher anymore. You’re more than their teacher. You’re the mother. You’re the nurse. You’re the counselor. And sometimes they forget that I’m teacher. And they’ll come to me and touch me and say, mamma. And we have to suddenly realize that these children depend on us for a lot more than just teaching them.

Class: (whispering) Ring around the rosie.

Many of these three and four year olds are at-risk for reading failure. They come from poor families. And poverty is clearly linked to low reading achievement. But they’re being given a great boost in this Long Island classroom. Literacy preparation isn’t yet common in Head Start programs. But 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 to. 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.

The classes here are small — a key prescription of dialogic reading. This allows Ms. Wilson to direct questions to every child. The simplest questions are who, what, when, how many?

Ms. Wilson: Anisha, what color are the flowers?

Student: White?

Ms. Wilson: There was very little grass in the valley. And the Billy goats were so hungry. First, the youngest Billy goat gruffed…

Ms. Wilson uses a completion prompt, a straight forward fill in the blank.

Ms. Wilson: Roared the mean, old…

Class: Troll.

Ms. Wilson: And he was very…

Class: Mean.

Ms. Wilson: And very…

Class: Ugly.

Ms. Wilson: You’re right. Wow. Show me something that really looks ugly on this troll. What is that?

Class: Hair.

Ms. Wilson: It’s very ugly. You’re right.

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

Ms. Wilson: When was it that we touched a goat?

Ms. Wilson: Two weeks ago, we were at the Healthville Ecology site and we got to see goats. So that should be…add to their input. And hopefully, they’ll remember that these are goats there.

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 their vocabulary development.

With the new tool of dialogic reading, Ms. Wilson is helping her Head Start classroom live up to its name.

Ms. Wilson: So snip, snap, snout. This tale’s told out. And what do we say at the end of this?

Class: The end.

Ms. Wilson: Excellent.

The Building Blocks of Reading (Baltimore, Maryland)

The Thomas Johnson School serves a low income area. Sixty-eight percent of its students receive free lunch. But kids here are learning to read. Thanks in part to the aggressive leadership of Principal Tom Bowman.

Tom Bowman: Four years ago, 37 percent of our students were reading on or above grade level. Seventy-one percent of our students are now reading on or above grade level. That doesn’t come by accident or coincidence. It has to be a strategic plan to get there.

One teacher who is onboard with the plan is Gail Fishbach. She teaches a pre-kindergarten class that lays a great foundation for literacy. Her training and materials come from a program called the Children’s Literacy Initiative.

Gail Fishbach: What’s an E sound for?

Class: Elaine or Emily.

Fishbach: Emily. She’s our second helper today.

Fishbach: When they recognize their name and they can go and choose a job as a helper, then we move on to talk about the beginning letter of their name. And then I start throwing in almost simultaneously the sound of the letter.

Fishbach: All right. Next helper’s name begins with a V sound for? For Virgil. What letter is that, Virgil? What makes the V sound?

Class: V.

Fishbach: V. All right.

Fishbach: Then they’re recognizing their name. They’re recognizing the letter. Now they understand that the letter makes a sound. And they understand what that sound is.

Fishbach: What letter have we been talking about this month?

Class: J.

Fishbach: J. Not month, this week. This s the J week for Jet. And we have a little boy in the afternoon. His name is Jason. And we have another little boy named Jimmy. And their names begin with a J. This is the upper case J and the lower case J with a?

Ms. Fishbach’s students are well on their way to cracking the code of written language. No small feat.

Fishbach: I mean, you give these kids this paper that has all these weird little symbols on it. And you want them to understand it. You know, the picture, yeah. But, you know, the idea of being able to understand all these little scribbles. And it amazes me that I can get them to understand that this is a letter. And that the letters make words. And the words make sentences. And then we have little dots and scribbles and punctuation marks all around it. And they understand that. And I think that is just amazing. It’s amazing that they can figure that out.

In guiding her kids towards literacy, Ms. Fishbach feels the full support of her principal. Tom Bowman communicates one paramount message to kids in this neighborhood. School matters.

Bowman: We begin our phone calling at 6:45. If we don’t get a response, we try to go to those houses. They range anywhere from five to fifteen houses a morning just to touch base with the parents and let them…to make sure that their children are okay and they know where they are. And we know where they are.

Bowman: I heard you’ve been doing really well in reading. And I went by your room the other day. And you’re reading that book to Mrs. Lawson. That was great, Brian. That was really a good job. Do you feel good about that?

Student: Yes.

Bowman: You should. That’s quite an accomplishment.

Bowman: It’s a great day. It’s a wakeup call for our neighborhoods. We value school. Wake up.

Fishbach: I know just from the kids who’s doing reading every night and who isn’t. Just by the tone of their questions, by the language and the words they’re using, by the level of their curiosity, by their ability to be able to sit and listen to a story. It’s that evident.

Reading Together (Washington, D.C.)

On any given day in Washington, D.C., almost 10,000 people are on the street. Another 2,500 are living in emergency shelters.

Regina Thomas: I want all of you to take your fingers across the book.

A program called Georgetown Even Start is helping these families break a cycle of low literacy and educational failure. The challenges are daunting as speech pathologist and program director Regina Thomas well knows.

Thomas: We’ve had a variety of parents. We’ve had parents who were essentially non-readers, parents with limited reading skills. Many of the parents are suffering from depression, loneliness.

Sheron: I had a drug problem. My drug of choice was crack cocaine. I was out there for about fifteen years. And that just got tired. I just got tired of the way I was living.

Some of these parents are homeless. But others including Sharone Woods, now live in temporary shelter. Mothers and fathers are given free meals as an incentive to attend these training sessions offered in the same place where their kids are in day care. Like many low income parents, Sheron didn’t know how best to engage her children with books. But she now has her kids’ full attention.

Sheron: Why do you think she went through the woods in the dark?

Daughter: Because that’s the easiest way to get home faster.

Sheron: But if someone was following you, would you go through the woods to get home?

Daughter: No.

Sheron: So why do you think the lady went through the woods to get home in the dark? I don’t understand that.

Georgetown Even Start teaches parents to make reading a shared intimate experience.

Sheron: Are you scared for her?

Get physically close.

Teacher: What’s happening now? What is Sharone doing?

Focus on the child.

Teacher: So you need to pay attention to the children.

Sheron: You’re eating berries. Some berries.

Teacher: So you have to pay attention to the children, right? All right.

Phyllis Hunter: One of the myths that gets in the way of the effective teaching of reading is the misconception that reading just happens, that it’s much like learning to talk. It isn’t. You can surround children with books on a desert island. And unless somebody read to them or reading was modeled, they would not pick up those books and just read them. So reading must be taught. It is not like speech. Speech is a natural act.

When a shy parents starts teaching reading, it’s a sweet moment for Regina Thomas.

Teacher: What do we see here? What does this look like everyone?

Children: A woods. The woods.

Teacher: Okay.

Thomas: I see these parents who never read books, who never engaged their children, get up and lead the whole group and get everybody involved and go through rhythmic songs and finger playing, reading and reading poetry and so excited. These same parents who were withdrawn. Parents who thought that they didn’t have skills. I mean, it was just magnificent. Magnificent.

Close & Credits

Fred Rogers: Magnificent is right. And so inspiring for everyone who cares. You know, my own parents read to me every night. It’s one of my most pleasurable memories growing up. And I’ve loved reading to my children and grandchildren, too. If you are able to use some of the suggestions in this program, once it feels just right to you, you can be fairly sure that a young child in your care is getting a good start as a future reader. And you’ll probably have some fun doing it too. It’s obvious to me that loving and learning to read start very early in life. May you have many such beautiful days in your neighborhood.

Announcer: To learn more about Reading Rockets Launching Young Readers and how you can help a child learn to read, visit PBS online. You’ll find tips for parents, classroom strategies for teachers and profiles of children’s book authors, all at

Announcer: Funding for the Reading Rockets Launching Young Readers series was provided by the United States Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs.