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Reba McEntire

Toddling Toward Reading

Starting early to grow strong readers. We once thought a child’s education started in kindergarten — but that could be years too late. Hosted by Reba McEntire, this episode examines what it takes to give our preschoolers the early literacy skills they need to become successful readers. 

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About the program

The best predictor of how children will do in school is how much they know before they get there. In Texas, Illinois, Georgia, and Washington, D.C., we’ll meet the dedicated parents, teachers, and researchers who are discovering how to give our children a good start on a great future. We’ll also visit with children’s book author and illustrator Sandra Boynton, whose playful works delight fans of all ages.

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

Bringing up baby

Parents are a child’s first teachers and those early years are key to creating a strong foundation for later reading. The Reach Out and Read program works with pediatricians across the country to help parents and kids start off on the right foot.

Chicago child-parent centers

Parker Child-Parent Center offers a two-pronged approach — a high-quality preschool for kids and research-based literacy training for parents. While the kids attend preschool classes down the hall, energetic teacher Carol Robinson trains parents so that they can help their children become better readers.


The Coralwood School in Decatur, Georgia, runs an inclusion model that mixes special needs students with typically developing students and provides many of its therapies in the classroom. One of their most excited students is five-year-old Avery, who has Down syndrome.

Sandra Boynton

Sandra Boynton is a bestselling children’s book author and illustrator, but what inspired her to become a reader? What makes her books so appealing to kids of all ages?

Reading Maestros

Master teacher Dr. Rebecca Palacios runs a dual-language immersion preschool in Corpus Christi, Texas. While teaching her kids, she also mentors teachers-in-training on how to provide top-notch teaching in a preschool environment.

Watch the program

Recommended resources

Tip sheets from Reading Rockets

Articles from Reading Rockets


Recommended websites

  • 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.



Ava: Inside …

Kimberly: Going in!

Reba McEntire: We used to think a child’s education started in kindergarten.

Reader: Bebo! We need a bebo!

Reba: But that can be years too late.

Dr. Needlman: There’s a whole foundation that gets built over the first years of life.

Reba: These doctors, parents, and teachers are helping preschoolers get a good start on a great future.

Dr. Palacios: When we ask children to rise up to higher expectations and higher standards, they don’t let us down.

Reba: Funding for “Toddling Toward Reading” is provided by the United States Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs.

Reba: Hi, I’m Reba McEntire. My mama used to teach in a one-room schoolhouse near Chockie, Oklahoma. My grandmother was a teacher, also. And if this music thing hadn’t worked out, I might have been a teacher myself.

Reba: When my son Shelby was born, I finally had a chance. That’s because a child’s education starts on day one — long before he goes to school. So when we sang songs together or talked about riding a horse, Shelby didn’t know it, but he was getting ready to read.

Reba: In the next half-hour, we’ll meet some families, teachers, and researchers around the country who are discovering what it takes to make the most of those early years. Our first stop is Washington, D.C.

Bringing Up Baby (Washington, DC)

Kimberly: How do you say it?

Ava: Azul, Azul!

Reba: Long before children set foot in a classroom, we can start giving them the skills they’ll need to become strong readers.

Dr. Robert Needlman: Learning to read is much more than a set of skills you get in school. There is a whole foundation that gets built over the first years of life.

Reba: Laying that foundation starts with mom and dad.

Reba: All it takes is some quality time…

Reba: Two year old Ava Johnson and her mother Kimberly spend time reading and talking together every day.

Kimberly: She loved books from the very beginning, then she used to chew on the corners and just start to play with turning the pages. Now she’s gotten to the point where she just starts to appreciate the story itself.

Reba: Ava is lucky; only 60% of parents of children under five say they read to their kids every day … leaving the rest to play a dangerous game of catch up. Dr. Needlman knows that children who are not read to early often start school at a disadvantage.

Needlman: We know from very close study that when parents read with their children they are really teaching language. And language is tremendously important for children’s emotional development and also for their ability to succeed in school.

Reba: That’s because early language development and later reading skills are intimately connected. The more you talk with a baby or toddler, the bigger that child’s vocabulary will be by age three. So even if parents are not reading with their kids, they should be talking with them all the time.

Ava: Uh-oh, what happened? The box fall out?

Kimberly: The box is falling out, isn’t it?

Dr. Todd Risley: when you only talk a little bit, it’s only business. It’s, “Come here,” “Sit down,” “Stay there.” It’s simple. It’s not abstract. It’s not fun. When you talk more, you’re not talking more business; it’s about something else. That’s the good stuff [and] the more the child talks, the larger the vocabulary they have, the more different kinds of words and phrases that they use in their oral language, the easier and more readily they become readers.

Reba: Studies show children who are poor readers by the end of the first grade are likely to remain that way in the fourth grade. And children who struggle with reading are more likely to drop out of school in later years.

Needlman: If you look at the parents with the least amount of education 30 percent of them say that they are reading aloud with their children every night, 70 percent don’t. So that shows us what a long way we have to go.

Reba: To get there, Dr. Needlman co-founded Reach Out and Read. It’s a national organization that works with health care providers like Dr. Nicole Lang to offer early literacy training as part of regular pediatric care.

Dr. Nicole Lang: Welcome. Welcome.

Needlman: The inspiration for Reach Out and Read was the realization that reading was a tremendously important part of children’s development and yet, we in pediatrics didn’t know anything about it.

Reba: Since pediatricians see both children and parents from day one, they’re in a great position to help kids get a head start on reading.

Lang: We have so many frequent well-child visits and we teach families how to be healthy and this is a part of that.

Lang: You know, he may just want to put this in his mouth because he’s teething and that’s normal too…

Needlman: When we bring a book into the exam room and we actually see how that child responds to the book and see how the parent responds to the child responding to the book. It gives us an in to talk with the parent about a very important topic — Which is: what can you do to help your child grow up intellectually alive?

Lang: Sometimes there can be literacy problems with the parents or grandparents — or if they weren’t read to as a child they don’t see the importance of reading to their own children. I say talk to them, sing to them read to them.

Reba: Dr. Lang also tells parents to watch for early milestones in learning to read.

Reba: At six months old, Isaiah should be reaching for the book, eager to turn pages.

Justin’s Dad: Can we find a candle?

Reba: Two-year-old Justin should be pointing…and identifying pictures.

Reba: He should be able to say at least 50 words and talk in two to three word sentences.

Justin: Where’s da lion?

Reba: Children who miss milestones should be checked for hearing issues or developmental problems. Kids with lots of ear infections should see a doctor too because the infections can lead to language delays.

Reba: But even for kids like Justin, who are doing well, the time spent reading together can really pay off.

Needlman: How much reading is enough?

Parent: Is that the book you want to read?

Needlman: If parents say well you know, I read to him 5 minutes every day. I ask the parent, how does it feel? We love it. Ok, so, if you love it make it 10 minutes, and if you love 10, make it 15. We know that when children grow up to be successful readers they have been read to often, on average, 30 minutes a day.

Kimberly: I feel so fortunate to have had such good exposure to reading and books my whole life. Reading isn’t just a luxury — it’s really about your health and a child’s well being.

Needlman: Whether children are read to at home on a regular basis is one other way that disadvantage gets transmitted from generation to generation — and we have an opportunity to interrupt that cycle.

Lang: We’re giving them lots of good info that they are taking to heart — and when we talk about reading and how important that is they say — ok, well I should be doing this too. Just as I give them fruits and vegetables, you know, I’ll also read to them.

Kimberly: [reading] That’s what you must do… and the beetle lent the spider a helping leg or two.

Child-Parent Centers (Chicago, Illinois)

Reba: Keeping parents involved even after kids start school helps kids stay on track …and that’s why Chicago has established a network of Child-Parent Centers. So on this frigid day in January, Althea Slayden is headed in to school with her 4-year-old daughter Nygeria.

Althea: Nygeria … she loves to come to school. Even on Saturday she asks me, “mom is there school tomorrow?”

Reba: This school is the Parker Child-Parent Center and, considering its success, it makes sense for everyone to be excited.

Reba: Chicago’s high school graduation rate hovers around fifty percent, but studies show that students who attend one of these centers have higher test scores, are less likely to use special education services, and are more likely to graduate from high school.

Althea: I work eight hours a day, and this center has been a great help as far as getting them the education that they need.

Reba: In addition to a strong academic program for the kids, a big factor in this success is the involvement of parents like Althea.

Sonja Griffin: Teachers working with the children in the classroom is one thing. But when you draw the family in, the family is such an important component. Because when they go home, who are they with? They’re with their mom or grandma or dad or whoever the primary caregiver is.

Reba: Sonja Griffin used to work at a child-parent center as a parent resource teacher. Now she manages all of Chicago’s Child-Parent Centers.

Sonja: We know that the more the parent works with the children at home, and the more involved they are, the more it carries over to the later grades. And in early childhood, we’re setting the foundation for the child’s later success in school.

Reba: And when she’s not in Ms. Jordan’s preschool class with Nygeria,…

Class: Tomatoes!

Reba:…Althea is down the hall in her own classroom.

Althea: Good morning. How are you doing Ms. Robinson?

Reba: Waiting for her is Ms. Robinson, the parent resource teacher.

Althea: Miss Robinson is very energetic. She’s outgoing, she’s funny, she will make you fall in love with her.

Reba: One of Ms. Robinson’s primary goals is giving parents the tools they need to help their kids become good readers.

Carol: Our children need to learn more than basic words. They need to be exposed to synonyms. If you say something’s big, what’s wrong with saying it’s enormous?

Reba: So when kids read “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” in class…

Carol: “Who’s that crossing over my bridge?” said the troll.

Reba: …. parents can reinforce that learning at home by sharing a fun activity they learned from Ms. Robinson.

Robinson: What’s wrong with the troll?

Parent: She wants to eat it.

Robinson: You may eat the troll.

Carol: Many times our parents come in… with problems pertaining to literacy. For example, one parent came in and said, when I read to my child, I… I have a problem… being expressive or being fluent. As the parent resource teacher I may read a book to them and model how the story should sound and schedule workshops or activities where we can develop those skills.

Carol: If you pick up “The Napping House” and you say something like, “this is a house, a napping house, where everyone was sleeping,”…your child wants to feel the emotion. “In a cozy bed.” He can almost feel it!

Kids: [singing] Martin Luther King

Reba: The teachers here know that children are much more likely to succeed in school when they have a happy and successful home life.

Carol: In the parent resource room we’re trying to develop the whole parent.

Reba: Ms. Robinson uses a variety of methods, from workshops to field trips, to help parents develop their skills and find the right balance in their lives.

Carol: So if you’re saving for gifts, you start saving what, 8-9 dollars a month?

Reba: Jessica Washington enrolled her son Corey at Parker just this year and she already notices a difference.

Jessica: We’re closer. When I was Cory’s age we had nothing like this, and if my mom was around and was able to use the parent room then I would have loved it because she was always working, always in school, and if she could have come here it would have been very good for me. I would have loved it.

Reba: For many adults, school can be an intimidating place. So the welcoming environment here makes it easier for parents to stay involved. Ms. Robinson’s vote of confidence means a lot too.

Carol: There’s not a parent who’s ever crossed the threshold of this parent room who did not want the very best for their children. Their children are their treasures.

Class: [singing] Martin Luther King

Inclusion (Decatur, Georgia)

Avery: Come on, come on.

Reba: Here in Decatur, Georgia, there’s a five-year-old girl who can’t wait to get started on her day.

Reba: Born with Down syndrome, Avery faces some big challenges when it comes to getting by in school.

Sherri Copenhaver: What we want to focus on are basic life skills and, of course, the most important of those is reading.

Reba: That’s why her mom was so excited to find the Coralwood School, a public preschool program that’s helped Avery develop her language skills, an important precursor to reading.

Avery: Mommy!

Lisa Nasser: Yes ma’am.

Reba: Coralwood’s inclusion model means that children with special needs, like Avery, learn alongside typically developing kids, like her friend Caroline.

Rebecca Blanton: The program originally began for students with special needs. But in about 1990 we realized that for children to learn from other children we needed some typically developing students in the building and it has worked great because both sets benefit from it.

Reba: For Avery, this environment means that she gets to spend every day working with other students who can model those skills that are sticking points for her.

Dr. Susan Neuman: The special needs child in very early years benefits tremendously from being in these classrooms. They develop friendships. They see how other children work. They learn to adapt and accept their own disability. And they learn to have peers who help them in certain ways.

Reba: Lisa Nasser, Avery’s special education teacher, remembers her first day working with Avery:

Lisa: Avery came to us this year almost nonverbal. She depended on sign language and she was an observer.

Sherri: My biggest goal for her was speech. I want her to talk in full sentences and she’s finally starting to do that. Now they’re like maybe three- or four-word sentences but…she’s made huge strides. We’ve gone from sign language to three- and four-word sentences, so I’m thrilled with that.

Avery: Bend… over…please

Jennifer Mazarkey: Just in the last few months Avery has shown amazing progress. At the beginning of the year, she might say yes, no, hi, bye. Now she told one of the other teachers “my lips are chapped.” You could tell that she understood what that meant. And that’s another big part of language; it’s not only being able to say it, but to understand what you’re saying and what it means.

Reba: When it’s time for Avery to learn to read, she’ll need intensive one-on-one help. But the steps she’s taking in class right now are critical.

Reba: And while Coralwood’s dedicated staff plays a large part in this progress, they’re the first to recognize that Avery has some other helpers, too.

Susan Garrett: The children provide as much stimulation and modeling as teachers and therapists do.

Reba: This modeling is something that speech language pathologist Susan Garrett sees every day, and it’s one of the main reasons that Coralwood provides almost all of its therapies in the classrooms.

Susan Garrett: When we were doing the napping story and we were emphasizing the ‘n’, Avery wasn’t interested in looking at me but she was interested in looking at Caroline.

Susan Garrett: Miss Avery, can I hear you? Let’s look at Caroline

Reba: So while Avery has a long road ahead to become a reader, Coralwood is giving her a good start — and it all began with a bus ride…

Sherri: I remember when I put her on the bus for the first time and she was three. And I pinned a note to her that said my name is Avery Copenhaver, please make sure I get to Sylvia Goggin’s class. And I was a wreck, she was fine, you know. She thought it was an adventure.

Lisa: What does that say? It’s your name. What does it say?

Avery: Avery

Lisa: It does say Avery!

Reba: When my son Shelby was little, tucking him in at night was always a special time. We’d snuggle together and start reading about kittens or dump trucks. What a great way to end the day! My favorite part was when we discovered a new author we both loved.

Sandra Boynton! (New England)

Reba: You might not expect a quiet Connecticut farmhouse to inspire this…

Kids: [screaming] Loud! Loud! Loud!

Reba: …but that’s because you might not know who lives here:

Sandra: S-a-n-d-r-a-B-o-y-n-t-o-n, exclamation point.

Reba: Sandra Boynton may officially be a grown-up, but she remembers how it feels to be a kid.

Sandra: I love working with color. I love working with pen and ink. I’m basically a professional kindergartner. I like cutting and pasting and coloring all those things.

Reba: Over the last thirty years, people have bought 500 million Boynton greeting cards. Meanwhile, she’s written 35 children’s books about dancing chickens and elephants who wear pajamas and jump rope before going to bed.

Sandra: First and foremost, I write my books for me. I think that’s true actually for any children’s book writer that you’re… writing for yourself as a child. And I think children’s book writers seem to be absurdly in touch with their own childhood.

Reba: Sandra grew up in Philadelphia, the daughter of an English teacher, and her life changed when she first discovered “Little Bear.”

Sandra: The book that made me want to read was “Little Bear.” It was a book that took you immediately into this world and I just wanted to be able to read it to myself and not just wait to have it read to me.

Reba: Inspired by Maurice Sendak, Sandra started drawing herself: hippos, cows, ducks, dogs, cats, chickens, pigs, ewes, and gnus.

Woman: It’s just the hippo way of saying “Belly Button!”

Sandra: Pictures are incredibly important in a book. Because they are what a child is reading — not reading the words. They’re hearing the words but they’re reading the pictures.

Sandra: It was a great luxury to have small children when I was writing most of my books. I have four children. And they’re effortless critics and you can tell when something’s working if you have a child right there…You can try it

Erin: The Belly Button Book is a great example. I mean, what toddler, you know, between 2 and 3 doesn’t know where their belly button is and is always exploring and I think she writes things that are relevant to children at a young age, and they’re easy to follow.

Woman: [reading] Belly Button you’re oh so fine. Oh, bellybutton, I’m so happy that you’re mine.

Sandra: I love the sound of words. I love even the look of words. I think the rhythm of language for young children, or really anyone, the rhythm of prose or poetry is remarkably important. I mean, it’s important for George Elliot as with Maurice Sendak

Jane: It’s very sing-song so right from an early age, they’re able to hook right into it and follow along and anticipate what’s coming next and which is really the most fun. Because before you turn the page, they know what the next thing is going to be.

Reba: That’s something that Sandra likes to hear, because pleasing her fans is very important to her.

Sandra: If I’m asked to sign a book and it’s not chewed on the corners, I’m a little offended, um-hmm.

Reba: Now that’s a compliment only a children’s book author could appreciate.

Reading Maestros (Corpus Christi, Texas)

Class: [singing] Buenas noches, buenas noches. Como estais? Como estais?

Reba: One thing that parents can appreciate is a good preschool program. In many communities they can be hard to find…

Dr. Rebecca Palacios: Muy Bien! Gracias.

Palacios: A lot of people don’t embrace it because they think oh, well, you’re just going to go and you’re going to sleep and they’re going to play and nothing’s going to happen and I think what people don’t understand is how much work goes into a quality preschool program

Reba: One ingredient is a well-qualified, well-trained teacher — and they are in short supply. Only half of preschool teachers have a four-year degree — and often that degree has little to do with early childhood.

Reba: So while they probably don’t know it, this class of four-year-olds has lucked out with Dr. Becky Palacios. She teaches the Spanish half of a dual language program in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Reba: With a PhD in Education and more than 30 years in the classroom she knows how to create a literacy rich preschool environment.

Reba: Her cardinal rule — keep your expectations high.

Palacios: I think that the curriculum that we’ve developed is pretty demanding. If we’re going to talk about bears we’re going to talk about the natural habitat, where they live, where they are in this world, why the geography’s important. I think it’s demanding only what’s best for students. When we ask students to rise up to the higher standards or higher expectations, they don’t let us down.

Reba: A curriculum like this allows children to build their vocabulary and to develop their background knowledge. If you know a lot about bears already, it’s a lot easier to read and understand a story about bears when you get to first grade.

Reba: And of course, in preschool, it’s very important to have fun.

[kids yelling]

Reba: When children are actively engaged — collecting leaves or playing with a purpose — they develop the social and early literacy skills which will help them succeed in school.

Reba: Dr. Robert Pianta has been studying preschoolers for more than 25 years.

Dr. Robert Pianta: We know they learn how to get along with other kids, they learn how to line up and be able to find the bathroom in a school and we know that they learn things about the world, about math and shapes and letters and numbers, all of which roll into the skills that… make a big difference when…they walk in on that first day of kindergarten.

Reba: Keeping all these four-year-olds on track is no easy job.

Palacios: When you enter a classroom, especially in a preschool program you have to be high energy, high patience with the students and be well prepared.

Reba: Dr. Palacios has 23 students in her class — 22 four-year-olds and one 30-year-old — Denise Caldera.

Denise Caldera: When I started my lesson, I said, “Ok, everybody sit down quietly and cross your legs and put your hands on your lap…”

Reba: Denise attends Texas A&M University, and she’s studying to become a teacher.

Reba: She spends part of every day observing and working with Dr. Palacios. Denise has seen already how much this can help.

Denise: Muy bien.

Denise: We’re gonna be there every day all day. It’s basically we’re going to be in charge of the classroom. We’re going to have to implement lessons. We’re going to have to grade. We’re going to have to have parent conferences. And if we have no exposure in the classroom and we don’t know what it’s like to be in the classroom, then we’re going to be completely lost.

Reba: The combination of college coursework and a mentor like Dr. Palacios is giving Denise the tools she’ll need to manage a classroom by herself.

Pianta: In the training of early childhood educators, it’s critical that the training programs offer them opportunities to go in there and practice executing their knowledge of child development with children, get support about that and feedback about that from somebody who’s experienced and knowledgeable in those kinds of experiences have been shown in a lot of research about the training of teachers to be probably one of the most critical features in predicting those teachers’ skills when they have a classroom of their own.

Denise: Before I started working with Dr. Palacios I thought preschool was about babysitting, and naps and playing but after watching her — I mean, these kids go through strict curriculum by no means is it naptime and daycare.

Palacios: What have you experienced? What do you see in classroom management?

Denise: Well, you saw my second lesson. Out of seven kids four were crying. (laughter) Almost myself included, I was so close to crying. I was trying everything with them and it seemed like nothing was working.

Palacios: So why didn’t I bail you out?

Denise: Because in my classroom there will be nobody to bail me out. I will be on my own and I’ll have to handle it.

Palacios: And I wanted you to realize that you have to learn what doesn’t work so you can learn what will work.

Palacios: I think being a clinical teacher to pre-service teachers is really important. We need to make sure that we leave a legacy for the teachers that are going to follow us. We’re seeing a huge shortage because a lot of these young teachers or new teachers leave within the first 3-to-5 years of their teaching experience. They cite that one of the things is lack of mentoring. They are not helped when they come into the classroom:

Denise: Si encontraron? Si.

Reba: As a mentor, few can match Dr. Palacios, with her knowledge of the field, her long experience, and her sheer love of teaching.

Palacios: I always wanted to be a teacher because I felt that this is where I belonged; I had this calling to work with children. And as far as I can remember through my school career I saved strategies, I saved songs I learned in Elementary — art projects, things that were focused on exploration, things that we learn by doing.

Reba: With a wait list over fifty and parents lining up around the corner to get their kids in the program, Dr. Palacios is obviously doing something right.

Class: (laughing)

Jennifer Gonzalez: [Justin] comes home really excited and he can’t wait to tell me everything that he’s done. He wants to get everything out so fast that he actually started stuttering…’cause he had so much to say. [laughter]

Palacios: I’ve had a lot of opportunities to leave the classroom. People always asked me, “you have a doctorate, why do you stay in a preschool classroom? Why are you there?” And I tell them it’s not about who I am — it’s who the children are. And I’m going to get a little emotional here, but I think it’s about the kids and not about me.

Reba: When I was little, two of my heroes were John Wayne and Joe Namath. As I grew older, though, I realized the some heroes weren’t always in the spotlight. They were people like my own mother — parents and teachers who are doing the hard work of raising our kids.

Reba: With their help, we can send more of our children on to school — and out into the world — ready to find success.

Reba: To learn more about preschool and early literacy, please visit us online at pbs [dot] org.