A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Start Early, Finish Strong: How to Help Every Child Become a Reader - July 1999

Raising Readers

The Tremendous Potential of Families

Parents as Teachers

Parents as Teachers (PAT) is an international family education program for parents of children from birth through age 5. Parents learn to become their children’s best teachers. Evaluations have shown that PAT children at age 3 have significantly enhanced language, problem-solving, and social development skills. PAT parents read more often to their children and stay involved in their children’s education.

The program has four main components: 1) home visits by trained parent educators, 2) group meetings for parents to share successes, concerns, and strategies, 3) developmental screenings to determine early if a child needs assistance, and 4) families’ connections with community resources, including lending libraries, diagnostic services, and help for children with special needs.

Contact: Parents As Teachers
National Center
10176 Corporate Square Drive Suite
230 St. Louis, MO 63132
(314) 432-4330
Fax: (314) 432-8963


Recent research into human brain development is proving that parents truly are their children’s first teachers. What parents do, or don’t do, has a lasting impact on their child’s reading skill and literacy. For example, there is considerable evidence of a relationship between reading regularly to a child and that child’s later reading achievement (National Research Council, 1998).

But many parents are not yet making the most of simple, vital opportunities to stimulate full and healthy child development in the early years, and by extension, good reading readiness. As U.S. Education Secretary Richard W. Riley has said, “If every child were read to daily from infancy, it would revolutionize education in this country!”

Brain Development and Reading

Children develop much of their capacity for learning in the first three years of life, when their brains grow to 90 percent of their eventual adult weight (Karoly et al., 1998). A child’s intelligence, so long as it falls within a normal range, does not determine the ease with which the child will learn to read. Rather, as children grow and experience the world, new neural connections are made. This orderly and individualized process, varying from child to child, makes reading possible.

As parents talk, sing, and read to children, the children’s brain cells are literally turned on (Shore, 1997). Existing links among brain cells are strengthened and new cells and links are formed. That is why infants’ and toddlers’ health and nutrition, along with good functioning of the senses, are so important. The opportunity for creating the foundation for reading begins in the earliest years. Moreover, many pediatricians now believe that a child who has never held a book or listened to a story is not a fully healthy child (Klass, 1998).

Given the course of brain development, it is not surprising that young children who are exposed to certain experiences usually prove to be good readers later. Just as a child develops language skills long before being able to speak, the child also develops literacy skills long before being able to read (National Research Council, 1998).

How Parents Help

By cooing, singing lullabies, or reading aloud to a baby, toddler, or preschooler, parents stimulate their children’s developing minds and help build a base for literacy skills. Counting, number concepts, letter names and shapes, associating sounds with letters, interest in reading, and cooperation with other children are all relevant to learning to read (Wells, 1985). Researchers studying high school seniors found early educational experiences—such as learning nursery rhymes, watching Sesame Street, playing word and number games, and being read to—are all good predictors of later reading ability (Hanson et al., 1987).

Positive parental attitudes toward literacy can also help children become more successful readers (Baker et al., 1995). Enthusiasm about books and reading can be shared between a parent and child and deepen the child’s interest in learning to read (Snow & Tabors, 1996). Children who learn from parents that reading is fun may be more likely to sustain efforts to learn to read when the going gets tough (National Research Council, 1998). Some experts believe that parental emphasis on reading as entertainment, rather than as a skill, develops a more positive attitude toward reading in children (Baker et al., 1997).

Wise parents understand that play is the work of children. Parents can use the arts to help develop early language skills, from the first lullaby to dramatization of a favorite story (Council of Chief State School Officers, 1998). Dramatic play can develop vocabulary, concepts and creativity, all part of pre-literacy skill building. Music and other language-rich creative arts can stimulate a young child’s language and literacy development through one-on-one interaction with a caring adult.

Reach Out and Read

Developed at Boston City Hospital by Dr. Barry Zuckerman, Reach Out and Read is a national pediatric literacy program that trains pediatricians and volunteers to read aloud to children as part of their well-baby check-ups. The doctors also “prescribe” reading as essential to raising a healthy child from infancy through age 5.

At each check-up, the child is sent home with age-appropriate books, and parents are encouraged to develop the

habit of reading with their children. This trailblazing program, with over 350 sites in 45 states, relies on funding from businesses and private foundations, in addition to book donations from publishing companies.

Contact: Reach Out and Read
Boston Medical Center
Boston, MA
(617) 414-5701

Doctors Prescribe Reading

Reading aloud to young children is so critical that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that doctors prescribe reading activities along with other advice given to parents at regular check-ups.

Dr. Perri Klass, Medical Director of Reach Out and Read, a national pediatric literacy program involving hundreds of hospitals, clinics, and independent practices, strongly agrees. “With confidence,” says Dr. Klass, “I tell parents to read to their children, secure in the knowledge that there’s good evidence that it will help their language development, help them be ready to read when the time comes, and help parents and children spend loving moments together.”

Yet studies show that many parents have not yet heard of this “prescription for reading.” A national survey found that less than half (48 percent) of parents said they read or shared a picture book daily with their children ages 1 to 3. Even fewer, 39 percent of parents, read or looked at a picture book with their infants at least once a day. Most alarmingly, one in six parents of an infant (16 percent) said they do not read to their child at all (Young et al., 1996). Only 4 to 5 percent of adults are unable to read a children’s book, although more may be uncomfortable doing so (National Institute for Literacy, 1998).

The 1996 National Household Education Survey, however, found some positive trends involving preschoolers. Fifty-seven percent of children ages 3 to 5 were read to every day by a family member in 1996, up slightly from 53 percent in 1993. When oral storytelling is also considered, the percentage of children exposed to narrative rose to 72 percent (up from 66 percent in 1993). Nonetheless, the growth in the percentage of children being read to has occured mostly in families least at risk—those at or above the poverty level, those headed by two parents, and those in which the mother has some college education.

Differences Among Families

Five for Families!

Researchers have identified five areas where the home and family can influence reading development in children:

1. Value Placed on Literacy: Parents show their own interest in reading by reading in front of their children and encouraging them to read, too.

2. Press for Achievement: Parents let children know that they are expected to achieve and help them develop reading skills.

3. Availability and Use of Reading Material: Homes with reading and writing materials for children—such as books, newspapers, writing paper, pencils, and crayons—create more opportunities to develop literacy.

4. Reading with Children: Parents who read to preschoolers and listen as older children read aloud help children become readers.

5. Opportunities for Verbal Interaction: The quantity and content of conversation between parents and children influence language and vocabulary development, both building blocks for later reading success.

Source: Hess & Holloway, 1984. Family and School as Educational Institutions

The single most significant predictor of children’s literacy is their mother’s literacy level (Educational Testing Service, 1995). The more education a mother has, the more likely she is to read to her child. Studies show that 77 percent of children whose mothers have a college education were read to every day, while only 49 percent of children whose mothers had a high school education were read to daily (National Household Education Survey, 1996).

Similarly, children in poor families are less likely to be read to daily. The 1996 National Household Education Survey found that 46 percent of children in families in poverty were read to every day, compared with 61 percent of children in families living above the poverty line.

Some researchers have found that the home literacy environment can be an even stronger predictor of literacy and academic achievement than family income. That home environment includes the literacy level of the parents, the parents’ educational achievement, and the availability of reading materials, among other factors (Dickinson, 1991).

While the overall economic status of the family has a great impact on whether families read to children, the employment status of the mother does not. The 1996 National Household Education Survey found little difference between mothers who work more than 35 hours a week and those who work less than that or are not employed. In families with mothers who worked full time, 54 percent of children were read to daily. When the mother worked part time, or was not employed, 59 percent of the children were read to daily.

In contrast, big differences are seen between dual-parent and single-parent households, according to a recent study by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. Researchers found that parents in “traditional” families with a working father and an at-home mother spent an average of 22 hours a week directly engaged with their children under age 13. That was slightly more than the 19 hours spent by parents in dual-income families and more than double the 9 hours spent by single mothers (Hofferth, 1998). The National Household Education Survey found that 61 percent of preschoolers in two-parent households, vs. 46 percent in households with one parent or no parents, were read to daily.

Differences were also seen in the National Household Education Survey among racial and ethnic groups. Sixty-four percent of White families reported reading every day to children ages 3 to 5, compared with 44 percent of Black families and 39 percent of Hispanic families.

The Value of Words

Research demonstrates that the size of a young child’s vocabulary is a strong predictor of reading—preschoolers with large vocabularies tend to become proficient readers (National Research Council, 1998). Children’s vocabulary can be greatly enhanced by talking and reading with parents. In fact, the vocabulary of the average children’s book is greater than that found on prime-time television (Hayes & Ahrens, 1988).

Children from lower-income families are at greater risk of having smaller vocabularies than other children. One study of the actual vocabulary of first-graders found that those from high-income families had double the vocabulary of those from lower-income families (Graves & Slater, 1987).

None of these statistics should be used to blame parents. Rather, we should use evidence of what works to rally and support all families to take full advantage of their tremendous opportunity to prepare their children for reading success.

Given what we know about brain development, it is clear that parents should not leave to schools alone the important tasks of language and literacy development. We must do more to enable and encourage parents to talk with their children and invest 30 minutes daily for reading. When parents are unable, grandparents, neighbors, babysitters, siblings, and other adults should step in to serve as the child’s designated reader for the day. It is an experience that children will remember for a lifetime, and one that will form the foundation for all later learning.

The Consequences of Conversation with Children

More than 40 families were observed over several years to study how, and how often, parents talk with children. Researchers found a tremendous variety in the amount of words spoken to children in the first three years of life and in the quality of feedback they received. These verbal interactions with adults are major predictors of how prepared children will be to succeed in school.

While family income was highly related to levels of children’s language exposure, the relationship was not absolute. Some middle-income families behaved more like high-income families, preparing their children for higher achievement through vocabulary development and other language skills. Other middle-income families behaved more like low-income families, with a paucity of language exposure for children.

An average child growing up in a low-income family receiving welfare hears one-half to one-third as many spoken words as children in more affluent households. At these rates the low-income child would know about 3,000 words by age 6, while the child of the high-income family would have a vocabulary of 20,000 words. To provide the low-income child with weekly language experience equal to that of a child from a middle-income family, it would require 41 hours per week of out-of-home word exposure as rich as those heard by the most affluent children.

Number of words heard at home per hour by 1- and 2-year-olds learning to talk:

low-income child


middle-income child


high-income child


Number of words heard by age 3:

low-income child

10 million

middle-income child

20 million

high-income child

30 million

Source: Hart & Risley, 1995. Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young Children

Access to Books

Some experts believe that for America’s poorest children, the biggest obstacle to literacy is the scarcity of books and appropriate reading material (Needlman et al., 1991).

In many homes, particularly those with adult non-readers, there simply aren’t any books, magazines, or newspapers appropriate for young children.

Yet, studies show that parents who are given books and “prescriptions for reading” by their children’s pediatricians are four times more likely to read and share books with their young children (Needlman et al., 1991). Mothers receiving welfare are eight times more likely to read to their children when provided with books and encouragement (Needlman et al., 1991).

The NAEP 1998 Reading Report Card found that students with higher reading scores were more likely to report four types of reading materials in their homes—encyclopedias, magazines, newspapers, and at least 25 books.

Borrowing Books

Feed Me a Story!

What difference can reading aloud to a child for 30 minutes per day make?

If daily reading begins in infancy, by the time the child is 5 years old, he or she has been fed roughly 900 hours of brain food!

Reduce that experience to just 30 minutes a week and the child’s hungry mind loses 770 hours of nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and stories.

A kindergarten student who has not been read to could enter school with less than 60 hours of literacy nutrition. No teacher, no matter how talented, can make up for those lost hours of mental nourishment.

Hours of reading books by age 5

30 minutes daily

900 Hours

30 minutes weekly

130 Hours

Less than 30 minutes weekly

60 Hours

Source: U.S. Department of Education, America Reads Challenge

Of course, books are available at public libraries, but this resource is underutilized—only 37 percent of 3- to 5-year-olds visit a library at least once a month (National Education Goals Panel, 1997). Transportation and access can be obstacles for some families. Parents who are unfamiliar with libraries may be unaware that books can be borrowed for free and that librarians can help them select books that are age-appropriate. Librarians also can direct parents with low literacy skills toward picture books and books on tape, also appealing to children who are struggling with reading. Many libraries offer reading support and story hours for families.

Once again, the parent’s education level is significant, though even among the highly educated, library participation is not high. The National Education Goals Panel found that about half of the children of college graduates make monthly trips to the library, compared with less than one-sixth of children whose parents never completed high school.

Access to quality reading materials should continue throughout a child’s school years. But a 1996 survey found that average book spending for school libraries had frozen in place. Worse, 36 percent of school librarians reported having less money for books than the year before (Miller & Shontz, 1997). In 1998, cash-strapped schools in Seattle found their lack of contemporary titles to be such a deterrent to student reading that a citywide campaign was launched to replenish school libraries. The state of California is spending more than $150 million in 1999 to restock school library shelves with new titles (Los Angeles Times, 1999).

Choosing Books over Television

A powerful barrier to raising readers sits in the living rooms or bedrooms of most American homes. Children of all ages watch as much television in one day as they read for fun in an entire week, according to a 1998 report of the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research. Overall, children under age 13 spend 90 minutes a day in front of the TV—down from two hours in 1981, but still one-quarter of their free time.

Even the littlest viewers are hooked. Children ages 3 to 5 spend an average of 13 hours and 28 minutes a week watching TV, almost as much as the 13 hours and 36 minutes that 9- to 12-year-olds watch TV weekly (Hofferth, 1998).

The youngest children spend the most time reading at home, but it is only a paltry one hour and 25 minutes a week. The reading habit actually declines among children between ages 6 and 12, who spend roughly 10 minutes less per week with books at home. Girls spend about 11 minutes per day reading, while boys spend 10 minutes. Reading rates did not differ on weekdays or weekends (Hofferth, 1998).

Children of older parents are more likely to read than are children of younger parents. Children of single parents spend less time reading than do children in two-parent households. Children with two working parents watch less television than “traditional” families with a male breadwinner and a mother at home. Children of better-educated parents watch less TV and read more often for pleasure. Kids with more siblings watch more TV than those in small families (Hofferth, 1998).

The imbalance between reading and television has a significant effect on academic results, the Michigan researchers found. Every hour of weekly reading translated into a half-point increase on test scores, while each hour of TV watching corresponded with a tenth of a point drop in scores (Hofferth, 1998).

Imagination Library

The Dollywood Foundation’s Imagination Library promotes early learning by encouraging and enabling families to read together. Long committed to dropout prevention, the foundation has responded to research showing that investment in early childhood can build a strong foundation for school success. Administered by singer and actress Dolly Parton, this innovative program provides free books to families in her home region in Tennessee.

Each baby born in Sevier County receives a special locomotive bookcase and a copy of The Little Engine that Could. The child then receives a new book each month until he or she begins kindergarten at age 5, for a total library of 60 books.

The program has distributed more than 100,000 books to 5,000 pre-kindergarten children.

The Imagination Express, a specially designed train, is driven by The Imagineer, who reads aloud and promotes reading at child care centers and community events throughout the Sevier County region.

Contact: Madeline Rogero,
Executive Director
The Dollywood Foundation
Pigeon Forge, TN
(423) 428-9606
www.dollywood.com/foundation/ library.html

A Hopeful Trend

A Wealth of Children's
Books in Spanish

The San Marcos campus of California State University hosts the Center for the Study of Books in Spanish for Children and Adolescents. The center aims to help more children develop an early love of reading and to become lifelong readers. The center offers workshops and publications, and boasts an 80,000 volume lending library of children’s books in Spanish, believed to be the world’s largest collection of its kind. The library also includes books in English on Latino culture.

The center offers a free searchable database of 5,000 recommended books in Spanish from publishers around the world. To assist Spanish-speaking parents and others, information on each book is provided in Spanish as well as in English, including subject headings, grade-level, bibliography, and brief descriptions.

Contact: Dr. Isabel Schon
California State University
San Marcos, CA 92096-0001
(760) 750-4070
Fax: (760) 750-4073
www.csusm.edu/ campus_centers/csb/

There are reasons to be hopeful in 1999. The NAEP 1998 Reading Report Card found fewer students were watching excessive amounts of television compared with 1994, and more fourth- and twelfth-graders were watching a minimal amount—one hour or less per day—compared with 1992. In all three grades, students who reported watching three or fewer hours of television each day had higher average reading scores, and those who watched six hours or more had the lowest average scores. The same report also found that fourth-graders who were given time daily to read books of their own choosing had the highest average scores.

Parents cannot assume that schoolwork makes up for too much TV. With in-class assignments and homework, many students report reading 10 pages or fewer each day—43 percent of fourth- graders, 57 percent of eighth-graders and 56 percent of twelfth-graders (NAEP 1998 Reading Report Card). On a positive note, more eighth- and twelfth-graders report reading 11 or more pages per day than in recent years.

When children are plugged into television instead of reading books, they are not developing the key literacy skills that will prepare them for school and help them learn. While there are some educational programs, most notably on public television, they are underutilized. Parents must be motivated to choose those programs more often.

The Value of Parents

Parents serve both as teachers and role models in reading (National Research Council, 1998). Adults pass on to children their own expectations about education and achievement, both positive and negative (Fingeret, 1990). Parents who value reading are more likely to turn off the television, visit the library, and give books as gifts. But adults who rarely read books or newspapers themselves may be less likely to read to their own children (Fletcher & Lyon, 1998). Some parents with limited English proficiency may be reluctant to read aloud in their native language, out of concern that this would impede their children’s English acquisition.

Few parents reach out for help from experts, either due to embarrassment, lack of access, or lack of time. Only 12 percent of parents of 3- to 5-year-olds attended a parenting class in 1996, and only 11 percent had taken part in a parental support group (National Education Goals Panel, 1997). It is a great national challenge to reach parents with literacy information and support, to better enable them to raise a family of readers.

Resources for parents and families may be found in Reading Resources, Appendix I of this book.

Parents: Taking Charge of Television Choices

PBS (the Public Broadcasting Service) created the Ready to Learn program to provide preschool children with skills for lifelong learning. Participating stations coach parents and caregivers on how to use television as a learning tool to improve children’s reading and social skills.

A recent study by the University of Alabama’s Institute for Communication Research found that coaching seminars had a lasting impact on parents’ and children’s behavior (Bryant, 1999).

Six months after parents attended a workshop, children were reported to watch 40 percent less television than before, and when they did watch, they chose more educational programs. Parents reported that the shows their children watched, to varying degrees, helped them prepare for school and acquire information. They also encouraged more reading.

Participating parents were more likely to set limits on the amount of time children watched TV. Parents and children watched television together much more often than before the workshop. The coached parents also were much more likely to discuss programs with their children, and the children were much more likely to ask questions about what they were viewing.

The coaching also had a significant impact on reading behavior. Parents read to their children more often, and for longer periods, than before the coaching. They chose more educational reading materials and took children more often to the library and bookstore. They also were much more likely to engage children in hands-on activities related to the books they had read.

Contact: Jean Chase
Ready to Learn
(703) 739-5000

Action Steps for Parents

There are a number of steps that parents can take to help prepare their young children to become readers and to support the reading habit once they are in school. These include:

&Feed your child a diet of rich language experiences throughout the day. Talk with your infants and young children frequently in short, simple sentences. Tell stories, sing songs, recite nursery rhymes or poems, and describe the world around them to expose them to words. Name things. Make connections. Encourage your child’s efforts to talk with you.

&Try to read aloud to your children for 30 minutes daily beginning when they are infants. Ask caring adults to be your children’s daily reader when you are unavailable.

&Have your child’s eyesight and hearing tested early and annually. If you suspect your child may have a disability, seek help. Evaluations and assessments are available at no cost to parents. Call the early childhood specialist in your school system or call the National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities at (800) 695-0285 (Voice/TTY).

&Seek out child care providers who spend time talking with and reading to your child, who make trips to the library, and who designate a special reading area for children.

&Ask your child’s teacher for an assessment of your child’s reading level, an explanation of the approach the teacher is taking to develop reading and literacy skills, and ways in which you can bolster your child’s literacy skills at home.

&Limit the amount and kind of television your children watch. Seek out educational television or videos from the library that you can watch and discuss with your children.

&Set up a special place for reading and writing in your home. A well-lit reading corner filled with lots of good books can become a child’s favorite place. Keep writing materials such as non-toxic crayons, washable markers, paints and brushes, and different kinds of paper in a place where children can reach them.

&Visit the public library often to spark your child’s interest in books. Help your children obtain their own library cards and pick out their own books. Talk to a librarian, teacher, school reading specialist, or bookstore owner for guidance about what books are appropriate for children at different ages and reading levels.

&You are your child’s greatest role model. Demonstrate your own love of reading by spending quiet time in which your child observes you reading to yourself. Show your child how reading and writing help you get things done every day—cooking, shopping, driving, or taking the bus.

&If your own reading skills are limited, consider joining a family literacy program. Ask a librarian for picture books that you can share with your child by talking about the pictures. Tell family stories or favorite folktales to your children.

&Consider giving books or magazines to children as presents or as a recognition of special achievements. Special occasions, such as birthdays or holidays, can be the perfect opportunity to give a child a new book.

&Connect your children with their grandparents and great-grandparents. Encourage them to read books together, talk about growing up, tell stories, and sing songs from their generation.

&Ask about free readings and other programs at bookstores in your community.


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