Raising a Reader, Naturally
                     Through Sensitivity, Guidance and Grace
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Chapter Three
Advanced Conversations
Alexis, although a bright first-grader, struggled to read even the simplest words.
Alexis’s tutor, concerned about Alexis’ poor reading skills, came to me for help. Her tutor explained that Alexis and her brothers and sisters had recently been removed from their home by child welfare services. Their grandmother had taken over the responsibility of raising the children.
Alexis was raised in one of Chicago’s impoverished, inner-city neighborhoods. Whatever neglect she had suffered, it soon became apparent that her intellectual growth had been neglected as well.
I began by asking Alexis to read from a list of very basic words, to, at, all, and so on, but even these simple words challenged Alexis’ reading skills. This was reason enough to end the “assessment.”
Not wanting to make my young client feel like a failure – she knew this was a reading test – I turned her attention to the illustrations in a small book her tutor had given to her. The book was a story about planting seeds and growing plants and flowers.
I pointed to the picture of a watering can but she could not identify it. Living in a high-rise housing project in the middle of a large city it was easy to understand why. Still Alexis identified the flowers as flowers and the trees as trees.
Then I pointed to a tomato. Alexis did not know what it was, even the word was foreign to her. When asked if she had ever seen a tomato, or if she might have eaten one, on say, a hamburger, again she looked puzzled and shook her head “no.”
Since that session with Alexis I have often looked upon the tomato as the symbol for a child who grows up in an environment so impoverished that even common items, everyday events, or ordinary foods are not only foreign to their lives, but are not even mentioned. Thus I was left to describe a tomato to a very intelligent six-year-old girl who could not recall ever hearing the word or seeing the object before.
While not knowing the identity of one object (a tomato – she knew what ketchup was) would not ordinarily be cause for alarm, Alexis’ reading skills indicated a lack of everyday knowledge, knowledge essential to becoming a literate and successful student.
Lessons from the Tomato Story
This lack of knowledge left Alexis with a very limited foundation upon which to build new knowledge and skills. She had too little information stored in her memory which severely limited her opportunities to learn and succeed academically.
Alexis is an example of why it is so important to nurture a child’s intellectual growth, to help a child build a knowledge base through conversations, through reading and writing, and by providing a child with the opportunities for both extraordinary as well as ordinary experiences.
Children should not be forced to stop, or barely start, learning for lack of a caring and supportive partner. Children have a right to expect more – a right to expect to learn about their world and to succeed in an even larger world. It is up to grownups to see that they have the opportunity to do just that.
Actively Learning
As baby transitions into an expanded world, a world beyond the security of a parent’s arms and the comfort of a warm bassinet or crib, the partner’s role expands as well.
Emerging from the cocoon in which loving parents have so wisely wrapped their infant child, baby’s world soon becomes as active and predictable, or maybe as unpredictable, as the world in which we all live. Before long baby is traveling, observing visitors and family pets, running errands with senior partners, and even adjusting to daycare.
In addition to the usual child-care responsibilities, a senior partner’s job must now take into consideration baby’s new activities and use them as opportunities to further baby’s language development.
Now the senior partner’s role is to make sure baby is not left out -- that baby becomes an active participant in each day’s events. At least as far as language is concerned.
Building a Unique Knowledge and Language Base
Help baby learn by:
  • Making it a habit to discuss ordinary and even extraordinary events with baby.
  • Explaining events, both large and small. Help baby to be an active participant in the language experience.
  • Using repetition through rhythm and rhyme to accelerate and reinforce baby’s language acquisition and ultimately new skills.
  • Exposing baby to music. Sing along. After all, lyrics are forms of language too.
  • Elaborating upon as well as explaining events to help baby attach words and meaning to each experience.
  • Discussing the relationships between items, people and events to help baby learn about natural sequences found in ideas and language.
  • Frequently using complete sentences when talking to baby.
  • Not counting on talking toys, or especially television talking heads. Direct human interaction is the most important factor in learning language.
  • Educating family members about the importance of having “conversations” with baby.
The Yellow Ducky vs. the Cell Phone
Now as you continue to hold your conversations with baby, telling him he is beautiful, telling her she is special and golden, take the time to explain other events.
In addition to discussing baby’s bath-time rituals such as the duties of Little Toot and the antics of yellow duck, take the time to explain to baby that the water comes from the faucet. While baby may have only a passing interest in this information, you can still generate excitement by pouring bubble bath into the water, something else you can explain.
When bath time is over, tell baby how good he or she feels all wrapped up in the warm and thirsty towel. Put the cell phone away. Make each event, however insignificant it might seem to you, an occasion for an active and engaging language experience. You can be sure that baby will enjoy becoming an increasingly active participant in the lives of those who care for him or her the most.
The Neighbors are Moving!
When the neighbors move, tell baby. Hold baby up to the window as you describe the furniture the movers load onto the truck. This event may not appear to be of monumental interest to baby, but it is all registering somewhere.
Likewise, explain the special moments in your day. Explain to baby why you had to spend the day on the telephone with your boss (you may want to leave your feelings out) and why little else was accomplished.
At the supermarket make a point of showing baby the lettuce and milk as you load it into the cart. Then let baby touch the items while you explain what they are.
Explain and generally converse with baby as often as it’s reasonable and possible, whether there is an immediate response or not. Children understand the meaning of words long before they can actually produce the words themselves. For instance, tell a young toddler to “pick up teddy bear,” and the youngster will reach for it and pick it up.
Show and tell your way through making little fishy swim. Then ask baby to do the same.
Very Important Words
Identify a spoonful of “spinach?” or “carrots?” and baby won’t even have to look at the stuff before responding to that. Then ask if baby is ready for pudding and observe that response.
Infants quickly learn the meaning of other very important words: “Mama” is rarely (I’d say never) confused with “Dada.” And when an exhausted “Dada” announces “Mama” has arrived home at last? Even an infant gets excited about that.
Infants seem absolutely bent on collecting and storing information in preparation for the day when they will talk and communicate with all those who are trying so hard to communicate with them. In a few short months, this ultimately leads, of course, to a little partner endlessly explaining his own events whether they are interesting to us or not. 
Nevertheless, encourage your little partner to talk, to hold up his or her end of the conversation. When baby makes cooing sounds, coo in response. When baby first experiments with words such as “Mama,” don’t hesitate to share in this conversation.
Rhythm, Rhyme and Repetition
In addition to holding regular conversations, there are many other ways to help baby learn language early in life. And some ways are more fun than others.
Learning through repetition is probably the most fun, especially when it involves rhythm and rhyme. Place you littlest partner beside you or in your lap and repeat those time-honored nursery rhymes – Little Jack Horner, Sing a Song of Sixpence, or Little Bo-Peep.
Make nursery rhyme time a daily event. You can recite the same rhymes every day until baby signals you to stop. Mostly, babies love rhythm and rhyme and quickly respond to their favorites.
When children begin talking on their own, you will often hear them repeat the nursery rhymes they have had read to them or heard so often. Babies like to hear words and ideas repeated, especially since the world to them is all so new.
Couple this repetition with catchy rhythms and rhymes and it won’t be long before you hear your child repeating it all back to you.
Music is another way to share language. And music is fun for everyone. Even very young children learn by singing along or moving to the rhythm of a song.
And while silly children’s songs are lively and attention grabbing, don’t forget popular songs (or opera, if you will). Singing along with the radio or CD can enhance and promote learning as well as provide entertainment. Children love music, and as you repeat lyrics and popular phrases you will soon have your littlest partner singing right along. What’s more, it is all language.
Breanna’s mother loved country music and she loved to drive. Whenever they hit the road, CD’s popped into the drive, and the two of them could be seen swinging and singing together, cruisin’ along.
By the time Breanna was 10 months old she could make sounds that resembled the words to “Forever Love” and the rest of her favorite Reba McEntire songs. Within one year she knew them all. Later, Breanna went on to wow her first-grade class with her rhythm and expression as she read. In the third grade she held the lead in the class musical production.
Lyrics are words. And musical rhythm simply parallels and exaggerates words and ideas. Who said literacy isn’t fun?  And it all contributes to learning, to making baby smart.
Over and Over, Again
When learning from scratch, new experiences, like new words, need to be revisited to secure the ideas or concepts in baby’s brain. Repetition helps reinforce these lessons. Singing songs and reciting nursery rhymes are perhaps the most entertaining examples.
But what about repeating the names of the neighbor’s flowers? Or the people Daddy works with? For instance, “Sarah likes kitties and gerbils. Juan likes old cars. He fixes them. Katlyn is a good worker. They all help Daddy do his job.” Or “Mommy works in a big building.”
These may not be crucial topics as far as baby is concerned, but it is all language. Repeat these ideas over time and baby soon recognizes them as important information. Baby learns.
To Grandmother’s House We Go
Elaboration also plays a big role in teaching baby how language works. One good strategy is to simply explain and elaborate upon an experience.
For instance, make baby an active participant in the drive to grandma’s house (“We are turning the corner now. Now we are going to drive down this road for about five miles. I wish it didn’t have so many holes in it, etc.”).
Once you arrive, recount for baby some of the events that occurred along the way. “Well, we made it! We went around the holes and over the bridge. And now we are safely at grandma’s house.”
Remember that without your commentary, the little partner strapped in the car-seat in the back seat won’t have a clue. It is up to you to attach words and meaning to each experience.
When baby gets older and more accustomed to the route, or routine, it is always fun ask your toddler “which way?” when you approach an intersection. It’s amazing how well children remember a favorite route. This is a great game, and fun for the whole family.
Tying Strings Together
Baby also appreciates it when you help by tying together a string of experiences to reinforce the relationships between words and events.
“Daddy and Baby went bye-bye. You went shopping with Daddy and now you have new shoes. Show mommy your new shoes. Baby and Daddy bought new shoes at the store. New shoes are pretty. I like your new shoes.” helps a toddler understand the natural sequence of language, i.e., cause and effect or series of events, just like any good story. And baby appreciates your help.
In contrast, a child is handicapped if the communication between partners is limited to only one-word or short commands. To tell a child to “go to sleep,” or to “eat,” or “get up,” does not give a child very much information, at least as far as language is concerned.
How much better it is to tuck a child in with, “It’s time to go to sleep. Tomorrow we can play with our new puppy. You can play with your friends and toys. Maybe we will see Aunt Carol. It will be a wonderful day.”
If tucked in with nothing but a single, short command small children are left to figure the world out all by themselves. And with very little knowledge and a limited vocabulary at that.
Baby gets help making sense of things when a senior partner summarizes events as they take place, by giving them beginnings, middles and ends – just like in a story.
The Pay-Off
Baby is deeply rewarded (to say nothing of Mama and Dada) to hear his own words repeated by the people baby admires most.
When baby speaks those very first words?  Nobody is delighted more than baby who discovers that he or she has managed to communicate reasonably and rationally at last. At last, the littlest partner is understood.
The rewards are enormous. Soon this little communicator tries again, and before long doesn’t seem to want to stop. It just feels too good. Finally, active and engaging “conversations” between two partners is paying off.
Say "No" to Tech
While this may be the 21st century, as busy as you may be, don’t try to pass off precious conversation time to technology, as convenient as that might be.
Keep in mind that human beings of all ages learn language best by interacting with other human beings. Although this new century is practically drowning in exotic technology (and toys), expert senior partners would not dream of substituting a television set or computer screen or a talking toy for real-time human interaction, at least as far as their own small charge is concerned.
Humans Only
Human interaction is the most important factor in learning human language. It is the only means by which a child can acquire all the knowledge needed to become a proficient and successful language learner.
That’s why we have never found an effective replacement for teachers -- or parents for that matter. We have never found a way to replace the depth of information we exchange or respond to by interacting with others.
Technology has never found an effective way to teach us how to understand, to trust, to say our prayers, or to show consideration for others. Hungry babies have no interest in pushing buttons or clicking mice. They cry because that works best. When they are older, it is through interacting with others that they learn it is nicer and more effective to say “please.”
Consequently, wise partners do not depend upon television’s talking heads to teach their child language, or how to communicate, or talk. Children are not interested in what talking heads have to say. It is all a very passive business as far as a child is concerned.
The talking-head is not talking to him. Children are only interested in what those around them have to say, what those who care for them, what those who have meaning in their lives have to share with them.
Early learning and language growth is a very personal business, which we find out soon enough when our littlest partner begins to repeat something we wished we hadn’t said.
Thousands of Words
When you think about it, an infant enters the world knowing not a single word and by the time that child reaches six years of age, he knows and has command of thousands of words.
It is easy to understand the importance of helping a child learn and participate in his or her language building experience. With a partner’s assistance, each new word today becomes multiple words tomorrow.
At first children simply repeat what they hear – at least until they have stored up enough words, knowledge and ideas. And then it happens! A child, your child, begins to use sentences he has made up himself (where did that come from?). All at once your child begins to create sentences he has never heard spoken before. Now your child is making language his or her own.
And it all happens because your child has been provided with a strong foundation in early language development. Now your child can think, reason and express himself or herself at a very early age.
This is how it works: Word by word, sentence by sentence, thought by thought – with a loving partner assisting a little partner through the whole process.
In a language-rich environment, children learn by:
  • Listening
  • Watching
  • Doing
  • Touching and feeling
  • Trying out the sounds of language on their own
  • Sharing