Raising a Reader, Naturally
                     Through Sensitivity, Guidance and Grace
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Chapter Two
Who's Listening?
Marcus and Adam
Waiting for the train, I noticed a family entertaining their young child by letting him explore the steps and flowerbeds near the Amtrak terminal. Watching him, I was curious to know how old he was as his vocabulary seemed to be so limited – “Up. Down,” he’d say, but only at his father’s prompting.
I watched as his parents interacted with each other, as well as with their child. They seemed totally devoted to their son, their eyes never leaving him. I noticed they talked a great deal to each other, but seldom directly to their son.
Once on the train, the family sat in the seat behind me. At the first stop another father and his small son boarded the train. From the moment this pair stepped on board, this child talked nonstop. For a child of this size, his vocabulary was impressive, as well as his knowledge of trains.
Along the Tracks
Across the aisle, the two families with sons about the same size began a conversation, centered, of course, on their children. As it turned out, both boys, Marcus and Adam, were 2-years-old. Marcus, the first child to board the train, did not seem to be particularly engaged in the trip.
Adam, however, was taking in the whole excursion, asking his father numerous questions and pointing out any features or items on the train that caught his attention. His father patiently responded to his son’s inquiries and together they shared everything from the sights (logs, lumber and trees) to the operation of the train’s doors and restroom.
Adam’s father told us that they were getting off at the next stop and returning on the next train. He explained the short trip by telling us that Adam liked trains so much, that they often spent time together just taking short jaunts.
Two Families
Behind me Marcus’s parents continued to talk mostly to each other and mostly past their son. For his part, Marcus said little. When the train stopped, Adam and his father departed the train with Adam chatting excitedly about their upcoming return trip.
Watching the two families, I couldn’t help thinking about the power of holding conversations with children; about parents, or senior partners, who share conversations with their child directly and those who talk around their child.  Adam’s father had clearly made a substantial contribution to his son’s advanced language skills and knowledge.
Adam was definitely a most fortunate child.
Baby’s Wonderfully Active Brain
Not too long ago (the last century), we thought babies were little more than demanding (although growing) human organisms, albeit something to cuddle, something to love. A baby’s mind was considered mostly a blank slate which, if the child was properly raised, would mature intellectually in his or her own time. As far as mom and dad were concerned, their role was to nurture their child’s character and will.
In the 1937 U.S. Department of Labor publication, The Child from One to Six, parents were advised to concentrate on teaching their child independence and courage during their child’s first years. There was no mention of holding conversations with a child or even encouraging a child’s intellectual development. Instead children were encouraged to be and play alone.
Too much attention was forbidden. According to the publication, the crybaby or sissy was “usually the child who was babied at home too long.” Back then it was assumed that real learning was best left to the authorities (teachers!) in a convenient and efficient place (schools!).
Baby Literacy
Today, we know better. We know now that right from the moment of birth baby is an intelligent and active learner. We know that right from the beginning a newborn is capable of absorbing, processing and responding to human sounds and words – to even mom and dad’s disposition. This is baby literacy. While baby listens and watches, baby is actively processing sounds, sights and emotions. By putting it all together, baby is actively building a language foundation, leading to what will ultimately result in baby talking, reading and even writing on his or her own.
Your Own Intelligent Child
We know today that even the youngest infant can think and reason, just like the rest of us. And if anyone has to ask, they only have to approach any new and exhausted parent who has tried to “trick” their crying baby by using a soft voice in the middle of the night: a sleepy: “I’m coming. “I’m coming,” while mom tries to stay in bed. This strategy might sooth baby once or twice but it doesn’t take baby long to figure it all out, thwart the whole scheme and gain control of the situation (and mom) once again. Baby quickly learns to process and respond to even empty promises, rapidly and efficiently.
A Brain All Fresh and New
Indeed we need little scientific evidence to remind us that what lies behind those tiny folds or squinting eyes (that dare take a brave peek at rude, delivery room lights or reflect the blessing of mom’s smile) is the most wonderful mass of tissue ever devised – the human brain. A brain all fresh and new, yet biologically ready to process the patterns and meaning of human sounds and language.
In fact, research (How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, 2000, The National Research Council) actually describes how the circuitry and cells in a baby’s brain processes and builds knowledge from every bit of new or revised bit of information baby receives.
Modern Parents
Modern and observant parents don’t have to be told this. They don’t have to scientifically analyze their infant’s brain to testify that their conversations with baby, their attention, their actions and emotions inevitably earn a response, and an intelligent one at that, from their offspring.
  • Right from the beginning infants can “read” or intelligently process the sounds their mothers and fathers make as they fuss over baby’s everyday needs.
  • Even the littlest partner watches and listens intently as senior partners coo and sing or otherwise engage baby in conversation.
  • Baby’s brain actively responds to all senior partner’s actions and sounds, to every language experience.
In fact, it is fair to say that a newborn’s talent for learning language is in a large sense preordained. At birth baby’s brain is already programmed to process language. Baby is already equipped to identify human sounds and to begin to attach meaning to those sounds. And it is these early sounds that baby hears, the parent’s or primary senior partner’s speech, that provides the foundation, the knowledge base, upon which baby will build his or her own language, as well as future reading and writing skills.
Who Does Baby Know Best?
And who does baby listen to? Who is most apt to capture baby’s attention? That person baby knows best – that person that baby has come to love and trust -- that new senior partner in baby’s life – mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, or primary caregiver.
In fact, early conversations with a senior partner are so critical to baby’s language development that current research (National Research Council Report) confirms that an infant’s early “conversations” with his or her mother carries enough meaning or weight that it is the mother’s language that baby will ultimately adopt as his or her own. 
Even though other languages may be spoken in the presence of an infant, that child will select the mother’s language, leaving the language of others to be largely ignored or left behind. For instance, if an infant’s mother speaks to her child in Japanese (mother’s native language), and even though English is spoken by others in the baby’s presence, the infant’s first language will be Japanese.
Talking, Singing and Cooing = Learning
So how does this process work?
How can such a small and inexperienced human being be so smart? So selective? How does an infant learn language -- any language, anyway?
First of all, watch as the two of you hold your private talks. Watch as baby actively follows and even studies your mouth and eyes while you hold up your end of the conversation. As you speak, baby’s brain actively makes connections between your eye and lip movements and the intonations and rhythm of your voice.
Thus as you talk, sing and coo, baby is busy gathering information from which his or her mastery of language will emerge. By listening and watching, baby learns about the structure and the meaning of language – learns about the connections between words, phrasing, tone, emotions and actions. And baby does this right from the beginning, right from your first “hello” – simply by using what baby is born with – a wonderfully active brain.
What an Amazing Feat!
It is all an amazing feat – a miracle really, when you consider that a newborn, who can only coo and cry, is only months away from talking. Furthermore, this same infant is less than three short years away from actually being able to tell, and perhaps even read, stories.
Although we can marvel at this achievement it is important to remember that learning to talk and then to tell or read stories is not something that baby can accomplish alone.
It takes two, at least two, baby and a senior partner or partners to initiate and share the journey, to venture together along the path to baby’s success in learning to talk and to read.
Busy Parents
Of course it also takes time.
And for busy parents time can be scarce. But researchers have found that a child’s experiences with spoken as well as written language, that the minutes, hours and days that a parent or senior partner contributes to a child’s literacy needs has a profound effect upon that child’s future reading success.
Thus the commitment you make to your child’s language development today, along with a positive attitude towards reading and learning will play a critical role in the production of your future class star.
You don’t need to overdo it. But keep in mind that it is a grownup’s job to initiate conversation with baby. It won’t be long, however, before this situation is reversed. But for now a senior partner should remember to –
  • Talk to baby while feeding and bathing baby.
  • Talk to baby while changing baby’s diaper and clothing.
  • Talk to baby at every opportunity throughout the day.
Don’t force it, simply converse naturally with even the youngest infant, just as you would with any other intelligent human being.
You're Not Talking to Yourself
If you find yourself at a loss for words or ideas about what to talk about when engaging in what might seem like an endless monolog, simply remind yourself of the need to explain events and actions to baby.
Remember it will all be new to baby. “Let’s wrap baby in our favorite blanket, so nice and blue and soft.” Keep the conversation intelligent and running. “This is the blanket we like best for a rainy day. Well, maybe tomorrow will be sunny and then we can use the yellow blanket.” 
Keep talking. Baby will listen. Baby will not fail to learn.
Some parents have difficulty imagining a conversation with an infant who can’t hold up his or her end of it. They feel that it is too much like talking to them self.  Unfortunately, the alternative, shying away from meaningful conversation with your child and/or failing to read to your child, can leave a young child unprepared for reading and to struggle forever with low scores, remediation, and the consequences of low self-esteem.
Studies (Starting Out Right: Growing up to Read, National Research Council, 2000) find that those students who are at most at risk for failure in the early grades are those children who have less verbal skill, less knowledge of the sounds of letters and words, and less experience with reading.
Even more unfortunate, the same researchers wonder out loud if in fact a child who comes unprepared for reading in elementary school can succeed in later grades -- or if this child’s lack of language development can ever be reversed.
Thus a willing and engaging parent or partner in literacy becomes an infant’s most important asset, his or her major key to success if you will, as he or she undertakes this most important journey towards literacy – and life.
Baby Talk
Of course, we are all tempted to talk to baby in baby’s own language, baby talk. But use restraint. Baby talk is fine if limited to loving emotional exchanges. But not much is learned about the construction or complexity of the language if baby talk is engaged in exclusively.
Having said this, keep in mind that baby’s own attempts to talk are different and different rules apply.
Encourage baby to make his or her own special sounds, for these sounds are after all the beginning sounds and patterns of speech. Smile and show your delight with baby’s ga-ga’s and gurgles and bubbles. Repeat baby’s sounds if you can. Make a game of it.
Before long what began as rudimentary sounds at playtime will soon become brilliantly pronounced words like “mama” and “dada.”
Talk, Talk & More Talk
So talk.Use complete sentences as often as possible.
Baby needs to hear and process all the words he or she will ultimately be expected to read. If little words like “were” and “was,” for instance, are consistently slurred over or left out, chances are an early reader will not be aware they even exist, giving the little emerging reader one more obstacle to overcome.
So begin your conversations with your newborn infant from the moment of birth. Talk with baby throughout the day. Talk to baby as you drive, just as you sing songs and repeat nursery rhymes. Baby will listen to the rhythm and the rhymes all the while absorbing the cadence, tone and meaning of your sounds and language.
Even in the first few weeks baby will be actively learning, and your conversations will reinforce what baby has absorbed or learned from previous days. Repetition of sounds, words and actions help baby make connections between what you say and what you do. “Shhhh,” consistently (usually) soothes a cranky baby; “So big,” stretches both small muscles and active minds.
Although it may at times seem like play, language and actions are serious business to new, developing brains.
A Priceless Quest
So as you stand on the edge of this new millennium, your newborn snug in your arms, do not fail to do your part.
Talk to your infant about your hopes and dreams, about small, seemingly insignificant matters. Talk about things you know and things you don’t know – but are willing to learn more about. Share your knowledge and your own special skills. A child’s knowledge of language, about how it works is always based upon what the child hears, especially from someone the child knows and trusts.
This is the material your little emerging reader will use to build upon when he or she begins to read on his or her own. That’s why a literate child, or other literate human being, cannot be created out of thin air. That is why by talking to your child and then by reading to your littlest partner you are sharing with this smallest and brightest person in your universe the keys to literacy.
You are the one who holds the secrets to knowledge and wisdom, who gives your small, partner something to draw from and cherish as the two of you undertake this most priceless quest towards your littlest partner’s future success.
Talking Points
Topics a newborn would like to hear more about:
  • The weather
  • Family members and their habits
  • Baby’s home
  • Family pets
  • Friends
  • Relatives
  • Your favorite books, movies, music, hobbies, sports
  • Baby’s daily routine and care
  • How much you love each other
  • Your hopes and dreams
  • Just about anything else you can think of
  • Recycle topics (Baby will never tire of listening)