More non-profits teaching parents to read with children

Credit: Lillian Mongeau/EdSource Today

Uriel Torres, 4, counts the windows on a building pictured in the Clifford book he’s reading with his tutor, Lisa Hern, at his home in East Palo Alto.

Uriel Torres, 4, wasn’t sitting quietly as his tutor read him a book about Clifford, that irascible big red dog. He wasn’t sitting at all. He leaned forward out of his high chair, almost laying his little body out on the kitchen table, to get a closer look at the illustrations.

Uriel is one of nearly 100 children in East Palo Alto who receive free books and private tutoring through the nonprofit 10 Books A Home, in exchange for a commitment from his mother: She reads with him every day. Programs such as 10 Books A Home, which focus on improving early reading skills by engaging parents, are spreading in California.

The programs have different approaches. For instance, the statewide Raising A Reader program and San Diego’s Words Alive! both work with child care centers and preschools to connect with children and parents. But all the programs have the same goal: To get children, and parents, excited about reading.

It’s worked for Uriel.

Rather than waiting for his tutor, Lisa Hern, to tell him the story of Clifford’s chance to be a volunteer firefighter, Uriel wanted to discuss how the smoke got out of the burning building. Or imagine the best way for Clifford’s humans to bring him along on vacation, since big red dogs don’t fit in cars. His tutor encouraged his questions and asked lots of her own about what colors Uriel saw and how many windows he could count on the drawing of the smoking building.

The 10 Books A Home program was founded on the idea that low-income parents are just as willing to “pay” for extra help for their kids as middle- and high-income parents. They may not have $60 to $100 to spend per home tutoring session, CEO and founder Paul Thiebaut reasoned, but he thought they’d happily commit to spending their time and energy learning the best ways to get their children ready for school.

“It matters to me because I want my son to succeed,” said Uriel’s mother, Clarisa Torres, as she watched her son and his tutor closely, picking up ideas for the next time she read with Uriel.

Getting parents at all income levels excited about reading to their young children has become a growing trend as more research has emerged about the importance of early language development to later success. Reading and talking to children under 5 years old on a daily basis is critical to their vocabulary development, their verbal communication skills and their ability to begin reading on time and at grade level in elementary school, said Dana Suskind, director a University of Chicago research laboratory focused on early language acquisition.

“The difference in early language exposure really is the beginning of the achievement gap,” Suskind said.


Source: Hart and Risley, Meaningful Differences, 1995

And the difference can be vast. Research first published in 1995 by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, of the University of Kansas, established that a 30 million-word gap exists between the vocabularies of 3-year-old children from low-income families and 3-year-olds from middle-income families. Since then a large body of research has confirmed and expanded this initial finding.

“How much parents talk to kids has a huge impact,” Suskind said, calling the extensive research on the subject “indisputable.”

Involving parents was common sense, Theibaut said. “Think about people accepting awards: After God, sometimes before God, (people thank their) parents,” he said.

Torres, who is married now and has a second son, said she used to think the program’s requirement that she read to her son every day was “pointless.” Her parents hadn’t read to her as a child and she didn’t see the importance of reading to Uriel, then a toddler. And reading to a 2-year-old can be frustrating.

“I would try to read him a book and he would just grab it and say whatever he wanted,” Torres said. “So I would give up.”

After watching Uriel and his tutor reading together over the past year and a half, Torres said she better understood her son’s behavior.

“He was just too small,” to sit silently and listen, Torres said she learned. “He needed my support to work with him on (a level appropriate for) his age.”

Many studies that were limited in scope have found positive preliminary results for programs like 10 Books A Home. But there have been no large-scale studies that track the academic trajectory of children whose parents are enrolled in programs that focus on teaching them the importance of reading to and speaking with their children. That’s about to change.

Starting this year, Suskind will be able to test her own parent-outreach program, the Thirty Million Words Initiative, by comparing the language development of children whose parents are enrolled to that of children whose parents are not. The longitudinal study will follow the children for five years with help from a part of $19 million grant from the PNC Foundation, the philanthropic arm of PNC Bank.

“Unless we really connect ourselves to science, unless we see that we can change outcomes, you can have a lot of feel-good organizations,” and no real change, Suskind said.

That shouldn’t stop nonprofits from doing what they can to help parents talk and read more with their children, Suskind said.

Children at FranDelJA Enrichment Center in San Francisco get into a story about five little monkeys pushing their mother's old car up the hill. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource

Children at FranDelJA Enrichment Center in San Francisco get into a story about five little monkeys pushing their mother’s car up the hill. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource

Organizations across California are taking different approaches to the challenge. Raising A Reader is one of the longest running programs of its kind in the state. Founded in California, the program has gone national over the last 15 years. Participating schools get regular read-alouds from Raising A Reader staff, training for teachers, classes for parents, and a collection of books for students to borrow.

At FranDelJA preschool in San Francisco’s Bayview–Hunters Point neighborhood, 16 children listened to “Pete the Cat and his Four Groovy Buttons,” read aloud by Raising a Reader’s Michele Callwood, a Bay Area program coordinator and former special education teacher.

It was raining, but being stuck inside hadn’t dampened the children’s interest in the story about a singing cat who manages to lose his four shirt buttons.  The children delighted in singing along with Pete about his shrinking assembly of groovy buttons. In the last scene, the only button the cat has left is his belly button, which turns out to be fantastically funny, if you’re 4.

When Callwood finished, one little girl shouted: “Read it again!”

Inspiring children to love reading is part of the plan, said Molly Wertz, executive director of Raising A Reader, Bay Area. A child handing a parent a book and saying, “Please read with me,” makes the ideal ambassador for reading more at home, Wertz said.

“It doesn’t come naturally (to parents) if that hasn’t been a part of (their lives), if children were seen and not heard, if the only book at home was the Bible and nobody touched it but daddy,” Wertz said.

Sheryl Rowser of San Diego said when she was a young mother, she worked several jobs to make ends meet. She tried her best, but she rarely had time to sit and chat with or read to her four boys, now adults. Besides, academics weren’t encouraged in her neighborhood, she said.

“You were a nerd if you were a book scholar,” Rowser said.

Rowser is now raising her fifth child, 6-year-old Dakari, and she’s done worrying about the nerd label. Last year, Rowser enrolled in a reading club for children and parents offered by Words Alive!, a San Diego nonprofit. The club met weekly to make crafts, read books and learn about early childhood development at her daughter’s public preschool.

“I never realized when a child is reading he’s using his imagination and becoming more educated just by opening his mind,” Rowser said. “It was like the breath of fresh air to me.”

Rowser said Words Alive! made a huge difference to her, but she knew several women in her neighborhood who were eligible for the classes and didn’t sign up.

In the end, Rowser said, “you gotta want to make change for yourself.”

Lillian Mongeau covers early childhood education. Contact her or follow her @lrmongeau. Subscribe to EdSource’s early learning newsletter, Eyes on the Early Years.

Filed under: Academics, Curriculum, Early Learning, Literacy, Parent Involvement



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14 Responses to “More non-profits teaching parents to read with children”

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  1. Cherie on May 27, 2014 at 9:39 pm05/27/2014 9:39 pm

    • 000

    Reading to children by parents enforces the idea that parents think that reading is valuable, and a social activity that can be shared.
    The best formula I know is the “bed time story” idea, that reading a story to your kids before they go to sleep is a good way to settle them ready for sleeping, and provides a cosy family ritual. One of my proudest achievements was when a parent of a boy who I had been encouraging to read on a daily basis at home told me at a parents evening that not only did he read every evening, but that his little brothers now joined in with him every night.

  2. Don on Apr 15, 2014 at 9:20 am04/15/2014 9:20 am

    • 000

    Floyd, your homework-centric notion of student achievement has several shortcomings, not the least of which is that most learning takes place at school, not after. While it may be intuitive that more study equates to more learning, much of the neuroscience disputes that. You don’t factor in quality,learning style or the science of learning and the brain. Studying certain subjects like the memorizing of the multiplication tables is probably more akin to your calorie-intake model, but even in this case 5 minutes 6 times a day is generally regarded to be substantively more effective than 30 minutes straight. Study and its affect on memory, whether at home or at school, is a far more complex subject than your simplistic more-is-better mantra.

    For a brief and popular overview of this subject I refer you to the TIME article on homework.


    • Floyd Thursby on Apr 15, 2014 at 3:01 pm04/15/2014 3:01 pm

      • 000

      Don, why do you think Lowell students do so much better in college and study the most in high school? I know one woman on this board said her kid would go to Galileo and an Ivy League school, but I doubt she’ll tell us if this doesn’t pan out, I think it was just babbling nonsense not based on logic. Lowell students do so much better in college, and the students who go to the best colleges studied much more. I agree breaks are needed, but I think you’ll see a consistent pattern in achievement that low TV equates to high grades and SAT, and more hours studied leads to more achievement, particularly in college. Lowell kids often find college easy, but others find it overwhelming.

  3. Dick Schutz on Apr 14, 2014 at 4:01 pm04/14/2014 4:01 pm

    • 000

    As heart-warming as this story is, these parents and tutors are not reading WITH the children; they are reading TO the children. The monumental US Early Childhood Longitudinal Study has shown that this practice, however satisfying to kids and adults, has no effect on teaching the kids how to read.

    Very few young children lack motivation to learn to read and very few lack sufficient vocabulary and spoken language capability for successful instruction. Any child who can speak in whole sentences and participate in everyday conversation has the necessary prerequisites.

    Young children are even more excited and involved when they are reading TO adults rather than being read AT by the adults. There are several ways to go about the instruction and the cost of the instructional materials is less than the cost of the books in the initiatives described.

    When I saw the Headline,”More non-profits teaching parents to read with children,” I thought, “That’s great! Parents who can’t read English are being taught to do so along with teaching their young children to read.” Such instructional accomplishments are feasible, but unfortunately, that’s obviously not what is happening.


    • Floyd Thursby on Apr 14, 2014 at 5:06 pm04/14/2014 5:06 pm

      • 000

      Great point. In these cases, we need someone else to do it. Some parents are just not going to read to their kids, and teaching kids to read is more important than teaching them to listen. They need to be able to read for themselves. Every school should provide some one-on-one time. This is where many immigrants get way ahead, they realize it’s a skill, just like a kid who plays baseball young is more likely to be great, a kid who does flash cards and reads young is more likely to be a great student. You can’t make up for lost time. If you’re a bad parent till your kid is 9, they’ll never catch up, if you never do flash cards or teach them to read, they may become average but they will never become great. Your chance is gone. So if we want to save these kids we should assign a tutor 2 hours a week with each troubled child. At 6 or 7, before it’s too late. By 9, it ain’t gonna happen in 9 cases out of 10.

  4. Floyd Thursby on Apr 14, 2014 at 2:37 pm04/14/2014 2:37 pm

    • 000

    This is where you’re wrong, books on tape don’t improve grammar and vocabulary, they build prisons based on those who can and can’t read. Books on tape is lazy, it’s bad parenting, as Obama said you’re never so poor you can’t turn off the TV and read with your kid. It’s also more than just reading to your kids, studies have shown kids can identify every letter before 2, know 110 flash card words before turning 4, and have finished 100 page books before starting kindergarten with the help of a parent. 60% of Asian kids know how to read when starting kindergarten, vs. 16% of white kids, in California.

    Yes, Caroline, you have to reject that culture if you want to succeed from having parents who were not successful and from a culture which basically rejects long-term thinking, hard work and intellectual pursuit. We make decisions every day which are short-term or long-term. In our 20s, do we have roommates and save to buy a house or get a credit card and spend what seems fun and never buy a house? In high school, middle school, do we read and study, or watch TV? Most Californians make the wrong decision. That’s why 33.5% of Asians qualify for a UC vs. 8.7% of whites, more Asians make the right decision throughout their childhood, and more Asian parents do.

    Playing football is qualitatively no better than playing a musical instrument, dancing, playing softball or soccer or lacross, taking gymnastics, volunteering or any other activity. Studying and turning off the TV is always a moral and correct decision. The best parents raise the kids with the best grades and test scores, genetics being equal. Genetics is a factor, but not across groups, so culture is a stronger factor. Many parents fail to raise kids who get into Lowell or a UC because they are too soft.

    It isn’t relative, it is better to study than relax, for one’s family, honor, and future.


    • Lillian Mongeau on Apr 14, 2014 at 3:40 pm04/14/2014 3:40 pm

      • 000

      Hi Floyd,

      Would you mind adding sources for the numbers you include in your comment?

      Thank you,

    • Don on Apr 14, 2014 at 4:40 pm04/14/2014 4:40 pm

      • 000

      Floyd, teachers in early grades read to their students for good reason. It teaches them about appreciation for story, character development and other literacy skills that are separate from decoding skills. Listening to stories whether via books on tape or teachers modeling fluency definitely does increase vocabulary and grammar. But mostly it engenders a love of stories by which to encourage reading development. This is so obvious.

      Students learn reading skills at different developmental stages and hearing stories being read in person or on tape sets the stage for more advanced learning skills. It helps some students who struggle to read for various reasons such as culture or even learning disabilities. But almost all students can learn a greater appreciation for stories and reading through oral presentation.

      Regarding your response to Carolyn, I really don’t get your point. Young children don’t reject their own cultures. If this is what you are advocating you must not understand much about kids. Are you telling us that a 10 year old should be expected to blow off his parents and everything they stand for and make his way through the world by pulling himself up by the boot straps? How exactly does that work? And using statistics (supportable or not)to make points about your personal views on morality is a illogical tactic for argumentation.

      As far as studying and relaxing, one is not better than the other. They are both necessities without which one the other couldn’t exist.

      • Floyd Thursby on Apr 14, 2014 at 5:03 pm04/14/2014 5:03 pm

        • 000

        True Don, you need both, but it’s not that simple. The average Californian kid watches over 40 hours a week of TV including video games and videos on the web/social networking, and studies 5.6, from ages 11-18. The average who makes it into a UC finds time to study 20 hours a week and is in afterschool activities and watches under 10 hours a week of TV including games, etc. Obviously the latter group are making more moral decisions and being raised better and are going to have better lives. I’m not advocating never relaxing, but I admire those who minimize it and maximize productivity.

        You’re right, most follow it, but schools can get people to reject facets of their culture. They teach many kids of racist to be open, and many kids of homophobes to accept gay rights. Why not teach the kids of parents who studied 5 hours a week that you can have a way better life than your parents if you increase that to 20? Isn’t that the main purpose of education, to give kids a good life with a good job?

    • CarolineSF on Apr 14, 2014 at 5:09 pm04/14/2014 5:09 pm

      • 000

      My point is just that it’s complex, informing a family that it needs to correct its expectations — and the expectations of its community and culture — because you said so. It’s not necessarily as easy as just “do this!” “OK!”

    • TheMorrigan on Apr 14, 2014 at 5:40 pm04/14/2014 5:40 pm

      • 000

      Books on tape or read alouds do improve grammar, fluency, comprehension and vocabulary. The research is consistent on this. There are numerous studies out there that contradict your point on this, Floyd. In fact, I couldn’t find one that said otherwise going back 30 years.

      • Floyd Thursby on Apr 15, 2014 at 2:34 am04/15/2014 2:34 am

        • 000

        Maybe they’re better than TV, in fact I’m sure they are, but I don’t think they’re as good as reading. The point is, we need to get more students locked in by age 11, studying and reading 20 hours plus, keeping the TV off, then we’ll be an economic powerhouse. If every family in the State had their home life organized around school the way Chinese American parents do, we’d be doing amazing on all these measures.

  5. CarolineSF on Apr 14, 2014 at 8:33 am04/14/2014 8:33 am

    • 000

    A teacher friend in a high-poverty school was explaining to me about trying to convince parents who have no experience with it that reading is important. I started to wonder if it was like trying to convince me that teaching my kids to play football is important. (Which would simply not be possible.)

    There are cultures in which going to work as soon as it’s legal is considered a given, and graduating from high school is not an expectation. (My grandmother was from such a culture.) So how much of the message about the importance of finishing high school involves the sub-text, “Ignore your family’s expectations — turn your back on your culture”?

    As usual, it’s more complex than it sounds.

  6. Paul Muench on Apr 13, 2014 at 10:25 pm04/13/2014 10:25 pm

    • 000

    As californians we’re in our cars so much, I recommend books on cd from you local library. Also great for when you get tired when your kids are not.

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