Reading Rockets Interview with Susan B. Neuman

Susan B. Neuman served as the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education where she helped establish the Reading First and Early Reading First programs. She is a professor in Educational Studies at the University of Michigan, specializing in early literacy development, and former director of the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Ability (CIERA).

We spoke with her in April, 2007, about her recent publication, A Parent's Guide to Reading With Your Young Child.

As someone who has been involved in both the research and policy sides of education, what prompted you to publish a parent's guide to reading with this particular audience and for this age group?

My heart is in early childhood education. If we get kids off to a great start, we can make a tremendous difference in their lives. I have a new book coming out called Changing the Odds where I talk more about the impact of parent involvement especially at this age, and why it is so important.

Does this guide contain information that most parents do naturally? What information would you guess will be new to most parents?

This guide is based on great deal of research. Traditionally parents have known that it's important to read to children, but there has not been a great sense of the match between child development and choice of books. It's not just the frequency of reading that matters, but also having good content.

The guide helps parents match critical characteristics of books with their child's developmental skills. It's a system that is easy for parents to use and it's based on latest science in child development and early literacy development.

What has recent research told us about early literacy development that we didn't know before?

We often hear that it doesn't matter what you read as long as you read. We have found that this is not true! The content matters.

We know more about children's vision, their developmental needs in terms of what they can see and what they can't. We know that very young children need sturdy pages because the muscles in their hands are not fully developed. Lots of black squiggles too early on is confusing for children, so the placement and amount of print is critical to their understanding. Too much information can be confusing.

We know more about the kind of content children relate to in the early years. We often hear that it doesn't matter what you read as long as you read. We have found that this is not true! The content matters.

What is the most exciting research in the field on this topic, in your opinion?

We have a much more distinct understanding of what is appropriate for babies. Lots of parents say, "My child isn't interested or is not ready." The fact is the book is probably not matched to the child's needs. When we do this better, we can be more developmentally appropriate.

Books are the single best means for getting kids ready for school. They provide critical characteristics that get kids off to a good start by offering experiences with vocabulary, comprehension, and offering cognitive development opportunities that kids can't get anywhere else.

What are the biggest obstacles parents face when trying to build early reading skills?

There are lots of wonderful books out there, so the choices are difficult. Parents may not know how to choose good materials for children. The guide puts these factors together.

Parents often lack time. Many materials are available in video and audio form, so there is not just one mechanism for sharing stories with kids. The emotional attachment of reading with children is important, but when you don't have time or when you need to have your child occupied while you are doing something else, there are substitutes, like sharing stories in audio and video form.

You list some great books for kids of different ages between 0-5. How can parents tell on their own if a book is appropriate for a particular age group?

They can begin by using this guide and they'll begin to develop strategies to know how to choose. When they go to the library, they'll be more sensitive to the features of good books.

Children are fascinated by books! This guide is a jumping off place for parents. The hope is that they continue to develop a sense of good and appropriate literature on their own.

You list a variety of newer and older books in your guide. What makes a great children's book?

Some overzealous parents think using more difficult material will help a child get ahead, but using overly challenging materials can backfire, and cause a child to lose interest in reading.

There is an insert in the beginning of the guide that lists format, features, content, language, and skills for each age group, from babies to older preschoolers. Some overzealous parents think using more difficult material will help a child get ahead – this is not true! Using overly challenging materials can backfire, and cause a child to lose interest in reading.

Kids often want to hear the same book over and over again. While this can be tiring for parents, what benefits do kids get from hearing a story multiple times?

There are wonderful benefits of reading stories again and again. Some are really going to be a hit – so use that! Repetition has enormous benefits. Kids begin to memorize words and recite them. A book like Good Night Moon stays with children even as they grow up, and makes them more likely to read with their own children.

What's the role of nonfiction when reading with young kids?

Nonfiction has a tremendous role for young children. We start with shapes and colors, and move on to concept books. As children get older, their interest in specialized information grows stronger – insects, dinosaurs, outer space. Targeting children's interests is a great way to engage them in nonfiction.

What advice do you have for a parent whose child is not interested in books?

There's no law that says you have to finish a book. Parents sometimes read for too long, so my advice is to start short and build up. Start with the child's interests. Start reading just one page and stop at the crest of the wave, rather than going on until they lose interest. Reading for short periods of time intrigues kids and gets them ready to read.

Another idea: during times you would normally read, tell a story instead. If you begin through storytelling, kids can gradually become interested in books. Young kids are often interested in learning about when they were born or stories from their parents' lives.

What is a parent's role in correcting a beginning reader? How can a parent guide a child's reading without being discouraging?

Parents should be very careful and not over-correct. If a child is missing a lot of words, choose an easier book. Easily decodable books like Sam I Am and The Cat in the Hat give kids practice with easily decodable words.

Another way to guide children without over-correcting is to model good reading. You can do this by reading one page aloud and the child reading the next, so the parent can both model and observe fluency, intonation, rhythm. This will support a child's own development in these areas.

Do you have different recommendations for parents who are nonreaders, or who don't speak English?

Tell stories! Children need to hear their parents talk. It doesn't matter what language the parent uses, but it does matter that the parent engages in rich conversation with the child. This rich language environment becomes the foundation for becoming bilingual and for reading.

If they read English haltingly, it doesn't matter – especially when reading to young children, you can just make up the words and use the book as context. Parents should see this as fun as well as critically important. The more parents can get into it as a fun project, the more joy on the part of the child.

What are your predictions on the evolving role of preschool as a means of preparing kids for school?

We know that the most powerful intervention is the parent's role, and we are overselling Pre-K when we need to be overselling parenting.

I worry. I think there is increasing academic pressure in Pre-K – almost a high stakes Pre-K. We know that the most powerful intervention is the parent's role, and we are overselling Pre-K when we need to be overselling parenting.

We need to remember that Pre-K as an intervention has a modest impact on child's cognitive development, but that parenting has a huge impact.

Reading Rockets exclusive interview.


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"The things I want to know are in books. My best friend is the man who'll get me a book I [haven't] read." — Abraham Lincoln