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Pediatricians Call for Engagement in Early Reading

Cross-posted from Christina Samuels at Early Years.

The American Academy of Pediatrics' recent advice to start reading to children "from infancy" may have parents of newborns running to the library.

But the author of the policy statement says that sleep-deprived moms and dads can give themselves a break: The point of the recommendation is to start positive interactions early that include reading, talking, singing, rhyming, and cuddling—not to add another chore or obligation to the day.

Once parents hit their stride after the baby is born, "this is a lovely thing to move into your routine," said Dr. Pamela C. High, the past chairwoman of the academy's committee on early childhood, adoption, and dependent care. "You don't have to wait until the kids are able to recognize print."

Dr. High said that the policy statement was based on the increasing amount of evidence that nurturing environments are key to a child's neurodevelopment—a topic particularly important for protecting children against the ill effects of poverty or family stress. 

"We seek to inoculate children against childhood disease, and this is an equivalent effort to provide the same sort of protection to communities that are disenfranchised or underserved," said Greg Worrell, the president of the Scholastic Classroom and Community Group. The book publisher is donating 500,000 books to medical offices so they can be given to families. 

Reading as Interaction

The policy statement notes that books can be a springboard to interactive conversations between an adult and a child, which is meaningful not just for parents, but for educators as well. One way to do this is through "dialogic reading," a technique created by Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst, currently a fellow at the Brookings Institution and the former director of the Institute of Education Sciences within the U.S. Department of Education. He explains the basics of the technique below:

The focus of dialogic reading is to actively engage the child in talking about what's going on in the book. Whitehurst created a mnemonic for what adults are supposed to do with the child:

Prompt the child to say something about the book;

Evaluate the child's response;

Expand the child's response by rephrasing and adding information to it, and

Repeat the prompt to make sure the child has learned from the expansion.

This article from the Reading Rockets website goes into more detail on the technique. As with the AAP recommendation, the goal is to keep the interactions fun and engaging for children. In an interview, Whitehurst said that the principles of dialogic reading don't require parents to be great readers themselves, and can also be done with appropriate digital materials. 

"Of course it's important to [read], and it's even more important to do it well," Whitehurst said. "It's not primarily about a child sitting there, it's about getting the child and the student engaged in that process. And it's a tremendous opportunity to teach lots of things that children need when they start formal reading."

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