An Interview with Laura Staal: Have they Dropped the Drop Everything and Read Program?

Sep 27, 2011 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1) Laura, you have some feelings about the importance of reading to students. How did this come about?

Reading aloud to children was one of the first reading interventions that I learned about during my undergraduate education program in the early 1990s. At that time, I was taught that reading aloud to children had many benefits:

1) Reading is engaging and fun for teacher and students.

2) It exposes students to the sounds, rhythms, and structures of our language.

3) It introduces students to rich vocabulary.

4) Listening to an adult reader provides a good role model for fluent reading.

5) Reading aloud builds background knowledge by exposing students to powerful themes, complex plots, and interesting facts.

6) Reading aloud establishes rapport.

The list goes on and on! At any rate, I became hooked. Not only was reading aloud to children engaging and enjoyable, but it was also an effective way to teach. Since stepping into my first classroom in 1993, I have been reading aloud to students of all ages, from Kindergarten and 1st grade students, to 4th and 5th grade reading resource room students, and now to pre-service teachers at the university level.

Reading aloud to children became even more important to me, however, when I became a parent. I know that I have made many mistakes in my lifetime as both a teacher and a parent, but one thing I know I have gotten 100% right is reading aloud to my students and my five daughters almost every day. (By the way, today I read the following titles to my three youngest daughters: Miss Nelson is Missing by James Marshall, Raven by Gerald McDermott, George and Martha: Tons of Fun by James Marshall, and My Big Dog by Janet Stephens.) Have you read to your students/child today?

2) Should parents read to children and if so, when should they begin?

Yes, as early as possible. I am the proud mother of five daughters. I began reading to my first three daughters when they were in the womb (my dad thought I was crazy!). But as an expectant mother, I did not want to miss out on any opportunity to nurture my children with literature. As soon as they were born, I made it a priority to try and read to them every day.

My two youngest daughters are adopted. As a result, I began reading aloud the minute the foster care system placed them into our home (2006) at the ages of one and two. But there was a noticeable difference: these two young girls, compared to my biological children, had not been read to as early, or as much, if at all. When I sat down to read a story, the girls would sit in my lap for a few minutes just to crawl off and play with nearby toys. So, I decided to just sit and read to myself, book after book: Brown bear, brown bear what do you see? One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish! In a matter of days, the girls started staying in my lap longer and longer until, finally, they stayed for a whole story! Now, five years later, the girls are not only reading books independently (in 1st and 2nd grades) but they are also remaining in my lap for story after story.

3) We all hear about teachers with handouts and worksheets who are not reading to children. What should a parent say to a principal about this?

Most of the worksheets that children bring home are full of isolated skills such as phonics and punctuation rules and learning vocabulary words out of a meaningful context. Parents should explore their school’s reading curriculum and find out how much time during the day their children actually spend reading, compared to the time their children spend completing handouts and worksheets.

In order for a child to get good at reading they must do at least two things:

1) Read

2) Listen to a fluent adult read to them (as often as possible). I would ask my child’s school principal, “What are you, as the literacy leader of this school, doing to ensure that my child is receiving adequate classroom time reading and being read to by a fluent adult reader every day?”

4) Let’s talk about phonemic awareness-is this something that can be done in the dark?

Phonemic awareness is an awareness of the sounds (phonemes) in language. It involves listening. Phonics, on the other hand, is the connection of letters (graphic symbols) to the sounds in our language. Where phonemic awareness typically involves listening, phonics involves listening, reading, and often writing, too. Many people have described phonemic awareness as a prerequisite for phonics instruction. Therefore, the more phonemic awareness activities, the easier it will be for children to do phonics. However, this assumption is based on correlation not causation. Therefore, we don’t know for sure if improved phonemic awareness causes improved phonics or whether the connection works in the other direction.

The simplest way to teach someone about the difference between phonemic awareness and phonics is this: phonemic awareness can be taught in the dark. Just turn the lights off and consider the following activities (not a complete list):

-Think of one-syllable words: cat, dog, fish, goat

-Think of two-syllable words: rabbit, hippo, tiger, lion

-Think of three-syllable words: kangaroo, elephant

-Think of four-syllable words: rhinoceros

-Do these words rhyme? cat/mat, cat/dog, fish/dish, goat/cat

-Do these words start with the same sound? cat/sat, cat/cake, fish/float, goat/float

-Do these words end with the same sound? cake/make, dog/hog, cat/cake

-How many sounds do you hear in the word “cat”? “dog”? “boat”?

Students as young as preschool and Kindergarten can master phonemic awareness, and better yet, enjoy it! Parents and teachers, consider turning off the lights for five minutes a day to teach your children about the awareness of sounds in our language (no pencil or paper required).

5) Give us your TOP TEN picture books that parents need to have lying around the home for kids to pick up and read.

I’m sorry, Michael, but I just can’t do it! There are too many wonderful books out there that I would recommend to parents. Below are my top twenty, well, sort of…I combined some of the titles since they were by the same author. So I guess below is my top 32, in no particular order! Enjoy!

1. Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed and Five Little Monkeys Sitting in a Tree by Eileen Christelow

2. The Napping House and Piggies by Don and Audrey Wood

3. Hug and It’s the Bear by Jez Alborough

4. The Man Who Walked Between the Towers by Mordecai Gerstein

5. Go, Dog, Go and Are You My Mother? By P.D. Eastman

6. The Rainbow Fish and Dazzle the Dinosaur by Marcus Pfister

7. A Fish Out of Water by Helen Palmer

8. Robert the Rose Horse by Joan Heilbroner

9. The Encyclopedia of Extremely Weird Animals (or any other book with pictures of real animals)

10. Ish and The Dot by Peter Reynolds

11. The Little Red Hen and The Three Billy Goats Gruff by Paul Galdone

12. Anansi the Spider and Zomo the Rabbit by Gerald McDermott

13. Tacky the Penguin and Listen Buddy by Helen Lester

14. The Gingerbread Baby and The Mitten by Jan Brett

15. I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More and I Like Myself by Karen Beaumont

16. That’s Good That’s Bad by Margery Cuyler

17. The Pledge of Allegiance by Scholastic

18. Frog and Toad are Friends by Arnold Lobel

19. Catalina Magdalena Hoopensteiner Wallendiner Hogan Logan Bogan Was Her Name and Even More Parts by Tedd Arnold

20. The Rat and the Tiger and A Mother for Choco by Keiko Kasza

6) The relationship – the rapport between teacher and student- why is it important or do you refer to it as a disposition?)

-Successful teaching is grounded in the relationship between teacher and student. If there is no rapport (no connection between teacher and student), it’s hard to imagine that optimal learning can occur. I have all of my students at the university read a short article from The Reading Teacher called: Content Literacy: It’s All About the Teacher (Flynt & Brozo, 2009). Essentially, this article suggests that teachers who take the time to establish meaningful connections and relationships with their students will ultimately experience higher levels of reading achievement, engagement, and student motivation. This has huge implications for teaching anything: it is not just about what you know, but about how you are able to relate to your students.

7) Many years ago, I was at a reading/literacy workshop at Harvard and one of the presenters indicated that they had written book reports and that these reports did not kill them, but rather helped them. Your thoughts?

I agree, and disagree, with the Harvard presenter. Let me tell you a short story about a reluctant reader, my 11-year-old daughter. Last year, her 5th grade teacher required a “book report” every couple of weeks. Initially, she responded negatively to this idea until she was given a list of reporting options where she was not only given the opportunity to select the books that she read, but she was also given the opportunity to choose her response from a teacher-created list of book report activities. For example, one option was to create a collage of the book’s themes on a large poster board. Another was to write ten diary submissions from the main character’s point of view. And still another was to decorate a paper bag with the book’s story elements (setting, main characters, conflict, events, and resolution) and then place items that connected to each story element inside the bag. Allowing students to respond to books in different ways was motivating for my daughter. In fact, I think she enjoyed it.

However, I also disagree with the Harvard presenter. Book reports are often times a mistaken notion that teachers can actually assess kids’ experience of reading a text without asking them to reference a text directly. Many educators would argue that book reports, and all of these other reading response reporting options, in fact, do hurt kids. How do they hurt? By allowing kids to complete book-related response activities without actually know much about a book. Instead, consider authentic book reviews or book talks where children are taught how to directly reference books by asking the question “How do you know?” Unless teachers take the time to talk individually with each student in their class about what they are reading, there are no other ways to distinguish between what a child actually understands from the book itself versus what experiences or prior knowledge the child brings to the reading situation. States’ common core standards are requiring students to reference texts in all forms of reading response. Therefore, when considering more traditional forms of reading response, like book reports and the other reporting options mentioned above, why wouldn’t teachers consider more useful responses that require more critical thinking by actually using the book itself to support their students’ ideas?

8) Reading fiction or non-fiction – what genre is more important and why?

Both genres are important. Stories (fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, fairytales, etc) are essential because stories make up the essence of our lives. Every day is a story. What did you do today? Who were the characters? Where did the story take place? Were there any conflicts? Stories are important because there is something in every story for every student. That is why we intentionally teach students to think during reading and to make connections between the stories and their personal lives (self), other books (text), and the world around them (world) in order to enhance comprehension and build upon prior knowledge. For example, in the well known story The Little Red Hen, students can connect to a time when they felt lazy (self), or to another story that reminds them of a hard working main character such as Cinderella (text), or to a news story about a child who refused to help a neighbor’s cat (world).

Similarly, reading non-fiction is equally important. Non-fiction increasingly becomes one of the dominant genres as students get older, but more importantly, it is essential for building background knowledge which, in turn, leads to better understanding/comprehension of all texts—fiction and non-fiction. For example, one of the titles I recommended above is The Pledge of Allegiance by Scholastic. Almost every child in America recites “The Pledge of Allegiance” every morning in school. But do they really know what they are saying? This beautiful picture book explains our country’s pledge word by word, phrase by phrase. In addition to clarifying difficult vocabulary such as “allegiance”, “loyalty”, and “justice”, children are exposed to a section at the back of the book dedicated to interesting facts about our country and its founding values.

Bottom line: reading both genres is essential! As a nation, however, we must read more non-fiction reading with kids in the primary grades (K-2), especially when those children come from economically disadvantaged families or families where English is not the primary language. Children in these situations often enter school with extraordinary deficits in their background knowledge with respect to American culture that parents and teachers take for granted. As they progress through the grades, they will undoubtedly face more non-fiction texts (especially in the content areas of Social Studies and Science) that are not only more difficult to read but that also build upon prior knowledge that they may or may not have. Without a solid foundation of background knowledge, these texts can be hard to understand, even if they possess the ability to decode the words. Reading 50% fiction and 50% non-fiction would probably serve our children the best, but we are still a long way from achieving this. Why? Fiction is more popular, and traditionally we have chosen, and continue to choose, to read fiction to our youngest readers: Brown bear, brown bear what do you see? One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish!

9) What are your top FIVE non-negotiables with respect to teaching kids how to read?

Every day:

1) Students will read something they understand.
2) Students will read something they like.
3) Students will listen to an adult read with fluency and expression.
4) Students will write about something that is meaningful to them.
5) Students will be given opportunities to talk to peers or adults about their reading and writing.

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