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The Foundations of Reading: Talking is Teaching

Wednesday, December 6, 2017
Dr. Judy Jankowski, Chesapeake Bay Academy Head of School
Dr. Judy Jankowski
Head of School
Chesapeake Bay Academy

I was recently on an airplane watching a Dad traveling with his baby daughter, who was probably just about a year old. The plane we were on was having mechanical difficulty that caused it to remain on the tarmac for nearly an hour before take-off, no short amount of time for such a young child. Although this Dad certainly had his hands full, he did a great job of keeping his daughter entertained. And though there were a book and a few toys on hand, at the center of the entertainment was a conversation. When Daddy was face to face with baby - singing a song or reading a book or just commenting on what a pretty girl he had, all was well. When Daddy stopped talking, baby's attention began to drift. The conversation was the engagement.

Over the hour that we waited on the tarmac, I took the opportunity to do a bit of reading myself and stumbled upon a blog, A Little More Conversation: Language and Communication Skills That Make All of the Difference for Kindergarten (thehechingerreport.org). The author, Devin Walsh, is a kindergarten teacher in Mississippi and she opined on the importance of conversing with children to develop the language skills that serve as the foundations for literacy as kids enter school. The truth of Ms. Walsh's thinking was being aptly demonstrated in the row immediately in front of me.

The importance of regular conversations in developing language is abundantly clear in the research. Kids who are regularly engaged in meaningful conversations have larger vocabularies, as well as better social skills. It's language that provides the links that connect us. For those who lack that early exposure, the consequences are deep and lasting and are inextricably tied to the ability to learn to read.   

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As I continued on my journey, my next flight was also populated with a fair number of children. A Mom with 2 young boys, probably about 2 and 3 years old, next came to my attention. They boarded the plane fairly late, apparently as the result of a connecting flight that had been delayed. The exasperation on the part of Mom was palpable and as the rambunctious little boys began debating who would get the window seat, out came the electronics. Mom's phone and her iPad came out of her purse and the boys quickly settled in to their games. I could see the games that involved colorful letters and shapes jumping off the screens at the kids. They were certainly happily engaged, being exposed to educational content, and pretty much speechless for the duration of the hour-long flight.

There are many ways that we can teach our kids and technology is certainly a valuable tool. That said, I believe Devin Walsh got it right when she pointed to the need for "a little more conversation." As parents, we all need a break some times and technology can fill a void but it cannot replace a conversation with the most important person in your life. So, the next time you have some time with your children, please sing them a song, or read them a book or tell them how lucky you are to have them. Not only will you be better connected for it, they'll be better readers.   

Related: "The inner workings of the dyslexic brain on bold.expert: Neuroscientist John Gabrieli uses brain imaging to discover key differences in children with dyslexia that could point to new interventions.

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