Things I’ve Learned from Our Very Youngest Readers: Thoughts on My Recent Talk with Parent Educators by Dr. Sam Bommarito


Things I’ve Learned from Our Very Youngest Readers: Thoughts on My Recent Talk with Parent Educators by Dr. Sam Bommarito

It’s said that the very best way to learn something is to teach it. That point was reinforced for me this week as I carried out my Inservice for parent educators in a local district. A very special thanks to the folks at Rockwood Schools for giving me that opportunity. So, what did I learn?

First of all, I learned just how important the idea that reading programs should be made to fit the child not the other way round really is. Nowhere is it more critical than with our very youngest readers, our kiddos who are age birth through three. Readers? Dr. Sam really?  Kiddos that young are really readers? The answer is yes, they are. But they can’t read Dr. Sam, can they? Well if you take the very narrow view that reading is decoding, then no they can’t.  But that’s not how I learned about what reading is.

As part of my doctoral studies (this was a very long time ago) I ran the reading clinic at my university for a year.  I did this under the supervision of one of my committee members. Back then when we tested a child in reading, we tested for listening comprehension, oral reading, and silent reading.  The composite of the three resulted in an overall estimate of their ability to read. So back then we viewed the overall ability to listen to and learn from a passage as part and parcel of the reading process. I still do. Reading is so much more than just decoding the message.

The recent post from the Read Aloud 15 Minutes site referenced at the start of this article makes that point crystal clear. For the youngest readers, it is critical that they have the experience of hearing the story and hearing talk about the story.


It is part of their larger experience of learning all about their world and exploring that world.  The key to this stage in the process of learning to read being successful is that the “students” gain the background knowledge Marie Clay called the Concepts About Print. Clay was a pioneer in this respect. She was among the first to realize that there is a necessary step in the reading process that comes before learning the letters and before decoding the message.  It is the step in which the reader learns how print works. In our culture, print moves from left to right. Print carries the message. You know the drill.  As I talked to the parent educators, I knew I was preaching to the choir on all those points. They knew that brain research shows the brain of a child in this age group is not ready to learn letters and sounds. See my previous blog post for details. Going through this stage lays down the neural pathways that are needed to be successful later on when the stage for more direct instruction comes, usually at age 4 or 5. That is why I cringe when I see some of the advocates of direct instruction telling parents to teach their preschooler the entire system of sounding words.  The book of one such advocate reads like a graduate level text. For toddlers? Seriously? Doing what he suggests flies in the face of current brain research and of common sense. The fact remains children need this discovery oriented, constructivist-oriented stage if they are to succeed when the time does come for direct instruction. I did remember to say “laying down the needed neural pathways” didn’t I?!?

One surprise for me is that some of the parent educators were finding that even at this stage there are sometimes “reluctant readers”.  Toddlers who don’t seem to stay interested in listening to the story for very long. Interestingly enough, one of the parent educators seemed to have provided the answer to the question of what to do.  It seems that on one of her visits, at the very moment a parent asked her about a baby not seeming interested in books that very same child picked up the board book she’d brought for the session and started playing with it. Hmmmm.  Ages and stages.  It would seem that we must be careful not to project onto children of this age the expectation that they will sit and listen to long and involved stories.  Rather we must focus on providing the experience of dealing with print and all that involves. Listen to the written word, talk about the written word. Learn to appreciate the wonders humankind created when they learned to lay down the written word so that wisdom could be passed on from generation to generation.

So for me, the biggest takeaway from this session was the realization of just how smart a teaching move Marie Clay made all those years ago.  Long before brain research further validated the practice, she recognized the need to take the time to create a print-rich environment and a constellation of print experiences. She laid the groundwork for giving the advice we now give to all parents of young children (birth to three).  Read to them. Talk to them about what is read. Make the reading experience positive by learning to read like a storyteller. Reread those favorite books. Just as the book I referenced at the start says “I love your voice and all that you say…”


Dr. Sam Bommarito (a.k.a., storyteller)


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Copyright 2018 by Dr. Sam Bommarito. Views/interpretations expressed here are solely the view of this author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any other person or organization.

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