Is it bad for parents to talk "baby talk" to their babies? How can you tell if a first grader is behind in reading? Is it normal for a child to talk to herself? Is it okay to read the same books every night? Parents with these and other questions about a child’s reading and writing can now "Ask the Expert" by logging on to the PBS Parents Web site. Created to help parents "raise a child who is ready to learn," the site was recently developed by EDC researchers to help parents promote children’s language and literacy development.
"Ask an Expert," "How Children Develop," and "What Parents Can Do" are easy-to-follow sections that help explain a child’s language and reading development from birth through age 8. Created by EDC’s Center for Children and Families (CCF) and Center for Children and Technology (CCT), the Talking and Reading Together section on the PBS site addresses how young children become readers and writers, and how parents can help by talking, reading, and writing with their children every day.
Visitors to the site are provided with typical milestones in a child’s development at different ages, and are offered sample age-appropriate activities. Parents of young babies, for example, are urged to talk to their infant throughout the day—during feeding, bathing, and on errands. Parents are urged to name objects, point out and describe what is happening, and explain what will happen next. Through these conversations, babies learn to explore the world, make connections, and understand the sounds, rhythm, and purpose of language.
Parents of first-graders just learning to read are urged to listen to their child’s reading without interrupting to make corrections. The site explains that first-graders love reading books over and over again, and rather than encouraging the child to always pick up a new book, parents should encourage him instead to reread books on which he is an "expert" because rereading will help a child develop reading fluency and confidence.
The site was designed to integrate all of the elements of children’s language and literacy development from birth, according to EDC’s Nancy Clark-Chiarelli, the project director. "We were very clear that we didn’t want reading to be seen as something that happens once a child starts school. We wanted to show parents that talking and reading together is important, even for very young children. We wanted to show how oral language is really the foundation on which written language rests, and that promoting literacy and language can be done in natural ways: reading a book, pointing out labels in grocery stores, showing children a note or a list you are writing. These things de-mystify the whole reading process," Clark-Chiarelli said.
Some critical decisions about the site were made early on. For example, instead of organizing the main page of the site by categories such as "reading," "writing," and "speaking," Clark-Chiarelli and her group felt it was critical to organize the site using a child’s age. "We knew that’s how parents would want to use the site, that they would be coming to it with a specific age—and their own child—in mind."
Another goal was to offer information for the busy parent who has little time to search and explore all the site has to offer. CCF worked with Fablevision to develop fast-moving slideshows to allow parents to explore a range of age-specific topics. These offer quick tips such as "Five Everyday Ideas for Parents of Young Children" and advice such as "point out the words as you read aloud" and "join your child in pretend play." The slideshows serve not only busy parents, but also give an overview and access to information in a format for parents with low levels of literacy themselves.
"The site is very easy to navigate," says Lei-Anne Ellis, Coordinator for Reading and Literacy for the Cambridge-based Agenda for Children. "It provides parents with milestones for each age group, so that when you click on ‘About my baby,’ for example, you can learn all about listening, reading, and writing milestones for this age group. Also terrific are the ‘Recommended Resources’ and ‘Literacy Updates," said Ellis, who has recommended the site to all of the reading liaisons and literacy specialists in the Cambridge Public Schools.
Comments about the design and navigation were important during the site’s development phase. The CCF team, including senior research associate Barbara Kraemer-Cook, invited outside consultants, academics, and experts in the field to review the site at every step along the way. As a result, items of broad interest were added, such as "Features of a Good Classroom" that would appeal to parents without being age-specific.
Focus groups, including parents and educators from New York and Connecticut, were invited by CCT to review the site, and revisions were made based on their suggestions and recommendations. Developers were very clear that the PBS Parents site needed to show parents that everyday life supplies many opportunities to be a child’s first teacher, and they need not approach the task with a fear of failure or a need to force a child’s interest in language, books, or writing.
With that in mind, the developers set out to build a site that was welcoming rather than prescriptive, according to Clark-Chiarelli. “We didn’t want to scare parents into a ‘drill and kill’ approach to their child’s language and literacy development. There are so many ways to encourage a love of language, to savor stories, play, and make-believe. We wanted the site to be warm and welcoming to parents, and encourage a love of reading," she said. "Because there is nothing more compelling in a child’s life than when they curl up in a parent’s lap and listen to a story."
Originally published on October 31, 2002