Reading for Our Lives
A Literacy Action Plan from Birth to Six
An award-winning journalist and literacy advocate provides a clear, step-by-step guide to helping your child thrive as a reader and a learner.
When her child went off to school, Maya Smart was shocked to discover that a good education in America is a long shot, in ways that few parents fully appreciate. Our current approach to literacy offers too little, too late, and attempting to play catch-up when our kids get to kindergarten can no longer be our default strategy. We have to start at the top. The brain architecture for reading develops rapidly during infancy, and early language experiences are critical to building it. That means parents’ work as children’s first teachers begins from day one too—and we need deeper knowledge to play our positions.
Reading for Our Lives challenges the bath-book-bed mantra and the idea that reading aloud to our kids is enough to ensure school readiness. Instead, it gives parents easy, immediate, and accessible ways to nurture language and literacy development from the start. Through personal stories, historical accounts, scholarly research, and practical tips, this book presents the life-and-death urgency of literacy, investigates inequity in reading achievement, and illuminates a path to a true, transformative education for all.
"We can't afford to continue pretending that a hodgepodge of reactivity and remediation can get millions of children reading well enough to flourish," warns journalist Smart in her debut, a manifesto on the importance of instilling language skills in children. Smart notes that subpar reading skills can affect one's "wellness, employment, housing, and even the likelihood of incarceration," and cites data showing that American kids are falling behind: "5-year-olds have significantly lower' emergent literacy than kids in other countries," and just 14% of 15-year-olds "read well enough to comprehend lengthy texts." Reading before bedtime won't cut it: language learning starts in utero by about 35 weeks gestation, Smart writes, and synapses involved in language learning peak during the first six months of life. To get kids back on track, Smart offers up her TALK method, which involves taking turns exchanging baby babble with infants, asking questions of babies even before they're able to respond, labeling and pointing out words and objects, and keeping conversations going at every opportunity. She suggests easy-to-follow exercises, too, such as "After I close a book, I will share what I liked most about it." Parents will find Smart's solid advice well worth returning to.