The other day I learned about the critical links between talking, listening, and learning to read. I spoke with Comer Yates, executive director of the Atlanta Speech School, a language and literacy center, and learned that there’s a world of difference between telling a child to be quiet and teaching him or her to listen. Developing a relationship of connection with your children rather than one of authority enables a child’s brain to better grasp the language and vocabulary the child hears.
All of this talking, listening, and relating replaces what for many African Americans is a demand for silence and compliance from children. There are cultural reasons for that, Yates says, but he’s convinced that the hyperfocus on compliance is not only no longer needed, it hinders the crucial development of what some call “the reading brain.”
Unless African American children are primed at home with rich conversation that builds essential brain connections from age 0 to 5, it will be very difficult for them to read proficiently by the end of third grade, and they may struggle in other areas for the rest of their lives, Yates says.
Make Your Child Your Conversation Partner
Yates describes his work as giving children “voice,”—which may hark back to the founding of the Speech School, which was established to help deaf children talk. Today, Yates says voice means “the ability to decide your own future and to make a difference in the lives of others.”
Yates says reading proficiently by the end of third grade is the passport to a life of agency, and so the Speech School provides free online training to teachers of children from birth to age 8.
“We’re in the business of constructing the reading brain,” he says.
Reading as Social Justice
Yates says, “Our work is around the social justice of teaching every child to read.”
For parents of preschoolers, he recommends the following:
- Talk with, not at, your children at every possible moment.
- Look for a preschool where the teachers are seeking a connection with the children, not compliance. Don’t send your children to schools where other adults are telling them to be quiet.
- Help your children develop their own decision-making capacity.
- Teach children to infer: I’ve noticed that this glue is sticky—can you think of some other things that are sticky?
- Help your child develop a broad vocabulary, critical thinking skills, self-regulation, and empathy. These qualities put your children on a path to reading by the end of third grade.
For more information, watch the video below or visit this website.