“The foundation for reading is laid starting at birth”

Children should have contact with books and other written materials long before the start of school, says Kouider Mokhtari
picsea, unsplash
picsea, unsplash

Kouider Mokhtari, professor at the University of Texas at Tyler, has been researching literacy for over 30 years. He has found that most of the reading problems people encounter in school and later in life could have been prevented during the first years of their lives. He appeals to governments to invest in early childhood education and thereby reduce inequity.

Laura Millmann: You point out that there is a knowledge gap when it comes to literacy and early childhood learning. Can you explain what you mean?

Kouider Mokhtari: When it comes to teaching kids to read and write, it’s best to start in the first four years. The research shows that most of the reading problems we see among adolescents and adults could have been prevented or resolved in the early years of childhood. The problem is that although we know this, and we know a lot about teaching children to read, policymakers don’t always act on that knowledge. So my message to them is this: Make a commitment to invest in early childhood and do what works!

LM: What exactly should governments do?

KM: The first step is to make sure that early childhood educators have the expertise and the training they need to reach and teach kids effectively. Policymakers should then implement programs that focus on preschools and also involve families. In addition, it is important not to work in isolation, but to bring researchers, practitioners, organizations and networks together. While some people argue that the problem is a lack of money, it’s actually a question of commitment and the willingness of all concerned to do their part.

LM: But you do in fact need money to train teachers and implement programs.

KM: Yes, but programs that work are clearly worth the investment. I believe that it not only makes sense from an educational perspective; it also makes economic sense, because prevention is always better than cure. The foundation for reading is laid starting at birth, and if we wait until first or second grade it may be too late for children who struggle to learn to read. Just look at the facts: 80 percent of brain growth occurs during the first three years of life, and learning to read, unlike acquiring spoken language, requires a healthy mix of implicit and explicit teaching.

“It is important not to work in isolation, but to bring researchers, practitioners, organizations and networks together.”

LM: One of your research programs is called “Born to Read” [Editor’s note: an ongoing program similar to “Reach Out and Read”]. Can you tell us more about it?

KM: In this research, we are helping children become acquainted with reading and writing during the first few years of their lives, which will make it easier for them to learn to read and write after they enter school. We are working with parents, providing them with training, books and resources and encouraging them to read to their children for at least 20 minutes every day. That adds up to approximately 1.8 million words per year.

We then follow the children to kindergarten and first grade and compare their performance with that of other kids who haven’t participated in the program. It is amazing how much better our “Born to Read” kids do at school.

LM: While you are calling on governments to act, you also argue that we rely too much on governments to solve the challenges we face. What can parents and teachers do right now to prevent reading problems?

KM: We have a tendency to rely too much on governments to do everything for us when, in fact, there is much that we can do for ourselves. Parents have an important role to play in raising readers. They are their children’s first teachers. By engaging children in reading early on, parents help them not only to learn to read, but also to develop interest in and love for reading.

“Parents have an important role to play in raising readers. They are their children’s first teachers.”

Parents as well as teachers can read to, and with, their children. They can tell them stories or, using a playful approach, encourage them to tell their own stories. Parents can and should create an environment in which children are exposed to print media and books. Most important of all, parents and teachers should serve as role models. They, too, should read, providing a good example for their children.

Kouider Mokhtari, a native of Morocco, is a professor of literacy in the School of Education at the University of Texas at Tyler, where he engages in research, teaching and service initiatives aimed at enhancing literacy at the school, university and community levels. His research focuses on the acquisition of language and literacy by first and second language learners, with emphasis on children, adolescents and adults who can read but have difficulties understanding what they have read.

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