Growing Great Readers

Notes from the Backpack

Episode 21 │Growing Great Readers

Tuesday, May 12, 2020



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Show Notes

Rebecca Silverman

Reading is a fun activity for the whole family, but what should you do when your child struggles with words—or worse, if they declare they don’t like reading? We talked with Dr. Rebecca Silverman, professor at Stanford University, to learn how we can raise lifelong readers. She offered strategies for fostering a love of reading and guidance on what you should expect from your child at each age.


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LaWanda: Welcome back to another episode of Notes from The Backpack, a PTA podcast. I'm your cohost LaWanda Toney, Director of Strategic Communication at National PTA.

Helen: And I'm Helen Westmoreland, Director of Family Engagement at National PTA. Today we're going to talk about reading. We all know that reading with our kids is important, but beyond that, reading has sparked a bit of debate lately, believe it or not.

You may have heard about the quote unquote "Reading Wars" about which strategies are better than others to help kids learn to read. Now with COVID-19 related school closures happening across the country, families have become even more active in their children's day to day academic instruction. This episode will give families the techniques you need to make sure your children are successful readers.

LaWanda: Helen, I love reading with my seven-year-old. But sometimes I wonder if he's retaining the stories or any new words that he's learning. I also want to do what I can to make sure that he continues to love reading.

Today's guest is going to help us better understand how we as parents and caregivers can teach literary skills at home. Especially now that most of us have switched to a completely virtual learning environment.

Helen: That's right and we've got the incredible Dr. Rebecca Silverman to help us with this episode. Dr. Silverman is an Associate Professor of Education at Stanford University. Her research focuses on the instruction and language and literacy development of young children from diverse backgrounds. She co-authored the book, Developing Vocabulary and Oral Language in Young Children as well as several journal articles.

Dr. Silverman began her career as an elementary school teacher in Louisiana. She is also the mother of three children a 12-year-old an eight-year-old and a four-year-old.

LaWanda: Dr. Silverman, thank you for joining this week's episode.

Rebecca Silverman: Thank you for having me.

LaWanda: Tell us a little bit about how you got here. What made you interested in reading and literacy?

Rebecca Silverman: Well, I think there were probably two major factors that influenced my interest in reading and literacy. First, my mom was an English teacher for 40 years and she really instilled in me, as I was growing up, a love of reading and a recognition that reading is important for learning about the world beyond the here and now.

Second, when I began teaching, I could see how reading was a key for success in school. The students who could read could access information across content areas and learn independently. But students who struggled in reading really had difficulty across subject areas, and that affected their ability to learn on their own and their enthusiasm for learning in school. So, trying to figure out how to best support those children who struggled in reading really became my professional mission.

Helen: Thank you for sharing that Dr. Silverman.

One of the things we were hoping to talk to you about is I've been seeing a few headlines lately about the "Reading Wars." Could you tell us what that actually is and what parents need to know about that?

Rebecca Silverman: So, the so called "Reading Wars" have been going on for a long time, and the history is fairly complex, and the issues are fairly multifaceted. But at a really basic level the debate is about whether educators should focus on the big picture of reading or the component parts of reading. From a big picture or what you might see in the news as the whole language viewpoint, the idea is that immersing children and lots of rich text and igniting their interest in reading is really the most important thing that educators should do. And then on the other side of things from the component, or you might read about the explicit phonics view. Teaching children how to connect letters and sounds and read them with accuracy and fluency is the most important. The way this turns out, or manifest in classrooms is that, on the one hand you have some classrooms where there's lots of book, lots of choice, lots of independent reading and discussion about books. And on the other hand, you have some classrooms where there's lots of teacher directed instruction on letters and sounds as well as opportunities to practice those letters and sounds in texts that are chosen specifically to provide that practice.

My take on it is that this sets up really a false dichotomy about how to teach reading. When in reality, including both the immersion to lots of texts as well as that explicit instruction on letters and sounds is what's needed to fully support developing readers. And the other issue at, at stake when we talk about this "Reading War" dichotomy is that it presumes that all children either need one thing or the other thing.

When in reality, different children really need different kinds of instruction. So Ssome students respond better to more immersion. Other students respond better to explicit instruction and thinking about the range of approaches to teaching reading and how they match with children's needs would be really more productive.

[00:05:32] LaWanda: Yeah, I agree with you. I think that, how can you separate the two? Having rich texts versus explicit phonics who have, like a whole child approach to reading.

What strategies and suggestions can you provide to help enhance literacy skills in our children?

Rebecca Silverman: So, the role of families is hugely important in developing literacy skills from building that foundation of language, that children can build on as they develop literacy skills. To instilling in their children and environment and a passion for a love of reading where reading is really valued and prioritized. That's really an important part of how the family can be involved in helping children with a learning to read process. Families can help with children learning to read by reading to their children. Or listening to audio books with them and helping them see reading as an enjoyable activity, that they can do with their families and that they want to learn how to do on their own. And families can do this using whatever language is most often used at home. One of the great things is that a love of reading or a value for reading transfers across languages so parents can feel comfortable about doing this in whatever language they feel most comfortable using. And then with that solid foundation for a love of reading, families can also point out words or features of texts in the environment or in books that they're reading so that children start to pay attention to how books are structured. And they can also talk with children about the books that they're reading or listening to.

Families can ask what the book is about, what they learned, what they thought about the book. And really talking about children... Talking with children in general can help them develop the language and critical thinking skills that they need to be able to read and learn from text.

Helen: Thank you for sharing that Dr. Silverman. I want to follow up with the even more specific question that I think, almost every parent has encountered of, when you are hearing your child read, particularly younger children, right? And they're struggling with a word. How do you deal with that? Like, do you tell them to sound it out? Do you tell them, look for context clues? Do you stay not involved and let them figure it out themselves? Like, what's the solution?

Rebecca Silverman: That's a great question. When children are reading themselves, parents can, first of all, with the support of a teacher or a librarian, make sure kids are reading books that provide a little bit of challenge, but not too much challenge. So that they're kind of in a book that they can tackle on their own and practice reading skills that they're learning. Another thing that parents can do is, as children are reading, they don't necessarily need to correct every mistake, but they can help children notice when they're having trouble with a word and say things like, did that sound right to you? And if children can start to pay attention to when they make a mistake, how they can fix up that mistake, then they can start to learn the process of becoming more independent in a reading words. And so what parents can ask children to do is to look at how words start, try to break words up, try to put those parts together and give kids strategies for trying to figure out words on their own. So, children should be learning how sounds and symbols relate in school, and parents and families can reinforce those skills at home by really communicating with their teacher about what they're working on and how to support those skills at home.

But most importantly, I think providing a positive literacy environment and supporting their skill development, at a level that's just right for them, is a great way for families to help their children.

LaWanda: Dr. Silverman, you mentioned creating a positive literacy environment. What does that look like?

Rebecca Silverman: So when there's value placed on reading or listening to books in the home, providing time for children to either read with a parent, listen to a book with a parent or read themselves. That shows that reading is important in a particular family. I think that's part of creating an environment where children see literacy as important and want to participate in it.

The other is, creating an environment where children see reading both as enjoyable and as a tool for learning about the world. So, when children ask questions, parents can say, let's go look that up in a book. And that can encourage children to see that reading is a resource for them to learn about the world around them.

LaWanda: That's great.

Helen: That's good advice.

I want to go back a little bit, to what you shared at the top of the show. I think one of the things that's challenging for many families is that there's like such a jargon and vernacular around understanding their children's reading progress. Like you mentioned a few words like phonics and fluency.

Could you give us a little behind the scenes and break down, what are some of the key terms that parents might hear about from their kids' teachers about their children's reading and, and what do those mean?

Rebecca Silverman: Sure. So, when I explain this to parents or even my teacher candidates, the way I help break it down and help simplify things is by thinking of reading as really having two major parts. One is decoding and that has to do with putting the letters and sounds together to read words and the other is comprehension. And that's really using the language to understand what they're reading. And so when teachers talk about reading, they might talk about their children's decoding ability, and that would have to do with their ability to read words accurately, correctly and fluently, meaning at a good pace. And on the other hand, parents might also hear their teachers, their children's teachers, talking about the child's ability to comprehend. So whether or not when they're reading a story, they're able to tell it back. What they learned or what they read about, whether they're able to answer questions or discuss the book. And those two pieces are the two major pieces of the puzzle, that go into early reading development.

LaWanda: And then, Dr. Silverman, what about if you have a child who isn't really interested in reading and says like, I don't like to read, or I don't want to read. What kind of advice would you give families to help encourage them?

Rebecca Silverman: So I think finding a way to engage a child in reading is really important, and that can begin with that parent reading to the child or listening to audio books. Finding a character or a topic that the children are really interested in and providing lots of opportunities to read or listen to books about those characters or topics. Sometimes finding a particular series or our author that children might be interested in. Really following children's interests as a way to engage their appetite for reading. I think is really important.

If children's see reading just as an activity that they need to get through, it won't have a purpose. It won't have a meaning to them. So really providing children with rich opportunities to see reading as an enjoyable experience is important.

Helen: And when you say enjoyable, I know some kids, like they may want to read books that are way above their grade level or maybe they're more interested in graphic novels. Do you have any perspective or is sort of any material good material when it comes to encouraging kids to be more motivated to read.

Rebecca Silverman: For all kids, but particularly for those kids who may be reluctant readers. I think giving kids an entry point into something that they're interested in is a great way to get started.

So it could be graphic novels, it could be TV tie-in books. It could be books that, that are on topics that the child is specifically interested, like sports or, fairy tales, whatever that might be. I think using that, immersing a child in that kind of text so that it builds their interest, and using those topics, or those initial entry points as jumping off points to then expand the children's literary diet, by looking at other genre or looking at other types of topics. That can be a great way to get kids started. So, I think for parents, promoting reading that kids enjoy is a great way to get kids started in the process of reading, and then gradually diversifying the children's exposure to different types of reading would be the next step.

Helen: I think LaWanda and listeners probably know, I have a almost two year old and sometimes she likes to read the same book over and over and over again. And this is a phenomenon for a lot of kids, right? Is that something that parents should dissuade, or is it actually okay if they for six months are reading the same book?

Rebecca Silverman: Absolutely. Repeated reading is a wonderful way for kids to learn more about the reading process. Every time that you read the same book with a child or they read the same book over again, they're learning a little bit more about what it is to learn to read. And so, while parents and teachers, we sometimes get bored of reading the same thing over and over again. Kids don't, and each time they're learning so much more. So I would highly encourage following children's interest.

LaWanda: I like that, and I think a lot of parents need that encouragement because we do get asked for the same book over and over again. It’s good to know that they're learning something out of it. Can we talk a little bit about representation in literature and the research around diversity in kids' literature and how, if you see yourself in stories, how that matters?  Can you talk a little bit about that?

Rebecca Silverman: Sure. Literacy experts have suggested that books can and should provide children with both mirrors and windows. And so that's a metaphor for how we can use literature to be, on the one hand, a mirror in the way that the literature the books that the children are reading reflect what they are themselves experiencing. Children should be able to see themselves in the books that they encounter, see their culture represented, see their language represented, see their families represented. Providing kids with books that represent their world, can be a great way to provide children with that connection to literacy. And so that's what the mirror part of it is about.

The other piece of it, that I mentioned is windows and so we don't just want kids reading about their own world because we want to use literacy to help them expand their world. We want children to be able to learn about other cultures and other families. And those windows can help children learn from other points of view or other perspectives. They can learn about people with other backgrounds and cultures. They can see things from the foods that they eat, the way that they talk, the clothes that they wear. And that some things are different, but some things are also the same. Like all children love to play, and they'll read that in books and see how they're similar to kids all over the world. And so this helps kids build a respect and an understanding for others. And while that's important in general as a life skill, it's also important for kids to be able to take different perspectives as they learn to read over time.

Helen: Hmm. Thank you. That's helpful. I'm wondering if you could help our listeners. I think a lot of parents just wonder what's normal, like what should I really expect when it comes to my child's reading, to know if they're behind or ahead.

So if I throw out a few ages for you, do you think you'd be willing to give us just like a couple of look fors so, our listeners could know, like, here's roughly where your child should be at this age?

Rebecca Silverman: Sure I can try.

Helen: So say your child is five years old, maybe like that's around the start of kindergarten. What should you expect as a parent about what their reading looks like?

Rebecca Silverman: Sure. I've been thinking a lot about this because my own daughter is getting ready to turn five. In children around age five, when they're getting ready to start kindergarten. Things that we want them to be able to do are to be able to hear differences in sounds. So being able to rhyme, for example, or to be able to, hear when words sound the same or different, that can really help with their ability to understand that sounds are the pieces that make up words. So later on, they'll need that... Those, those building blocks and the other thing is we want them to start, to be able to recognize some letters. Particularly letters in their name, that's always a great one to start with around age four and five. Those letters become the first letters that they kind of hold on to as, as their letters. And then they'll start to recognize those letters all around them and that will help them attend to print. So that's another big piece of the puzzle. And then the other big thing that we want kids to be able to do at age five as we want them to be able to, listen to texts and start to talk about texts.

So what happened first? What happened next? What happened last? What did you learn from that book? What did you think about that book? Those kinds of questions we want kids to be engaging with at age five.

Helen: Awesome. All right, so what about ages like eight or nine I guess that's like third grade, fourth grade. What should parents be looking for?

Rebecca Silverman: So around age eight and nine is when, in schools, kids are expected to be able to read a little bit fluently or fluently enough that they can read independently. And so, when kids get to around third grade, they're expected to be able to pick up a book on their own and read it and understand it. And so the way that parents can check in on that as they can have children read to them an extended piece of, of a book and they can ask children questions about that book and be able to have a good extended conversation about what it is that they read.

Helen: That's good. All right, last one. So like exiting middle school, so that's probably about 13. going into high school, what do you think, are some good milestones parents should look for?

Rebecca Silverman: So at that age, children should be able to read several different texts on the same topic and make connections across those texts. So they might learn from a lot of different books on a topic, that they can then use to synthesize information, talk about information, and think critically about that information.

So basically, we want kids at that age to be able to use reading to learn about new information. And then take that information across books to come up with new ideas and new learnings themselves.

Helen: Awesome. Thank you. I feel like I know what to look out for. How about you LaWanda?

LaWanda: Yes, absolutely. I do have a question. One last question.

What if you know these milestones for your child, and you see that they're struggling, what type of conversation do you have with the teacher and is there someone else that you should be talking to at the school?

Rebecca Silverman: Sure. One thing I want to say is that in general, those are the milestones that kids meet, but kids really do learn at very different paces.  I think it's important for families to know that if their kids aren't meeting certain milestones, that could be part of their child's developmental process, that's completely normal.

But it is important for parents to be looking for signs that their kids might be struggling because we do know that providing support early can be the best way to help kids or prevent kids from struggling later on. Parents can look for signs of progress themselves by looking at those milestones and seeing if their children seem to be on track. And then definitely talking with their child's caregivers or teachers. And even their child's doctors are also another good resource for being able to identify if kids are developing on track.

LaWanda: That's really helpful. Dr. Silverman, thank you again for joining us today. We've talked about a lot of different aspects of literacy, but if there's one thing families listening should take away from the conversation, what would that be?

Rebecca Silverman: I think families need to know that their role in supporting literacy is central and they really set the tone for kids' literacy development. They can provide that environment and that space for kids to learn to love, to read, and they can provide the support for kids to, to develop over time.

LaWanda: That's great.Are there any relevant resources that our listeners should check out?

Rebecca Silverman: Yeah, two of my favorite resources are produced by a public media station, WETA. The first one is called reading rockets, and the other one is called Colorín Colorado. And these both have a lot of great information for parents about how children learn to read what their development is like. Colorín Colorado is in English and Spanish for English learners, and both can be accessed on the internet and provide great resources for teachers and families.

For kids who, for parents of kids who may have challenges or difficulties. The website is a great resource for learning about differences that kids might show, as they learn to read and how resources that parents can use to support their kids.

LaWanda: Great and what are your social media handles where listeners can learn more about you and your work?

Rebecca Silverman: Right now I'm in the process of launching a new website that will be able to be found at and my Twitter handle is @rebadsilverman.

LaWanda: Awesome. Thank you.

Helen: Awesome. Well Dr. Silverman, thank you so much for joining us today, Dr. Silverman.

Rebecca Silverman: Thank you. It's been my pleasure.

Helen: Well, that wraps up today's episode of Notes from The Backpack. But before you go, be sure to check out our website notes from the to stay in the know. You can also follow us on social media @NationalPTA and use  #Backpacknotes to join the conversation. And lastly, we have one new resource to tell you about.

To help families ease the challenges of the current pandemic, National PTA has created a COVID-19 resource page for parents, students, and educators. To learn more, visit

Thanks for tuning in.


Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast is made possible by funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.