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Motivating and Supporting All Young Readers with Dr. Anne Cunningham

Literacy Conversations Thumb

This week, HMH Early Learning will be in Nashville for the National Head Start Association annual conference. We’re grateful and excited to be hosting our first “Conversations on Early Learning” discussion during the opening keynote session.

HMH launched the Conversations symposium series last spring to facilitate dialogue around the fundamental role of quality early childhood education in ensuring long-term success and equal opportunity for all learners, regardless of background. It was an amazing journey – we explored the power of play, the importance of a holistic approach to childcare, the role of policy and much more.

Anne Cunningham

Dr. Anne Cunningham

In Nashville, our Conversation will focus on what it means to meet ALL kids and families where they are, and explore how we can engage all the important people in children’s lives -- whether pediatricians, parents or teachers -- in a community of care that nurtures a variety of needs and areas for growth, from literacy to English language skills to healthy nutrition.

Dr. Anne Cunningham, Professor of Cognition and Development and the Head Graduate Adviser in the Graduate School of Education at UC Berkeley, will join our panel this week, bringing her deep expertise on literacy and development to our discussion. Dr. Cunningham is also author of early learning curriculum Big Day for PreK, and her latest book, Book Smart: How to Support and Motivate Beginning Readers, examines the power of nurturing literacy development and in helping all young learners love to read.

I talked with Dr. Cunningham about the evolution of her scholarly work, why reading is a key component for healthy cognitive and socio-emotional development, and how we can create literacy-rich environments for all kids, even when resources are limited.

Can you tell me a little bit about your own experience as a reader and how those experiences impacted your research and work on supporting and motivating early readers?

I remember seeking comfort in print from an early age. Although reading did not come easily to me, I learned how to read independently and realized that hard work leads to great rewards. I visited my local library often, and would always take out the maximum number of books possible (12!), reading each one to find out about new and magical places and to enter a world where my own worries melted away. Reading gave me an outlet – a place where I could read about the problems that other people had and the solutions that they found, where I could invariably find comfort and excitement.

While my childhood experiences certainly laid the groundwork, it is as a professional that I have come to truly understand the importance of early literacy experiences. In college, I loved sitting on the stoop of Michigan State University’s Laboratory Preschool and interacting with four and five-year-old children. It became clear to me that a teaching career would be ideal and I turned my energy toward becoming the best preschool and elementary school teacher I could become. Across a decade of teaching, I helped many beginning readers unlock the magic of books, excitedly recognize new words, and ultimately begin to comprehend the stories they read on their own.  

I also witnessed first-hand how very different students’ experiences with reading and writing can be. I came to fully understand that learning to read can be one of the most challenging and frustrating educational accomplishments for children. My curiosity about these differences, combined with a desire to prevent reading difficulties for future learners, launched my career in research. I trained as a developmental psychologist at the University of Michigan and for the last twenty years, I have been conducting research around the foundational processes and contexts that support all children and adults in accessing the joy of reading and thinking about how we bring that research to practice.

Although I study the development of reading throughout the lifespan, I have become more and more focused on the earliest years of children’s lives because of the substantial evidence that these years provide the greatest (but not only) window of opportunity to support a child in becoming a capable, confident and avid reader.

How can parents, teachers and others help children harness a love of reading? What should we look for when it comes to stories that have the power to truly captivate?

My current research with early childhood educators and families has demonstrated that children thrive when teachers and parents partner together to foster their love of reading.

Parents are their children’s first teachers and play the most powerful role in their children’s development as readers and social beings. Helping parents to read with their children is essential because of the academic skills it fosters, and also because it has the potential to change the way our children think, relate to others, and understand the world.

Any time you pick up a book, you do so because it inspires some sort of curiosity.  Katherine Paterson, author of award-winning children’s books like Bridge to Terabithia, explains: “It is not enough to simply teach children to read; we have to give them something worth reading. Something that will stretch their imaginations--something that will help them make sense of their own lives and encourage them to reach out toward people whose lives are quite different from their own.” I keep this wonderful advice in mind when it comes to finding stories that will resonate with young readers who are learning more about their worlds each and every day.

What does the science say about the benefits of reading with young children (shared reading) to their social-emotional development?


Shared reading provides an amazing opportunity to develop a variety of social-emotional skills, both through interactions between the parent/teacher and young reader and through exploring the emotional life and actions of characters in the books. Helping children recognize that thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are interrelated is a first step towards self-awareness and empathy for others, the basic building blocks of social and emotional development.  

When reading together, the technical elements of literacy are essential, but an overarching goal is also to ensure that a child becomes a lifelong, motivated reader. This means that we – researchers, teachers, parents – should talk not only about nitty-gritty reading skills, but should also discuss the psychological challenges a child will face when becoming a reader, a persistent learner and an empathetic person.

I think reading together is as important to overall development as good nutrition. Shared reading is like a superfood, which confers all sorts of different benefits upon the person who eats it because it contains so many diverse nutrients. Likewise, reading together brings forth opportunities for trusting conversations, snuggling together, praising your child’s effort and ideas, and talking about life – all aspects of social and emotional growth.  

How can we help educators and parents to create a literacy-rich environment with limited resources?

In a literacy-rich environment, parents, teachers and caregivers ensure that children engage in one-on-one conversations about everyday life—activities, people or events the children find interesting. Literacy-rich environments include daily reading, extended discourse (talking or writing), experimentation with reading materials, book talk (discussion of characters, action, and plot), and dramatic play. Adults share ideas with children and encourage self-expression, as well as model the value of reading and learning. Children become familiar with print and language, and these are both integrated into everyday activities.

The good news is that we (a child’s entire community) can create these environments in very cost-effective ways:

  • For parents and caregivers, simple and enjoyable things like playing, singing silly songs and reading books are the foundation of language development. These activities prepare children for school success and give parents opportunities to bond and to support social development.
  • Families can talk with children about the print they see around them each day and explain how it provides information (like signs on buses and streets or labels on food).
  • Teachers can provide the experience of group learning and design their classrooms to encourage reading, writing and conversation amongst peers and with adults.
  • Creative teachers can help children use their own detective skills to gain knowledge about language and how it applies to interesting topics. Thoughtful curricula can make this exploration extra fun.
  • Policy-makers, community leaders, and public and private organizations can help raise awareness of the important role that parents play as a child’s first teacher and ensure that local resources – from libraries to book mobiles to literacy-rich park environments – exist to support all learners and their families.

Young children in the United States spend their days in a variety of places—homes, child care centers, preschools, and elementary schools. Each of these places should be a literacy-rich environment, so parents, child care providers, and teachers must all understand how to provide such environments for children.

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