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Q&A with Dr. Shari Robertson

, Primary Category: SPEDAhead Webinars

Our second Special Agents of Change webinar “How to Become a Change Agent for Better Readers With Early Collaborative Partnerships” with communication intervention and literacy expert Dr. Shari Robertson concluded with an enlightening Q&A portion which touched on tweaking collaborative reading strategies for different student populations and other topics.

What are the best ages for these collaborative reading strategies?

For these particular strategies, we generally recommend about 18 months to 8 years, but you can actually start younger with any child who shows an interest and is ready to talk and interactive with you. We can implement these strategies with older children, as well.

How would you adapt these strategies for older students?

Basically the difference is in the books you choose. While I was talking about the books I use with these strategies, I saw one webinar participant submit a comment saying she was concerned that while working with older children, they may think of these as “baby books.” These are the books that we recommend primarily for our younger students. These strategies are really meant primarily to build foundational skills in younger students, but they are useful for older students. When you use these strategies for older students, there will be a difference in the books that you choose and there are additional different targets that I typically suggest for older children.

My book Building Better Readers actually targets these older students who are now in school and in the formal reading setting. Some of the same strategies can work for older students when you select the right books. I even like to use wordless books with some of the older children. Some other strategies that I do with older students is to echo and pair-read text passages prior to classroom reading activities in order to give students the opportunity to know what the passage sounds like in terms of the reading fluency. We focus on where they should take pauses and where they should use appropriate intonations so that when they’re reading to their classmates during the activity, they have had an opportunity to practice.

Those are just some of the ways that you can adapt these reading strategies for older students.

How do you best promote carryover of these strategies to the home?

What we have found – and I’ve been doing this now for about 18 years – is that these strategies are very motivating for both parents and children. You will notice that we talk a lot about making the reading experience pleasurable for both the parent and the child. What we have often found with parents is that they have in their heads this vision that reading should consist of them sitting and reading and the child cuddled up next to them and listening to every word they say. Then, in reality, they have a child who is running around the room and not really being participatory and seems to be bored with reading. Now the parent is not enjoying reading either and now no one is seeing this as fun. The whole point of the Read With Me strategies is to help parents find books they enjoy and then use these interactive strategies so their children want to read with them. Children will often insist that they be read to after using Read With Me. We also mention to parents that they should never try to force a book on a child. Find books the children like and reading becomes something that everyone wants to do.

We have used the Read With Me strategies with the Head Start early childhood population parents. These parents reported they are more confident when reading with their children after using the strategies and their children are more interested in reading.

How can these strategies be implemented when parents are also literacy challenged?

We use wordless books a lot with parents who are not confident readers or are illiterate. Wordless books are a great place to start because you do not have to worry about the words. This is also an option for parents who do not have English as their first language.

These parents can also use books that have very few words on the page. You will notice that in the echo reading books, there are very few words on each page. For example, you will see books with very simple language like, “brown cows, white cows, heavy cows, light cows,” which does not create a big reading burden on the parent. The point of this is to get the interaction around the book. We do not have to look at books that have paragraphs.

Another strategy is reader’s theater, which is a great way to engage illiterate parents because once they know the story, they can act it out with their child.

There is never an easy one-fits-all answer, but those are some of the best ways that we’ve overcome parents with literacy issues.

How do you encourage parents to buy into providing interactive, low-tech literacy experiences?

I get these questions pretty often: “Should we tell parents that they should only use books and not the iPad that the child has in front of them?” And “How do we get parents to see that they do not have to spend a fortune on these high-tech gadgets to have an interactive reading experience?”

We can get parents to buy into low-tech literacy initiatives by having them participate in these types of webinars and trainings to teach them these collaborative and interactive strategies. We talk to them about the critical importance of oral language and how children need to talk with someone in order to learn to talk and they read with you in order to learn to read, and how everything needs to be interactive – these webinars and trainings further solidify our conversations.

Once they begin to understand that the point of interactive reading strategies is to get the child to be participatory and to talk with you and read with you, I do not really care if they do that on an iPad or not. What I do not want to see is a child who is interacting individually or working on things that do not require oral language interaction, especially younger children. The whole point of these strategies is to build conversation. Basically, if I can get parents to come to these workshops and learn about the power of interactive reading, they are very happy to go visit their local library.

Where do you start if the student doesn’t know that sounds are associated with letters?

There are many steps of reading before a child is even ready to begin to start matching sounds and symbols. We know that a child who cannot hear the sounds in a word – for example, students who cannot hear that cat is made up of three sounds C-A-T – will not be able to match a sound and a symbol together because they have not even identified that words are made up of sounds. In this situation, you need to back up to more fundamental skills so they can begin to manipulate and hear the sounds in a word. Interactive reading, per se, does not teach phonemic awareness, which is what that skill is, but it does help facilitate it if you pick books that have lots of plays on words, rhyming or words that play with one particular sound.

There is a fun book called Some Smug Slug that focuses on the S sound and Capering Cows focused on the C sound. You can look for books that help highlight specific sounds. When you are working on phonemic awareness, there are very specific strategies you would use with children beyond the interactive reading strategies. Phonemic awareness is a little bit higher level skill. Again, that is something I address in Building Better Readers, which really delves into these higher level skills.

My bottom line answer is you cannot really get them to start matching a symbol to a sound until they can hear all the sounds in a word and understand that words are made up of sounds that can be manipulated.

Is there a way to effectively incorporate interactive reading strategies via telepractice or distance learning?

That is absolutely possible and it is very easy. As opposed to a webinar like today where you can hear me, but I cannot hear or see you so there is limited interaction, telepractice allows for that two-way communication. Basically all you need to do is make the pages of the book available to the child and then you can use the strategies that we have discussed.

I have actually done this numerous times. As long as the student and I can both see the page we are reading together, this works well. I ask the student to “echo me” or “copy me” and I read a line. I read and say, “I went walking,” then the child echoes back, “I went walking.” Interactive reading through telepractice is very similar to the way you do it in-person.

You can use this echo reading strategy with individual students, but also with small groups and whole classrooms in order to get children to be more participatory in the reading process.

We see telepractice and telemedicine used a lot for grouping around social pragmatics, but I think I can see even more use for group reading exercises. It is a tremendous use of this technology.

What are some books or authors that you would recommend for pre-readers or non-readers?

I have a quite a list of books and authors that I love. A list of all of the books that I mentioned in today’s webinar, in addition to a few others of our favorites, is available to you as a participant. There are anywhere from five to seven books for each of the strategies we outlined today. If you are looking for a more extensive list, the Read With Me manual has this list. The second edition of the manual is actually in production right now, but it is almost ready. This manual has all the lesson plans, the book lists and all the related resources.

What best practices can you recommend around engaging and collaborating with reading coaches?

I worked with a reading specialist to build Read With Me based on evidence related to literacy development for young children both in my field of speech language pathology and the specialist’s field of reading. The fact that the program is built by two people who have different expertise is helpful.

Another advantage is that Read With Me makes complete sense to reading specialists because sometimes they are already using some of the strategies we outline. However, the difference with Read With Me is that all the resources and strategies are in lesson plan format, which makes it easy to train parents how to use the strategies at home.

My very best advice is to get the reading specialists to do parent training workshops with you. Once you encourage them by saying, “Hey, let’s do this together,” they are more apt to work with you. We have a lot of reading specialists who are doing Read With Me training. Again, it was developed around literature related to reading instruction, speech language pathology and language development, so it make sense to collaborate.

Some children struggle with answering “who/what” questions correctly. “Why” questions are even more complex for children. What is your advice for making this easier?

People ask me “Why would you ask a why question when that is a more complex question than the Who, What, When and Where questions – especially when children already struggle with those?”

This is why we teach parents early on that we should ask all questions as friendly questions that do not necessarily have one correct answer. Even if you are asking a What question, you would say something like, “What color do you think that is?” Or, “Who do you think is holding onto that bottle?” Or, “I wonder why they are running up the stairway …” The point of friendly questions is to allow children to take a guess and not be right or wrong.

A reason children do not answer Why questions is because they may have had a bad experience struggling to answer these questions. If they do not get it right, they are wrong and then they do not even want to make an effort. To remedy this, we ask Why questions that are completely open-ended and do not have a correct answer. For example, “Why do you think …”

If you think Why questions are too high-level for the child you’ are working with, then ask, “What do you think…,” or “Who do you think…” If the answer is incorrect in terms of what you believe is the correct answer, first acknowledge that their answer was a good answer and then simply walk them through how you might answer it.

That is why we work so hard with parents to teach them that it is not about right or wrong, but rather about making the effort to try and think. A Why question is going to focus on much more critical thinking skills, so if you think a child is not ready for that, ask them a friendly Who, What When or Where question. Again, we spend a lot of time on this with parents.

What are good reading strategies to use with children who have expressive language delays?

These interactive reading strategies were actually built for children who have expressive language difficulties. The point of these strategies is that we are trying to bring the language out of them.

You are going to pick and choose the strategies that are appropriate for a specific book and for a specific child. A child with expressive reading difficulties can do an echo reading book with maybe just one word on each page. You say, “Copy me.” Maybe it is about colors and you say, “Red.” All they have to say back is, “Red.” They are now reading with you and using the word in context.

Let’s make this idea a little bit more concrete. Let’s say you are reading a book and there is a cat on the page and they read back, “Cat,” or the page has a fat cat, but all they say is “Cat.” We do not care. Our point is to draw the language out of them. Children who have expressive language difficulties are our prime targets for these interactive strategies. Keep in mind: it is not about perfection, it is about participation. We are going to work with these children to help draw out that language in a context that will also facilitate literacy development.

To watch Dr. Robertson’s entire 90-minute webinar, click here.

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