From Birth to Six: The Critical Years for Early Childhood Literacy - SE2EP11- Maya Smart

Today, we are excited to have Maya Payne Smart, an author, book lover, and literacy advocate. Maya is dedicated to helping parents raise kids who thrive through her work as a writer and speaker on topics that revolve around reading, education, and advocating for literacy for all. She shares her knowledge and experience in her book, "Reading for Our Lives: A Literacy Action Plan from Birth to Six," which offers developmentally appropriate reading activities for parents to help their children become fluent readers. Maya's focus is to help parents understand what it takes to raise fluent readers and to connect people of all ages to great books and authors. She aims to expand children's possibilities and build a more equitable, connected society.
Maya Payne Smart is an author, journalist, and literacy advocate based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She holds a master's degree in journalism from the Medill School at Northwestern University and a bachelor's degree in social studies with honors from Harvard University.
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AI Generated Transcription

Speaker 1 (00:08):
Welcome to the Parenting in the Digital Age podcast. Many parents are concerned that their child might be falling behind. Others are just looking for ways to help their children thrive, not just in the classroom, but socially and well into their future careers. Each episode we explore the challenges facing parents in the modern world, from behavior, education, and nutrition to device and gaming addiction. We interview a range of leaders in the area of childhood development to help you successfully navigate parenting in the digital age. Here is your host, Jamie Buttigieg.

Speaker 2 (00:39):
Hello parents, and welcome to Parenting in a Digital Age where we explore the challenges and opportunities of raising kids in a world filled with technology. Today we're excited to have Maya Smart, an author, book lover and literacy advocate. Maya is dedicated to helping parents raise kids who thrive through her work as a writer and speaker on topics that revolve around reading education and advocating for literacy for all. She shares her knowledge and experience in her book Reading For Our Lives, a literacy action plan from Birth to Six, which offers developmentally appropriate reading activities for parents to help their children become fluent readers. Maya's focus is to help parents understand what it takes to raise fluent readers and to connect people of all ages to great books and authors. She aims to expand children's possibilities and become and build a more equitable connected society. Maya, thank you for joining us. Uh, look, um, in your own words, just share with our listeners a little bit about what you do and what you are passionate about.
Speaker 3 (01:44):
Yes. I came to this interest in literacy and reading development as a parent. When my daughter was born 11 years ago, I realized that I had no manual for <laugh> her brain development or things to do to get her ready for school. I had a lot of information on setting up the car seat and, uh, sleep training and all of those topics, but I really had a great sense of curiosity about reading, particularly because, um, just of challenges. I had read in news stories about really vast disparities in reading achievement among different communities of kids. So today, my work primarily is as the author of Reading for Our Lives, a Literacy Action Plan from Birth to Six. I now do speaking and workshops to help parents and educators, and also librarians, uh, share practical tips to help parents nurture reading easily in everyday life.
Speaker 2 (02:37):
Yeah, yeah. That's fantastic. It's a, a brilliant work with such a, a positive impact. So why is, why is early literacy so important for children's, you know, lifelong success?
Speaker 3 (02:48):
There is so much learning and development that happens with our little ones from their first days as infants and through the toddler and preschool years. And many don't start thinking about reading until closer to a formal education than the formal school years kindergarten here. But there's so much that's happening. And if parents knew how they could easily foster greater learning and development, I think most parents would. And although the, the research around it is very complicated, the things parents actually have to do are quite simple. So it's just a matter of learning how to speak with your little ones in a really responsive, attentive way, starting from when they're tiny and introducing them to books and as they get older, talking, making letters and print a topic of conversation.
Speaker 2 (03:36):
Yeah. Yeah. So, um, you, you talk, um, in my pre-show research, I saw some of your, uh, website and read some summaries for your books and, and you talk about a reading crisis in America. And so firstly, what do you mean by this and what should parents be aware of regarding this reading crisis?
Speaker 3 (03:54):
So, in the United States, we have a situation where unfortunately your socioeconomic background has an outsized impact on your likelihood of becoming a strong, fluent, skilled reader. Your racial or ethnic background has an impact and it's because of disparities and information that parents have about nurturing learning and development. And it's also because of disparities and the quality of reading instruction that kids get once they are informal school years. And frankly, it's a result of differences in parents' ability to pay for outside tutoring and assessments and other things when issues emerge. So we, it's, we're in a situation where the majority of kids are not reading on grade level by third grade. And here we talk about it as the, those early years up through third grade are learning to read. And then fourth grade and beyond, you're reading to learn, you're reading to pick up the science material or social studies or history in all these other subjects. So you really have to have that strong foundation early in order to take advantage of all the classroom instruction you'll get. Yet parents don't know what they can do and so they don't do the thing. So we have to get to a point where it's really common knowledge that every parent knows and every pediatrician and librarian and community member who is in conversation with parents of young children knows to tell them, talk to your little one. Help build their vocabulary. Do these simple things.
Speaker 2 (05:25):
Yeah. Yeah. What are some of the limitations of schools in addressing that crisis?
Speaker 3 (05:30):
Some of the limitations are that our teacher training programs have not had enough emphasis on teaching teachers how to directly and systematically teach kids the connections between the sounds of English and how it appears in print. So there has been a shortage of teacher training around phonics, and we have an alphabetic system <laugh>. So kids have to learn that certain letters in print correspond to certain sounds. And as you know, some letters correspond to multiple sounds, <laugh>. So the letter C is often most frequently corresponds to the sounds C like in cat or coat or cover. But then we also know that there are CS and chairs and chandelier and champagne and all other kinds of Cs. So most kids benefit from being directly, explicitly taught those things. And many of our teachers haven't been trained to do that. And so as kids get older and older in school, there's fewer and fewer people in the building who have that ability to catch them up or tutor them.
Speaker 3 (06:33):
So that's part of the challenge is teachers haven't been supported enough in their training curriculum hasn't been focused enough on phonics. And there are other things. You don't only need phonics to become a great reader, you also need a large vocabulary. You need some background knowledge so that once you can sound out words, you have context for what they mean <laugh> when you're reading them connected in sentences and paragraphs. So the teacher training piece, but also the parent piece is an untapped opportunity. If more parents know how critical they are as vocabulary builders, they would talk more and they would talk, um, in a more back and forth dialogue manner to give kids the opportunity to vocalize and think as well.
Speaker 2 (07:18):
Yeah. And and you, you've probably partly answered this, but you know, beyond reading kids' bedtime stories, which is what we think our role is as parents reading bedtime story, that's one of the ways we think is, is best to encourage reading. What else can parents do? Like what, what are some of those things? And, and you, you talked about conversation, having a, you know, practical, meaningful, um, authentic conversations is probably one thing, but are there others?
Speaker 3 (07:42):
Yes. So one detail related to conversation that's really important and that I did not know when my daughter was young, it's something I discovered in the research as she got older, is how we talk to kids matter. So not only that we speak to them, but that it is a back and forth conversational exchange. Even when they're infants, before they can speak words that we understand before they're speaking sentences. We have to, as parents treat those cos and Babs as if they were words, we understood and respond. And there is something really powerful about that back and forth exchange. So I give parents the acronym talk, which stands for take turns, ask questions, label and point and keep the conversation going. So the taking turns again, is just a reminder. It's not just us talking at them <laugh>, but giving them a chance to respond and coup and babble and point and look and then asking questions is just another way to get at the same idea of exchange and conversation and dialogue and back and forth.
Speaker 3 (08:41):
Anytime you ask a little one a question there, you hopefully pause <laugh> and give them the opportunity to respond cuz it's their word count and their vocalizations that matter so much. One really interesting study found that kids who had the most back and forth conversational exchanges when they were between 18 and 24 months old. Years later when they assessed these kids on a variety of measures, those who had the were in that really highest percentile of back and forth conversations, had larger vocabularies, better verbal expressive skills, even higher IQs. So things that parents are doing with really young children have a direct, um, positive impact on things that we value later. And I think most parents would talk more if they knew they would listen more <laugh>.
Speaker 2 (09:29):
Yeah. Yeah. It, it's amazing to say like, we've got a one and a half year old granddaughter and um, you know, whilst it may be a lot of babble, um, there, there's a high level of comprehension, like there, there's, uh, a lot, a lot in my view, there's, there's quite a, um, a fascinating level of understanding already going on. Even though they can't express that vocally or verbally, um, they're, they're learning and they're learning fast. Um,
Speaker 3 (09:55):
They are, and it's wonderful that you mentioned being a grandparent. Grandparents have a major role in this to play cuz oftentimes the parents are tired, they're stressed, they're kind of mired in those everyday details and sometimes they lack the, um, perspective or endurance <laugh> to have some of these patient conversations. So that's wonderful. And then the other part of your question was beyond talk and reading books, what are some things parents can do? And I would say that they can also connect to other community resources. So connect to grandparents or story time at the library or go to museums anytime you're out in the world, those are opportunities to introduce new words and vocabulary and ideas and background knowledge. So sometimes we underestimate that. And being advocates for your kids is very important. So going to those well-child pediatrician visits and being familiar with developmental milestones so that you can let the doctor know if you sense that there might be, um, an issue or challenge with something your child's experiencing.
Speaker 3 (11:00):
Because there are also speech issues sometimes in hearing issues that can be, um, discerned with very young children that has an impact on their language development and their later literacy development. So parents, in addition to the reading and the talking can kind of be advocates and on the lookout for finding additional resources to support their child. And then I also tell parents to think about budgeting as a tool in their toolkit. As I mentioned, some families are getting the great reading results they're getting because parents are paying for tutoring and we shouldn't have to do that, but it's just a reality. And the US definitely tutoring is, it's a huge industry <laugh>, um, that many kids benefit from, but it's also budgeting things like books like or magazines, a kids' magazine subscription, or it could be going to a museum instead of an amusement park or, you know, so just those little decisions that we make about how we spend our money also sends a message to kids about what we value. So make sure reading is in the budget <laugh>.
Speaker 2 (12:05):
Yeah, you're right. And, uh, look, I I'm particularly excited about the rise of, um, artificial intelligence and, you know, its potential role in, um, uh, giving accessibility to, to those students and those families in the form of AI tutors. You know, like I, I don't know how this landscape's going to unfold, but there's, uh, some tremendous stuff happening in that space and I think that's going to, um, allow, uh, so much more accessibility than we've seen in the past, uh, to a high standard of education and learning. So, you know, like I, I see a, a classroom where teachers are using AI assistance, uh, and, and I don't think it's too far away. So, uh, um, anyway, let, let's keep our fingers crossed for some of that. Um, in your book, my, uh, reading for Our Lives, you offer some developmentally appropriate reading activities for parents. Can you share some examples of what these activities might look like?
Speaker 3 (12:56):
Yes. I think that a key to success for parents in doing some of these things is just making it easy and tying it to certain routines and things you're already doing. So around mealtimes, bedtime, bath times, all of, you know, when you're in the car on the way to school and all of those different, um, opportunities do kind of layer in some literacy <laugh> supports as a part of what you're already doing. So it doesn't feel like an extra burden. And so let's say your child is approaching three or four and they're starting to show some interest in print, then I think that's prime time to start drawing their attention more to the letters and things that you see in your everyday environment. Could be on a t-shirt, it could be in a book, but it could also be the cereal box or a street sign or whatever print is around you.
Speaker 3 (13:44):
Cuz we forget as skilled, fluent adult readers that it's hard to tell the difference between just a line on a piece of paper and the letter L and the letter I and all these <laugh>, you know, all of these marks look similar. So if we can start telling kids that letters are, all letters are made of lines, dots, and curves, and if you see a stop sign, oh, there's the letter s s says, it curves this way and that way. And so again, the labeling, the tracing, the pointing, bringing their attention in line with yours is really valuable. And those quick little things, parents think that it lessons have to be, you know, seated at a table with paper and kind of intense. But it really is those little light touches over time. Um, singing nursery rhymes and um, things with a lot of alliteration like Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers and you know, you're really popping that initial <laugh> sound in those words and in a fun light way bringing attention to it, that is skill building as well. Cuz kids need to be able to, to discern the individual sounds and words in order to crack the code and read and spell.
Speaker 2 (14:51):
Yeah, yeah, some great, great tips. Some really, really practical tips and uh, good for a grandparent that I can take away and use in my own life, Maya. So thank you <laugh>. You're no problem. So, uh, you know, with the rise of digital media, technology, uh, iPads, computers, you know, how do you see personally the role of books and reading, uh, changing perhaps in children's lives?
Speaker 3 (15:13):
I think the role of, um, reading will always be critically important because reading is how we access so much information about the world when we're trying to really reach mastery in whatever areas we pursue as adults. A lot of kids think you can just hop on YouTube and watch videos about everything <laugh>, but there's something to that immersive experience of diving into a document or a tech technical manual either for just getting to your next level of, um, expertise. So I think the reading and also the writing, it's how we formulate deeper thoughts and organize our work. And so there are so many benefits. I think literacy will never go outta style. The the book itself as an object, I think will continue to change. So I love reading books on paper, but my own personal reading habit is I'll, for the most part, for non-fiction, if I'm trying to learn something, I'll read it on an e-book first so that I can highlight with my finger notes things I wanna remember and it's automatically captured for me.
Speaker 3 (16:16):
It's, the highlights are sent to Evernote, I can refer back to them later without any friction. And then if I really love that book, I'll order a hard copy and I'll read it again and I'll underline and I'll write in the margins. If I really love it, I may also buy the audio book <laugh> and take it in, you know, if I'm really trying to soak it up in a lot of different ways. But I think that we can't allow kids to use technology to avoid learning how to crack the code and really become skilled fluent readers. And I think for the littlest ones, the paper book object is superior to technology because so much of how they learn is through their senses. They're chewing the book, they're throwing the book, they're smacking the book <laugh>, they're smelling the book, and there's something to them learning to turn the pages and sitting with an adult, someone, and I don't know who it is to give them credit, but someone said, your lap is the best app.
Speaker 3 (17:09):
And I think that's absolutely true for the, for your one and two year olds, they need the contingent respondent responses of an adult in their physical presence to know where they're looking, what they're pointing at to respond to those COOs and babbles. I think there are, um, as you've mentioned, AI tutoring, I actually had never heard of that <laugh> until you just mentioned it. But I think there will be technology that develops that will help us bring reading instruction to scale by offering better assessments of what kids know and developing more customized learning plans to the specific reading challenges that kids have. Cuz we do have, as I mentioned before, a shortage of teachers who really know how to deliver some of this instruction that kids need.
Speaker 2 (17:59):
Yeah. And, and, and just even the use of technology for teachers in making their job more efficient, whether that's in grading or, or as you mentioned, assessments, uh, to give them more face-to-face time with students and, and to have those, uh, more engaging and meaningful and immersive experiences in the classroom. Um, and, and I'm glad you mentioned, like for those early readers and those real young children, it, you know, like we ma we, we really believe in the importance of physical books. And I'm proud of our daughter because, you know, she's already taking our granddaughter to the library, you know, from the age of one. Now she's one and a half now, and they go to the library every week, they swap books and you know, uh, our granddaughter chooses books and she carries them around the house with her. And, and we think that's vital for her development.
Speaker 2 (18:45):
And, uh, uh, I think she's doing a tremendous job as a, as a, as a parent and, and some of these things, uh, you know, we talk about access, accessibility, and affordability. You know, as parents, I think many of us can do a better job and, and you know, the, there are probably less barriers than we think, um, as parents to, to reading. I, I know that they do exist. Um, but there are many, many things we could do. So, so what advice would you have then, Maya, for parents who may be struggling to help their children learn to read or who may not have access to, to books or literacy materials or resources?
Speaker 3 (19:21):
I think the first, um, thing is to keep in mind what reading is and how it develops over time. So there are two big buckets. I like to just to simplify things for parents that go into reading. And so one bucket is that matching sounds to print that we talked about. So the ability to sound out words phonics, how to recognize a word on a piece of paper, but aside from that is all of that background knowledge and vocabulary. And that is really built through conversation, which is the other thing that we discussed earlier. So even a parent who isn't incredibly literate themselves, who struggles as a reader, who doesn't have access to a lot of printed material, if you talk to your child and make a habit of labeling and pointing things in your everyday environment, describing colors and textures and grouping things and um, comparing numbers and all of that sort of math language, if you as a parent do that, you are making an enormous contribution to your child's reading development, even if, um, you aren't a stellar reader.
Speaker 3 (20:29):
And then I think parents can rely on or lean on, and sometimes you have to be proactive to really advocate for your child to get, to ensure that they get high quality reading instruction in schools. The other thing I would say for parents is to the extent that you can get grounded in kind of the, the guidelines and developmental milestones, grade level expectations that are relevant for your child, just to have a sense of what kids can typically do or know at a certain age. So then you can operate from that base level of understanding and you won't be overly anxious. Sometimes parents are anxious about things they don't need to worry about because it's something kids don't need to do until they're five or six and you have a two year old. So I think that that grounding and guidelines is helpful. And then get in the habit of recording your own personal observations, like when you do feel like something might be behind or your child might be experiencing a challenge, write down, it could be in an app on your phone or on a piece of paper, the date and what it is that you saw or heard from your child that's of concern to you.
Speaker 3 (21:35):
So then when you have those pediatrician appointments or you're meeting with the teacher or someone, um, at school, you can refer to your notes and be really specific about what your concerns are. It just sort of advances the conversation and puts them in a better position to help you.
Speaker 2 (21:53):
Incredible advice. Uh, thank you Maya. So, uh, I, I kind of asked this a lot of our podcasts actually to, to our various guests, but what's your view, how, how do you suggest parents balance screen time and reading time for their children? Because it, particularly as parent like par, sorry, as children, uh, get older, maybe five through to, you know, preteens, uh, screens become, uh, very addictive. Um, you know, do you have any thoughts or suggestions on how parents can balance that screen time and reading time for kids?
Speaker 3 (22:24):
I would say try to put off the, the screen time as long as you can because there are so many valuable lessons that kids get from just the, the physical interaction with games and toys and books in their environment that they don't get from the flat swiping on a screen. Even games that are marketed as, and programs that are marketed as educational for those that are, you know, to and under, they're really, again, nothing beats your interaction. And for those times when you're trying to cook dinner or need to attend to another sibling and <laugh>, you want to, um, hand them a device to watch a movie, that's okay. I think you don't have to beat yourself up about that as a parent, but really be intentional about being kind of a book first home. Because once they have those devices, those devices are designed to be addictive.
Speaker 3 (23:15):
They're designed to keep them scrolling and engaged and getting to the next level. And, you know, even some of them leaving the games open when they're not even with the device anymore to rack up points. And so you're the, there are a lot of, um, there's a lot of smart people working to capture your child's attention, <laugh>. So the extent that you can put off the devices, um, is, is the best approach. And then as they age, I now my daughter's a middle schooler and there's so much technology that they use just in the course of the day, even with school, you know, they all have laptops, they are, homework is digital, there are certain apps that they use to practice vocabulary or, you know, different things. So there, there are ample opportunities for them to gain experience, um, with technology and it's a big part of how kids communicate with one another, especially post covid. But put it off as long as you can. <laugh>.
Speaker 2 (24:12):
Yeah, great advice, fair advice then Maya. Um, a fun question we'd like to ask all of our podcast guests on, uh, each episode. Uh, it's, it's really a reflective piece, but if you had a time machine and uh, you could go back in time to your 10 year old self, what's one piece of advice that you'd give your younger self?
Speaker 3 (24:33):
I would give my younger self the advice to be less cautious to, and by that I mean just risk failure. Do things you're uncomfortable with, particularly when you're young, cuz you can find new interests and areas to explore. Um, just by trying, I think I often was sticking with things I already knew I was good at <laugh>, but I think youth is about trial and error, so go for it, experiment, try new things, be curious.
Speaker 2 (25:06):
Great. Good, good advice. And, and I, I'd add to that, I think, uh, care less about what people think, take risks and, uh, uh, care less about what people think. Um, mayor, this has been a, a wonderful discussion today. There are many, many, uh, tips and practical takeaways. So I know I I've got, but certainly, uh, many of our listeners will get today. Um, where can our listeners find you online or where can they find your books?
Speaker 3 (25:29):
Yes. Uh, the book is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble and all the online retailers. And you can moc.tramsayam%40kool slash book. And my name is spelled m a y a s m a r t. So maya has links to the major retailers and audiobook and independent book sellers. So you can take your pick there of where you'd like to purchase the book. And I also publish each week, um, free family literacy resources, so book lists or outdoor activities to do with kids or seasonal activities. Read with me recipes where you can cook a simple meal or recipe with a child and also on the recipe card get practice with certain letter sound connections. So try to mix it up and give parents ample free tools to teach these vital lessons at mayas
Speaker 2 (26:24):
And they just sign up to that and you send those out by email? Is that the id?
Speaker 3 (26:28):
Yes. So they're, they just appear on the blog each week at mayas And there is also a way to subscribe to the new newsletter when they're on the site. There's a button that says become a V I p and v i p stands for very Intentional Parent <laugh>. Ah. And so when you sign up for the newsletter weekly, I'll send different tips as well
Speaker 2 (26:50):
That that is, that is wonderful. And for those parents who are listening who may be feeling they don't have the resources or the knowledge, there you go. There's some resources and knowledge, some wonderful stuff you can sign up to. So, uh, get onto that. Uh, Maya, thank you so much for your time and generosity today. It's been wonderful speaking with you. Have a wonderful day.
Speaker 3 (27:09):
Thank you.

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This episode is sponsored by Skill Samurai - Coding & STEM Academy