An Interview With First Lady Laura Bush On Literacy
Education Update (EU): What method did your parents
or teachers use to teach you to read when you were a
child? How did you teach your children to read?
Mrs. Laura Bush (LB): My
seems simple, but the results were profound —they
read to me from the time I was very young. Some of my
fondest memories as a child are of curling up in my mother’s
lap and listening to her read to me. Before I could even
reach the top drawers of the card catalog, my mother
would take me to the local public library where we would
pick out books to take home and read together. She intuitively
knew that the best way to prepare me for school was to
read to me early and often. I’ve loved books and
reading ever since. In fact, I chose a career where I
could be surrounded by books all day long.
President Bush and I are lucky
to have had parents who read to us and taught us to
love books from an early age. We wanted the same for
our girls. They loved story time too. Maybe that’s because their father encouraged
the girls to take Dr. Seuss’s Hop on Pop literally!
The President would lie on the floor and the girls would
act out the story, jumping up and down on him. This was not a
research-proven method for teaching reading but our girls
learned to love books. And this love has grown throughout
EU: Tell us about your experiences as a public
school teacher. What were the names and locations of
the schools in which you taught?
LB: After earning a bachelor of science degree
in education from Southern Methodist University in 1968,
I taught at Longfellow Elementary School in Dallas and
then at John. F. Kennedy Elementary in Houston. In 1973
I earned a master of library science degree from the
University of Texas at Austin, and I then worked as a
librarian at a branch of the Houston Public Library and
as a school librarian for Dawson Elementary in Austin.
EU: Why are some children missing the basics?
How can we change this and ensure children are ready
to learn to read when they enter school?
LB: In some cases,
parents may not know how to read themselves, or they
don’t make time to read
to and with their children. Some families can’t
afford to buy books to read at home. And many parents
and caregivers simply don’t know the importance
of reading to children and engaging them in word play.
As a result, their children are less exposed to language.
Before they start school,
America’s children receive
care in a variety of settings. While 38 percent receive
care solely from their parents, the remaining 61 percent
have arrangements for care with relatives, non-relatives,
and center-based care, including Head Start. Regardless
of who spends the most time with children during these
vital formative years, one thing is certain: the development
of early language and pre-reading skills is critical
to their reading ability and academic success in school,
and critical to their success in life. Without this development,
children can lose confidence and the motivation to learn.
A number of successful programs share this critical
information with parents and caregivers. Through a program
called Reach Out and Read, doctors, during well-child
exams, prescribe that parents read aloud to their babies.
And doctors also give a new book to the children to take
home and read with their parents. Through Reach Out
and Read, fostering a love of books and reading has
become a standard part of pediatric care. Last year alone
pediatricians distributed 3 million books to more than
1.5 million children.
I first became aware of the Reach Out and Read program
when my husband was Governor of Texas. In 1997, I helped
launch the first program site in the state. I worked
to establish a state Reach Out and Read office.
Today, I continue to support Reach Out and Read.
In addition, over 15 million copies of Healthy Start,
Grow Smart, a 13-pamphlet series on infant
health care and child development, have been delivered
to new Medicaid moms in 35 states and through WIC clinics.
This magazine series outlines activities designed to
stimulate infant brain development and build skills
that children will need once they start school. Ideas
are included for fun, age-appropriate activities that
center on reading, language, and learning. The series
also includes important health and safety information
and resources for parents and families.
We must close the gap between
the best research and current practices in our Head
Start childcare and other early childhood programs.
Early knowledge of vocabulary, letter recognition,
and phonemic awareness have a significant impact on
children’s success in school. For example,
reading scores in the 10th grade can be predicted with
surprising accuracy based on a child’s knowledge
of the alphabet in kindergarten. America faces a challenge:
we must make sure that children are equipped with the
basic skills that lead to success in school. And, once
in the classroom, these children deserve the quality
education that comes from excellent teachers.
EU: What could an individual do to help improve
literacy in America?
LB: Opportunities to
make a difference for children are available in every
community—large and small. Reach
Out and Read depends on local supporters to purchase
books and on volunteers to read to children in waiting
rooms at the doctor’s office. Most local libraries
have children’s programs and many schools have
mentoring programs to help children who need extra help
and attention in learning to read. Another successful
volunteer program is championed by the Alpha Kappa Alpha
Sorority. I recently visited with AKA members during
their annual convention in Nashville, Tennessee. AKA
sponsors the Ivy Reading AKAdemy, which is a one-on-one
reading mentoring program. Through hands-on activities
and personal tutoring in reading, they are helping to
boost children’s skills and their self-esteem.
EU: Who are some of the people who have inspired
LB: I’m blessed to be surrounded by people
who are passionate about education. My parents nurtured
my love of reading before I started school; my in-laws
promote strong schools and literacy programs; and, of
course, my husband who shares my passion for education
and ensuring every child in America has access to a quality
education. Every one of us knows the difference a teacher
can make in a child’s life. When I was eight years
old, I made the very mature decision to become a teacher.
My mother said she knew I’d become a teacher when
she heard me scolding my dolls for not paying attention.
But the real influence on my decision to teach was my
second grade teacher, Miss Gnagy. She was my favorite
teacher, and I wanted to be just like her.
Today, as I visit classrooms
across the country, I continue to be inspired by teachers.
Teaching is one of the most difficult jobs, but it’s
also one of the most rewarding.
Every day teachers help children acquire the skills
they need to achieve their dreams.
EU: Ten years from now, what are realistic goals
for literacy in America?
LB: Learning in school and throughout life begins
with reading. And with the No Child Left Behind Act,
the expectation of literacy is the law of the land. The
goal of this landmark law is to close the achievement
gap and to ensure that all children have access
to a quality education. President Bush and the United
States Congress are investing more money in elementary
and secondary education than ever before in our nation’s
history. Through the No Child Left Behind Act, historic
levels of funding have been combined with unprecedented
commitment to using proven methods of instruction, achieving
high standards and requiring accountability to ensure
that America’s schools are producing real results
for every single child.
And children in large and
small schools are making gains because teachers now
have better resources to measure students’ progress. For the first time in history,
every state has an approved accountability plan. Schools
are measuring student achievement so that children who
need help are not hidden in the averages. And achievement
gaps are being identified and closed. As I travel to
schools across the country, I see the promise of reform
in America’s schools. I see children excited and
ready to learn. I see teachers and principals who refuse
to accept failure and are embracing reform to make our
schools the best in the world.
We still have more work to do. But we know that we can and
we must accomplish our goals. The effects of failing
to teach children are well documented. The National
Assessment of Educational Progress shows that only
one in six African-American and one in five Hispanic
high school seniors are proficient in reading. We know
that if children are not reading by the end of the
third grade, their chances of learning to read will
decrease every year. By the time they get to high school,
they often drop out.
Our challenge is to reach
all children early so that every child starts school
with the skills needed to learn. Once in the classroom,
our children deserve excellent teachers and a high-quality
education. I’m proud
to join President Bush in his goal to make America’s
schools the best they can be. #