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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 parents’ method 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 their lives.

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 you?

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. #



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