Talk to babies, even before they are born

Recently I visited my two-month-old grandson for a week.  As much as possible, I held him.  And when he was awake, I talked to him.


I would look into his alert grey eyes and jabber on and on—about the inch of snow expected, about a book I had read, about what a terrible burper he was.  I used the same adult vocabulary I would use to talk to you but perhaps with more inflection and facial animation.

His eyes would follow me but mostly he would listen—listen to me describing the soft, touchable fabric of his onesie, or listen to my theories about why he slept so little.  I would ask him questions. “What do you want for lunch?  Milk or milk?  Do you want to look over my shoulder or look straight ahead?  How’s your diaper?”  He stared back attentively at first, but by the end of the week when I would talk to him, he would smile, quiver and say, “oo, oo,” the only sound he could make.

Now there is research which confirms that babies not only hear before birth but once they are born, they prefer to hear the language they have heard in utero.  Above all newborns prefer to hear the voice of their mothers, but next in priority they prefer to hear the voices of people who speak the same language as the mother, voices with the same rhythms.

We know that phonemes—the basic sound units of language—can be recognized by new babies in the weeks following birth.  Previously it was thought that babies couldn’t recognize slight differences in language sounds until the babies were several months old.  But now we know that babies’ sound perception and preference begins in the womb.

How can we help new babies to develop language skills?


  • Pregnant women should talk to their babies before birth. They should provide opportunities for unborn children to hear language spoken.  This can mean babies’ overhearing conversations between mother and father; it can mean babies’ overhearing phone conversations or radio news; it can mean babies’ hearing the mother talk to herself.  Little ears are listening, so we should give them language to hear.
  • Newborn babies are far from “empty-headed.” Already they have heard hundreds, maybe thousands of hours of spoken language, and have developed a preference for the language of their mothers.  Once born, babies are refining their understanding of that language’s sounds as they listen to their caregivers’ speech.  We should provide opportunities for babies to hear speech—while mothers are feeding babies, while caregivers are changing babies’ diapers, while grandparents are holding babies.
  • Babies’ brains are functioning at an abstract level from their earliest days. They hear phonemes like the sound of “m” in “milk,” and then hear that same “m” sound in “mom,” and learn that the same sounds are used over and over with different results.  Years later, they will take this knowledge and apply it when they learn to read.

Did you know that according to a 1995 study*, the most important thing we can do while caring for a child is to talk to the child?  Or that the three-year-old children of well educated, professional parents hear three times as many words as the three-year-old children of poorly educated parents?

In fact if you listen to the vocabulary of a child, you can predict his success in life.  That’s how strong the correlation is between vocabulary and career success.

Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk to your children, including your babies.  If you have never chatted with an infant, swallow your pride and allow yourself to seem foolish.  It’s one of the best things you can do to ensure your child’s future success.

*Hart, B and Risley, T.  (1995).  Meaningful differences in the everyday experiences of young American children.  Baltimore:  Paul Brookes.

What does the US Secretary of Education do?

Betsy DeVos was confirmed as the new Secretary of Education on February 7, 2017, a controversial and contested appointment by new US President Donald Trump.


OMB: National Priorities Project

What does the Secretary of the Education Department (ED) do?

  • She oversees federal assistance to education. According to the ED, “the Department’s elementary and secondary programs annually serve nearly 16,900 school districts and approximately 50 million students attending more than 98,000 public schools and 28,000 private schools.”  The ED also “provides grant, loan, and work-study assistance to more than 13 million postsecondary students.”
  • She oversees a budget expected to be almost $70 billion in 2017.
  • She enforces the civil rights and privacy of all students.
  • She collects data on US schools.
  • She oversees the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act which replaces the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act. This act requires that students be “taught to high academic standards that will prepare them to succeed in college and careers.”
  • She advises the President on matters related to education.

Education is not mentioned in the US Constitution.  It has traditionally been the responsibility of states and localities.  Even so, the federal government has become increasingly involved in US education.  About 8% of total spending on education in the US comes from the federal government, but not all of that comes from the ED.  For example, Head Start and subsidized lunch programs are funded by other departments of the federal government.

The ED defines its primary goal as “to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.”

DeVos, 59, is a multi-millionaire through inheritances from her father.  She married another multi-millionaire, the son of one of the founders of Amway.  DeVos attended private schools, including a conservative Christian high school and college. She has supported vouchers for children in public schools to allow them to attend the schools of their choice, including religious schools.  She also backs charter schools.

Why has Betsy DeVos’ appointment been contentious?  Many of those who opposed her choice say she is against public education and would use her office to undermine it.  They point out she did not study education in college nor has she worked in the field of education.  Most of her educational experience comes as an outspoken advocate for school choice and a a financial contributor to education efforts she likes.

Those supporting her choice point out her vocal support of school choice, her funding of private education, and her ongoing and generous support of Republican candidates.

In the past, Secretaries of Education have had little impact on curriculum.  Yet federal law, such as the No Child Left Behind law, has impacted curriculum, spurring a more rigorous curriculum developed by the states called the Common Core State Standards (CCSS).  The CCSS is controversial with some states adapting their curricula to its standards and others abandoning or ignoring it.  President Trump has said that he opposes the Common Core.  DeVos has served in organizations which support it.

Are audio books right for your young child?

Audio books, also called books on tape, are a great way for busy adults to “read.”  Pop one in your car CD player for a long commute.  Listen while you make dinner or wait through a long soccer practice.

But are they good for your young children?  Yes and No.

  • Yes, if you speak English with an accent and want your child read to by native English speakers.
  • Yes, if you want to encourage reading but you are too busy making dinner or bathing the baby to read to your preschooler.
  • Yes, if you are looking for an educational alternative to video games, electronic games or TV.
  • Yes, if your child is a beginning reader or a poor reader who could benefit from hearing the same book read multiple times while reading along.
  • Yes, if you need a bedtime ritual for your child which doesn’t involve you or which takes the place of you when you work late or travel.

But sometimes video books are not a good choice.

  • No, if you think video books can take the place of your reading to your child on a regular basis.
  • No, if your child has questions, or wants to pause to look longer at the pictures.
  • No, if the pacing of the book is too fast for the child, or the language too advanced, or the themes too mature.
  • No, if you hope your struggling reader will read along rather than merely listen to the voice on the machine.
  • No, if the background music, sound effects or dramatic flair of the reader grate on your child’s nerves.

I have been in classrooms where some children listen intently to audio books while others tune out.  If your child is struggling to read or is generally restless, you might need to join him while he listens to audio books to keep him focused.

Audio books isolate a child.  Children learn better when they have a strong positive emotional connection to the learning process.  When a parent reads to a child, cuddling, answering her questions, pausing until she is ready to move on, explaining new words, roaring with wild thing noises or laughing at a cat in a hat, the child engages and learns to a greater degree than is possible with audio books.

Audio books can work well to supplement, but they cannot replace your reading to your child.

Spelling—What works? What doesn’t work?

Because no national student tests focus on spelling only, experts can’t say how widespread spelling problems are.  But ask any teacher, and she will tell you many, many children learn to spell with difficulty or depend on phonetic spellings.


If you are the parent or teacher of such a child, what do you do?

Here’s what doesn’t work.

  • Teaching spelling rules rarely works. When students see a worksheet or test on one aspect of spelling, they can do okay.  That’s because they are focusing on one rule of spelling.  But if you test on several rules, or wait a week to retest on one rule, a poor speller makes numerous mistakes.  And if you ask the child to write a few sentences with words which use some of these spelling rules, spelling errors abound.  It’s as if you never taught the rules.
  • Having the child memorize often used words can work if the word is simple. But not always.  Many children spell “went” as “whent,” or confuse “then” and “than,” or use “b” for “d,” or spell “was” as “saw.”  These children might have great visual memories for colors and landmarks, but not for spelling.  Experts think this is because the brain’s “wiring” for spelling is part of the language processing part of the brain.  Poor spelling is one sign of underlying language processing problems.
  • Teaching word parts—prefixes, suffixes and roots—can help a child guess at the meaning of words, but it doesn’t help much with spelling. The child will say the word in her mind and spell it the way it sounds to her.  “Useful” might come out “youzful.”

Here’s what does work.

  • Accommodations, especially allowing the child to use electronic writing equipment, reduce some but not all spelling errors. Spellcheck alerts the child that a word has been misspelled.  She can click on the misspelled word and the correct spelling appears.  She clicks on the correct spelling and eliminates the problem.  You might think:  but then she will never learn correct spelling.    But how about you?  When you make a spelling error on your computer or phone, don’t you click and replace?  So why shouldn’t a student?  Because of ubiquitous technology, the same rules which applied to us when we were students shouldn’t necessarily apply to students today.  The SAT allows calculators.  It didn’t when I took the test.
  • Teachers who limit the number of points off for spelling errors would lessen the stress on poor spellers. What if teachers would limit the percentage of a writing grade devoted to spelling to 5%, no matter how many words are misspelled?  Spelling is a way of delivering a message, the same as sentence structure and vocabulary and type faces.  If teachers would focus more on the content of writing, on its organization and message, and focus less on spelling and handwriting, poor spelling would be less of an issue.
  • If a child focuses on learning the spelling of the 100 or 200 most commonly used words in English, and ignores the rest, her spelling would improve. If those “most used” words were posted in the classroom as a universal word bank available to any child any time, spelling would improve.  Or those words could be offered to each child in a little booklet which the child could keep in her desk and refer to at any time. Why not?  Do you remember every one of your relative’s phone numbers anymore?  Or do you let your smart phone remember for you?  Is it “cheating” for you to press a name rather than to key in a  ten-digit phone number?  Then why can’t a child look up a spelling word?

English is a tough language to spell–maybe the toughest.  So many rules, so many exemptions.  Let’s take away some of the energy that goes into spelling correctly and put it into more important skills, like writing well.

Pride and Prejudice for babies? Anna Karenina for toddlers?

Several publishers have begun offering pint-sized versions of literary classics like Old Man and the Sea, Moby Dick and War and Peace for infants, toddlers and primary grade readers.

mobyFor $6.99, Cozy Classics ( offers Great Expectations, Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre.  These board books pair one word per page with one image.  Moby Dick, for example is reduced to these 12 words:  sailor, boat, captain, leg, mad, sail, find, whale, chase, smash, sink and float.  The illustrations are photos of felt-made scenes, giving the books a fuzzy feel.

For $9.99 Baby Lit ( offers board books such as The Odyssey, Jayne Eyre and Anna KareninaAnna Karenina?  A novel about a annakmarried woman who has an affair, is ostracized by society, becomes paranoid and commits suicide?  Yes, but the Baby Lit version focuses not on the story but on the fashions of 1876 St. Petersburg—ball gowns, parasols, gloves and military uniforms.

For $16.95 KinderGuides ( offers four classics (more to come) for children of six years old or older.  oldmanThe books, which are sanitized guides for the original novels, include Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 2001: A Space Odyssey, On the Road, and The Old Man and the Sea.  Each book contains a summary of the original story, information about the author, key words and characters, and a quiz.


2016 word of the year by the American Dialect Society

“Dumpster fire” was chosen as the American Dialect Society’s 2016 word of the year.  To be considered, the word (in this case a phrase) must have become prominent in the past year and must have “reflected public preoccupations,” according to the chair of the selection committee, Ben Zimmer, who also writes the “Word on the Street” column for The Wall Street Journal.

The Dialect Society defines dumpster fire as “an exceedingly disastrous or chaotic situation.”  A synonym could be “train wreck.”

2015’s word of the year by this group was “they.”  They?  Yes, they, but with a new meaning, referring to the singular, not the plural.

In 2014 the word was “#blacklivesmatter.”

In 2013 the word was “because.”  That’s right.  Because.  It was chosen because it was being used not to introduce a clause (as in this sentence) but to introduce other grammatical constructions such as nouns.  Because bologna.  Hmm.

In 2012 the word was “hashtag,” in 2011 it was “occupy,” and in 2010 it was “app.”

For more on “dumpster fire” go to the American Dialect Society website ( or to this past weekend’s Wall Street Journal, p. C4.

By the way, did you know the word “dumpster” was coined by the Dempster brothers who invented the dumpster in the 1930’s?  You learn something new every day.

Teaching “and” and “but”

Learning new vocabulary words in elementary school is important for reading comprehension.  But vocabulary instruction needs to include a deeper understanding of words students use all the time, words they haven’t paid much attention to, such as the conjunctions “and” and “but.”

boy reading

Children know what “and” and “but” mean.  But do they realize they use “and” to connect two words or ideas which are both positive or both negative?  And do they realize they use “but” to join one word or idea they favor and another word or idea they don’t favor?

Helping students learn to read means pointing out the relationships which conjunctions create.  Here’s how.

  • Start with the word “and.” Write a sentence such as “I like ice cream and cookies.”  Point out to the student that you used “and” to join two ideas you feel the same way about.  Ask her if there are any other ways she could say “I like ice cream and cookies” without using “and.”  If she is stumped, suggest, “I like ice cream.  Additionally, I like cookies.”  Or, “I like ice cream as well as cookies.”  Or, “I like ice cream.  Also, I like cookies.”  Point out that “and,” “additionally,” “as well as” and “also” all are used to connect ideas which we feel the same way about, either positively or negatively.

Other words which mean the same as “and” include consequently, because,  moreover, and furthermore.  A semicolon between two sentences usually indicates that the idea in the first sentence continues in the second sentence.

  • Now write a sentence such as “I like ice cream but not anchovies.”    Ask her if there is any other way to say that idea.  She might say, “I like ice cream.  However, I don’t like anchovies.”  Or, “I like ice cream although I don’t like anchovies.”  Or, “I like ice cream even though I don’t like anchovies.”  Point out that “but,” “however,” “although” and “even though” all are used to connect ideas we don’t feel the same way about.  One idea we like and one idea we don’t like.  One idea usually uses a form of “not” or a prefix that means “not” such as un, im, ir, or dis.

Words which mean the same as “but” show contrast.  Some other words are though, despite and yet.

  • To reinforce the difference between “and” and “but” and their synonyms, suggest two ideas, such as summer and winter. Ask the student to say or write a sentence saying how they feel about those two times of year.  Now ask the student to change the word or words they used to connect summer and winter to a word or phrase which means the same thing.  Now do it again to another phrase or word which means the same thing.  Try another relationship, such as snakes and dogs.  Again, ask for synonyms for the connecting words.

Being aware how “and” and “but” and their synonyms create different relationships between ideas is important in reading.  If a child is reading and comes to the word “however,” she knows the thought has just changed to an opposite kind of thought.  If she comes to the word “moreover,” she knows more of the same kind of thought is coming.

Another way of teaching these ideas is to suggest that “and” is something like a plus sign, but “but” is something like a subtraction sign.  Or “and” is something like walking straight ahead while “but” is something like taking a U-turn.