Dr. Cathy Grace

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Dr. Cathy Grace is Director of Early Childhood Development and Policy for the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington, D.C. She is the mother of two adult children. Here, she shares with HAPPY Reading her recollections of the role of literacy in her family when her children were growing up.

HAPPY: How important to you was reading as a parent of young children?

Dr. Grace: I read to my children daily. I included this in our night time routine and also read during the day when the schedule permitted. I bought books as often as possible so we could have a home library in addition to checking out library books.

HAPPY: Did your feelings, attitudes and actions regarding books grow out of your own exposure in your childhood home? Explain in what ways it did or did not.

Dr. Grace: My mother read to my brother and me as part of the night time routine. I often received gifts from family members at holidays and on my birthday. I lived in the country and looked forward to the twice a month bookmobile visits. My parents read the newspaper daily and magazines were always in the house.

HAPPY: What types of books brought the greatest delight to you and your children? Were there favorite titles, authors or genres?

Dr. Grace: As a child I enjoyed Lois Lenski books as well as Nancy Drew mysteries and biographies. My oldest child enjoyed books by Richard Scary and stories about families solving challenges or experiencing new events like starting school. He also was extremely interested in history. My youngest child enjoyed stories by Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak.

HAPPY: Did you look for ways to extend the learning beyond the books with activities, field trips, discussions, media or other endeavors?

Dr. Grace: We took annual vacations and tied them into books or read about the places we were going in an attempt to learn more about them. We always discussed the stories as we read them and many times re- read them bringing up different things from re-read to re-read.

HAPPY: What were the greatest obstacles to spending time together with books? How did you handle those challenges and/or how might you suggest others do so now?

Dr. Grace: When my oldest child was young I was a single mom, worked and attended school. The demands of doing what was necessary to keep the house functioning as well as working resulted in balancing time to allow for reading time together. I did read to him nightly as part of our bedtime routine. Some parents who work on schedules that are different from those of their child have an even greater challenge in trying to find “together time”. One thing parents can do is to make reading a priority in determining the type of out of home early learning experience they select for their child. Asking questions and reviewing daily schedules of programs that serve infants and toddlers as well as pre-schoolers is a good way to make sure early literacy skill development is a priority of the program and to let teaching staff it is one for you as a parent.

HAPPY: Did you or can you now see the influence of the time you spent reading reflected in the lives and choices of your children? Have story themes or particular books ever resurfaced in conversation or even as references for broader life lessons?

Dr. Grace: My oldest child was always interested in American history and wanted to read about presidents and other elements of our country’s history. He is now a social studies curriculum coordinator for a public school system and holds offices in national social studies professional development organizations. My youngest son always illustrated stories and now holds a degree in fine arts from Pratt Institute of Art in painting.

HAPPY: Did you read to and with your children as they grew older? Share, if you will, any benefits you may see or regrets you may have about this. How would you advise parents of young children today with regard to when to stop reading together?

Dr. Grace: I read to my children until they were independent readers. We had reading time on Sunday afternoon every week so dedicated time was part of the routine. I did read chapter books on occasion when we took long road trips. I think shared reading is a good strategy to implement during the lower elementary grade years. It is a transition strategy that supports reading for enjoyment and recognizes it as a key to independently gaining knowledge regardless of where you live or the family income. I would say when to stop reading to young children will be a decision parent and child should make together. If it is obvious a child is really not interested in being read to, but will read independently, then in order to keep the child engaged in reading independent reading may be the course to take.

HAPPY: How important was the public library in your family literacy practices? How valuable do you believe public libraries are today?

Dr. Grace: As a child, I lived in rural Arkansas and was treated to the bookmobile visits twice a month. I could not wait to get as many books as allowed so I could pass the time, especially in the summer, with Lois Lenski’s characters or with some figure from history. My children grew up in small towns that had a library with limited selection of books. We used the library resources and participated in family reading programs as much as possible. I believe public libraries have a critical place in today’s world of internet and web-based learning and communication. The library provides many poor children an opportunity to access internet to research and utilize web based tools that enable them to stay competitive in school with those who have access at home.

HAPPY: Reading is, of course, one component of effective literacy. How do you believe parents most effectively guide children towards greater confidence and skill in reading, writing, speaking and listening? How important is the parent’s example in all of these areas?

Dr. Grace: Parents guide their children toward confidence and skill in reading and other components of literacy through reading to them from birth. The time investment made by parents speaks volumes as to how much value is placed on reading in the home. As children begin to make progress in language and gain more interest in book reading, drawing and “picture” reading books, parents should acknowledge the behavior in a positive way. Parents can send powerful messages to their children through their use of books, magazines and newspapers. Even in homes where the literacy level of the parent is low, they can tell stories to children and show pictures of household items with the intent of teaching vocabulary words.

HAPPY: Please share any remaining thoughts in a personal summary. Include, if you can, a comment or two about the connection between family literacy and love.

Dr. Grace: My oldest child was hospitalized much of the first three years of his life. We read many books in doctors’ waiting areas and hospital rooms. The books became our friends as he was not able to attend early learning programs until he was three years-old on any consistent basis. He was diagnosed with delayed speech and the reading and re-reading of the books helped to keep his receptive language above age level. He was diagnosed with a learning disability in the third grade and reading above grade level-not a common occurrence. The doctors concluded he was so highly motivated to read he compensated in the processing of words so reading was enjoyable and comprehension successful.