In 1997, Cathy Puett Miller began her journey as The Literacy Ambassador®. As she explains in our interview, her mission hasn’t changed. She is still building bridges by connecting children and adults, parents and educators, in ways that will help everyone see literacy as a tool for life.
Cathy has written extensively about reading and literacy, both as an author and freelance writer. She draws on her library science degree from Florida State University as the foundation of her work. She has more than 13 years experience as an independent literacy consultant working with teachers, parents, librarians, and non-profit family-friendly organizations, she has conducted research initiatives and best practice studies in the areas of beginning reading instruction, emergent literacy and volunteer tutoring. In 2003, Cathy received the National Silver Award for Investigative Reporting from Parenting Publications of America. She is also listed in the What Works Clearinghouse Registry of Outcome Evaluators, US Dept of Education, and the Parent Involvement Matters List of Consultants. To see some of Cathy’s print and online articles, please visit the Reading Tub website.
In the interest of transparency, I want to let you know that Cathy is one of the Board Members for the Reading Tub.
RT: First, congratulations on your three new books: Powerful Picture Books, 180 Ideas for Promoting Content Literacy (eBook, Inspiring Teachers, 2009), Anytime Reading Readiness, and Before they Read(Maupin House, 2010). What did you see in your work as the Literacy Ambassador® that prompted you to write these books?
Cathy: Thank you, Terry, for the congratulations. I am so pleased to be able to share what I have learned with others through these additional avenues. And you are correct, I did see a great need in my interaction with research, families, and teachers which prompted me to write these books.
As I travel across the country and talk with teachers as well as parents, I realized that the gap between the worlds of the classroom and home, in many cases, was growing wider. Opportunities to collaborate when it comes to reading were being lost. There are many reasons for that. Perhaps the most common thing I hear is that families are intimidated by all the science involved in teaching reading today and they aren’t sure they have a place. Teachers, on the other hand, sometimes expect parents to understand what the educators have studied four, five, six or even seven years to learn. Teachers too can be so busy with their responsibilities that they don’t often take the time to acknowledge the literacy already in the home.
My goal with the two books published by Maupin House – Anytime Reading Readiness and Before They Read – is to start a revolution! I want to give both of these groups common ground on which to collaborate and communicate; to break down barriers of misunderstanding; and to share lots of fun, use-everyday ideas for promoting those early skills that make it easier for children to learn to read when the time is right.
With Powerful Picture Books, it was a bit different. I was listening to school librarians and teachers, two groups that often work together to find resources to support learning. Picture books are a great way to introduce basic information about a time in history, a real person, a scientific idea, etc. to students who don’t know much about a subject. Powerful Picture Books is an annotated list (one picture book for every day of the school year) that identifies ready tools to build essential background knowledge so important to higher levels of learning.
RT: Picking up on th at point, we have talked previously about the importance of parents reading with their children, even kids who can read for themselves. In your Powerful Picture Books eBook, you really hone that message. How do we get parents to see that picture books aren’t just for “little kids”?
Cathy: Just pick up a book like When Jessie Came Across the Sea by Amy Hest. It is written about a complex subject (immigration) and has a reading level of about sixth grade. Another example is The Yellow House: Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin Side by Side, written by Susan Goldman Rubin, this time from the world of art.
Picture books 50 years ago were mostly very simple: limited text with stories that appealed to small children. The breadth of subject matter addressed and the complexity of the language used in today’s picture books, in contrast, covers a much broader span. Patricia Polacco’s new picture book January’s Sparrow very realistically deals with the issues surrounding the U.S. Civil War. I certainly would not recommend it for young readers.
Once older students (and teachers and parents involved with them) look at these types books, they find that they are actually very appropriate for middle and even high school as a tool for understanding simple concepts that can be built upon in more complex textbooks or multi-media. Reading these books first can help make the higher level materials more understandable.
RT: Several months ago, Pam Coughlan wrote a post at Booklights (the PBS Parents blog) encouraging parents not to play The Reading Game, a form of one-upsmanship that uses a child’s reading ability as a measure of worth. Would you have some suggestions on ways parents can respond (politely) to others who have challenged them to reveal their child’s reading ability?
Cathy: First of all, no one has the same reading level on each piece of text so it is an oversimplification for someone to use that as a primary measure of ability. We understand – and accept – that children walk and begin talking at different times, within a developmentally appropriate spectrum. Why don’t we do that with reading?
Some parents, too, may overemphasize the reading level of their child because they hear teachers referring to reading levels as a tool for evaluating the reading abilities of a child. The best schools, however, look at multiple measurements including fluency, ease of decoding, number of sight words recognized, comprehension, and others. The most important question to ask is “does my child understand what he reads? How efficiently does he do that? When he reaches a problem, does he know how to solve it to gain understanding?”
It is also important to remember that we are forever developing as readers. Although I have reached a level of competency, I’m certainly not the most accomplished reader I will ever be, even in my mid-50s. After the basic mechanics are understood, it takes continued practice to become proficient and continued exposure to maintain those skills.
RT: I realize this may be an impossible task, but if you were creating a box of 10 books – one for each year – to give to a new parent what would they be?
Cathy: Wow. There is actually no way I could do that nor would I want to. Part of the beauty of reading with your child is finding the right fits for the two (or more) of you. That said, for the years 0-3, think bright pictures, familiar story themes and topics, few words on each page to match the attention span of the individual child. also remember children are very tactile at that age so include a few books that are “mouth proof” like board books or plastic or bath toys. Workman has some new books called “Indestructibles” that are great for this age.
My books Anytime Reading Readiness and Before They Read contain extensive book lists for the ages 3-6 and part of the fun is exploring. Your own Reading Tub website is a great resource to search for “just right for you” books. As children enter school, the titles listed in Powerful Picture Books give you a good list of books to share and for children to read on their own as their skills grow. It lists a book for each day of the typical school year.
Once children move into chapter books, let the child take the lead. What is interesting to the individual becomes such an issue in terms of whether he or she will continue to be a reader, especially as the challenges and rigor of academic reading increases. Librarians and media specialists as well as the best teachers are also great resources for recommendations of books as is the American Library Association.
RT: The blurb about Before They Read at the Maupin House website suggests that the book is for educators and Anytime Reading Readiness is for parents. Is there much overlap in the messages? Would educators find Anytime Reading Readiness valuable; ditto parents and Before they Read?
Cathy: They were actually written at the same time to cover the same three big ideas: using conversations and oral language to build a foundation for reading; exploring books through reading aloud together; and playing with the sounds and patterns of the language in preparation for the commonly-used phonics instruction for beginning readers. Each idea gets plenty of attention in each book but Before They Read contains more references to research, more connections to what happens in the classroom, and, quite frankly, more “educationese/technical jargon.”
Anytime Reading Readiness is very parent friendly (reading in real life stuff) and is full of quick, easy, fun ideas that fit well into busy families’ lifestyles and schedules. What I recommend is that teachers and parents read their own book at the same time for maximum impact and reinforcement. The Anytime Reading Readiness is also a great guide for parent involvement specialists or Head Start Family Program Coordinators since many of the ideas can easily be taught even to families who do not speak English or read any language. This video about the game Rhymin’ Simon may help people see the crossover between the two “worlds.”
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RT: I noticed in your bio that you are part of the U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse Registry of Outcome Evaluators. What is an “outcome evaluator”? What do you look for in your assessments?
Cathy: The title “outcome evaluator” says it all. An Outcome Evaluator is an independent researcher who conducts evaluations of the effectiveness of educational interventions (projects, programs, curricula, initiatives). Such professionals can help schools, school districts, and educational program developers conduct research studies of the highest quality. Using rigorous research techniques, we look for evidence that a particular intervention is effective with a broad group of diverse learners. For example, I was part of a team that looked at using the We Both Read book series and/or other home reading materials to help new readers with fluency. [Study results here.] The more often the same results are found with different populations in different studies, the more strongly we can speak to the effectiveness of a certain approach. For instance, over time, repeated reading (reading a piece of text several times) has been shown to be effective in helping improve a reader’s fluency.
Another example from my own research is the effectiveness of certain types of at-home reading materials that use the research-based idea of paired or shared reading in improving reading skills of first graders. Th What I like most about being an outcome evaluator is what the information we discover means to the lives of children and families, educators, and schoold, learning more about reading.
RT: When you started your consulting work in 1997, where did you see it going back then? Has it achieved those goals?
Cathy: Terry, it has far exceeded them. I simply knew at that time that becoming a facilitator would help me reach more people with the message of the importance of reading and writing, listening and communicating, rather than the alternative of staying in a single school or community. The work has grown from a part-time sole proprietorship to a full-time national corporation. TLA has enabled me to travel nationwide, spreading the news that reading and writing are powerful, fun, and practical and that families have a critical role in their child’s “literacy loop.” I’ve been able to work with many organizations and schools as well as family-friendly nonprofits like United Way and the National Children’s Advocacy Center who are interested in literacy.
RT: When you think about where you will be as a consultant and literacy advocate five years from now, do you see yourself working more directly with parents and less with educators, vice versa, or neither?
Cathy: I love being in the middle. Although the market conditions and needs I see out there certainly will continue to drive the growth of TLA, I cannot see me leaving either community behind. Teachers need to understand what’s up with families; families need a parent-friendly translation and an advocate.
There are few educational consultants who are experts in both literacy and family engagement and I believe so strongly in the voice and impact of families on children’s literacy that TLA intends to remain connected to those areas. I also am one of the few who focuses on both preschool (emergent) and K-8 so I understand both sides of that very important transition from getting ready to read (which starts the first day of a child’s life) to reading in a conventional sense.
One of our missions with the two Maupin titles is to move from a monologue to more dialogue among teachers at different levels so that the growth of readers is consistent and each understands not only what their task is with readers at the age they teach but what comes before and after in instruction.
RT: How is 2010 shaping up for you? Do you have presentations and conferences on the horizon?
Cathy: Yes, TLA often books my presentations and conferences six to eight months out, and I love squeezing in more regional opportunities as time permits. Last year we were a part of the National Parents as Teachers Annual Convention, the SE Regional and International Reading Association conferences along with the IRA affiliate conferences for several states, and the Annual Conference of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. We are looking forward to a variety of similar opportunities in the coming weeks and months.
We would love to hear from anyone involved in planning for literacy, educational, parenting or reading conferences or special events. TLA’s website www.readingisforeveryone.org lists a variety of topics available for various groups. I love to visit for several days and do several events in a city with different organizations when I come and that can make it more affordable as well.
RT: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Cathy: First a challenge; as teachers, as parents, as community people, let’s take the walls and barriers out of the way and celebrate anywhere that learning and literacy happens. Let’s commit ourselves to supporting our children together in a cooperative effort.
Secondly, Maupin has put together a special classroom packet at a discounted price (each includes two copies ofBefore They Read and 20 copies of Anytime Reading Readiness that are perfect for preschool or kindergarten classrooms. You can find out more about these by visiting www.maupinhouse.com or contacting us at TLA. We’ll be glad to tell you more about this special package.
Ways you can connect with Cathy Miller