PUP Reading Corner

There's lots to say about learning to read, how parents can support babies and children, and the world of early education and schools. Tap into our years of experience working with educators and parents by keeping up with the PUP blog below -- and stay tuned as we use the PUP Corner to answer your questions and show what parents are doing to support their children's reading development!

The busy toddler: Why walking around and talking during book reading is ok!

December 15th, 2017

Unlike my first two children, my toddler will very rarely sit for a book—he’s moving all over the place while I read. Does this mean he’s not interested in books? Should I be worried?


This mom’s question is a good one, and we’ve heard from lots of parents with this same worry. But the good news is that for the toddler, sitting still doesn’t necessarily mean he isn’t “listening,” and therefore gaining the kinds of skills and knowledge that we know are important for later reading success. So while it might be a bit frustrating for any parents trying to “read” the book to the toddler who seems to be all over the place, when you know what to expect, and when you understand how this sometimes-chaotic reading experience still builds a toddler’s reading skills, it could make trying to stick to a daily reading routine less stressful for all!


So what does story time look and feel like with toddlers?


Toddlers are busy! So when you get comfortable in the chair with one of your child’s favorite books and start reading, your toddler may start in your lap, but then before too long, begin to move all around and appear not to be listening at all. He might wander between the pictures that are on the pages of the book being read, and whatever is interesting him on the floor. But you can feel good about the fact that you are working toward getting him to sit and listen for a longer period of time, and meanwhile, your questions and comments about the characters or the book topic can keep him engaged in the reading experience. Plus, those books with appealing pictures and hands-on activities can help keep him coming back to the book, and maybe even onto your lap! The fact is, even if it doesn’t seem that way, he’s likely listening and actually developing reading skills.


You can see that your child is developing reading skills at this age when he brings you or any adult a book to read —maybe even at the certain time of day when you usually read to him. And when he is lifting the flaps to feel different textures on the page, or pushing buttons on the pages, or showing signs of having a few favorite books, you can see first hand that his reading skills are developing, and he’s beginning to be comfortable with this world of print.


So even if he’s not following the story from beginning to end, what’s most important to remember is that this sometimes-less-than-relaxing story time is part of the path to strong reading: By continuing to read to your child during this active period, you will help him build up the skills he needs, including an understanding of how books work, the words and ideas he will need to communicate and learn about the world, and the kinds of social-emotional and cognitive skills that will eventually get him to a time when he can sit and pay attention to books from start to finish (as well as sympathize with characters and persevere when the book is hard to understand). And of course, this is just one stage of the road to reading: we encourage parents to track and monitor children’s skill growth from birth so that no timeframe goes by without the steady accumulation of these crucial reading-related skills.


So what should we all tell this mom who asked the question? Keep at it! Reading experiences with those busy toddlers aren’t just important – they are critical – albeit a bit different than what many parents might expect. To find out more about the kinds of things you can do to help your child engage with books during the toddler stage and at all ages, sign up at pupreading.com!




The problem with READING LEVELS: What every parent should know

December 11th, 2017

In many schools across the nation, there is lots of talk about reading levels—these levels are used to put children in groups for instruction, and to report to parents on children’s reading progress. In this system, each grade has a designated reading level range so that teachers can identify where a child is on the road to reading success. After a child’s reading level is determined, teachers track reading growth periodically by checking to see if the child has improved enough to read a more difficult book at the next level.


This makes sense as an organizing system. But to give all readers a solid foundation and put them on the road to reading and academic success, we believe there are reasons to consider a different approach altogether — one that will enhance instruction in the classroom, and support more productive partnerships with parents.


Why are reading levels a problem, in our view, and based on research?


First, because districts across the country that use this approach don’t really “know” their readers. Despite their best intentions and all the hard work that goes into establishing a reader’s level, the end result is that leveling does not give specific enough information—information that is needed to make an impact on children’s reading abilities. To improve reading outcomes, educators need to know which particular reading skills need targeting for each child in the class—and we can’t rely on a reading level for that information. Specifically, they need to know if children need work on Code Skills or Meaning-Making Skills, or even both.


Then, often teachers use this reading level information to group children for reading instruction. But consider this scenario: Three children who are all identified as level K are put together in a reading group. One of these children actually needs work on letters and sounds, another one of these K-level readers is struggling because of underdeveloped vocabulary knowledge, and the third child actually needs more support to develop knowledge about the world so she has more information to use as she tries to understand what she’s reading. When this group of K-level children practice reading together, they are actually just working on reading text—they are not really working on the specific areas that they need to work on to keep growing as readers.


The other issue with using reading levels is that some skills that are really important for reading success aren’t assessed during this leveling process. For example, because the texts used are basic enough for children to read independently and all reading skills tested are tied to those texts, that means there is no assessment of children’s developing vocabulary and how they can comprehend stories they are listening to. Without that information, there is no indication of the way the children work with language and information that is more complex than what they can read—and that’s really important for later reading/school success. There is also no way to understand what strengths and weaknesses a child might have when working with letters and sounds outside of reading basic text.



Knowing a child’s specific profile as a reader is truly critical to getting to a strong start and high-quality reading instruction. That’s why we created PUP Reading — to help parents better understand their own developing readers in the three skill areas children need to become successful readers, and then to foster more specific and productive conversations with teachers, and more targeted support at home.








Do I need to read aloud to my reader?

December 1st, 2017

I have a first grader and a third grader at home. My first grader needs to do his twenty minutes of reading at night, and my older daughter likes to read on her own. Since all of us are tired by the end of the day anyway, is it fine that we aren’t reading to them anymore?


We’ve all been there – after long days of work and school and shuttling people to activities, finding time to read to children can be low on the priority list. And when children begin to read on their own, it’s especially easy to skip the family reading time. But the research tells us that it’s worth putting that closer to the top of the list. In fact, all too often – in homes and in classrooms – we stop reading to kids too early in their lives.


To answer this busy parent’s question—one that we get a lot—it makes sense to think about why children are reading independently, and why parents are reading to them. And the upshot is that both of these reading experiences matter a whole lot, for different reasons.


To read successfully, we need to be able to read the words in books, and to understand those words. Think of them as two different types of jobs the reader has to do well. There are other jobs, too, but at a minimum, words need to be read and understood.


  • To read the words on the page, children need to practice. They get that “word-reading” practice in the early grades at school—they first learn about letters and the sound(s) each letter makes, and they also learn about how letter combinations (for example, th and ph) make different sounds. Teachers help children use these letter/sound skills to read whole words, starting out with simple words and moving to harder ones. At home, children can work on word-reading skills by spending lots of time reading simple and enjoyable books on their own. These early books are filled with easy words they need to be able to read automatically, so practice can make a real difference.


  • To be able to understand the words they read, but especially understand the big ideas and concepts that words represent, children need exposure to lots of new words—and that’s where reading aloud comes in: when you read to them, you are allowing them to hear language and ideas that are much harder than what they can read on their own—but not at all too hard for them to learn! And when parents read to children, there are opportunities to talk about the ideas children are hearing about, clarify anything they don’t understand as they listen, and build up their knowledge of the world. While reading, parents often ask questions and make comments about the book, and talk with their children about the book in relation to their own lives, to past and future events, and to other books and stories. It’s an important chance to grow and stretch children’s minds, and helps them become strong readers themselves.


Those aren’t the only two jobs that readers need to do well (we can’t leave out the Everyday Learning Skills), but they are critical to being a successful reader, and thinking about the distinction between the two helps with understanding why we need to read to children long after they are reading themselves.


So that means that the answer to the question above is a resounding, “YES!” Reading books to your child that are beyond what your child can read and understand on his own is always a good idea, for as long as he or she will listen! (And look for read alouds in your child’s classrooms through middle school.)



How can a family game of Candyland or Sorry build strong readers at your house?

November 22nd, 2017


“You rolled a six, Tommy! You can’t skip over the Lose a Turn space! We won’t let you play if you don’t play by the rules.”


Big brothers are great at telling little brothers what to do. For the younger one, though, lots can be learned from playing a game with clear rules that everyone else around the game board expects will be followed. While it may not be easy for a preschooler to wait for his turn, or for a child in the early elementary years to accept a bad roll of the dice, these experiences actually contribute to building the kinds of skills that young game-players need to become strong readers. How could that be?


Because children need what we call Everyday Learning Skills to be able to take in the information they hear, and to learn from what happens around them — including the lessons that educators plan. Eventually, they use these skills to learn while they’re reading independently. What are Everyday Learning Skills? These skills include, among others, managing emotions and behaviors, planning and following through on tasks, paying attention, understanding other people’s points of view, managing time, and making decisions and evaluating the consequences.


While Everyday Learning Skills are an important area of children’s development, they are often overlooked when talking about how to help children get on the path to strong reading and learning. But it makes sense that if a child cannot tune out distractions, he or she won’t be able to ignore the hallway noise and learn from what the teacher is presenting; or, if a child can’t plan and carry out a specific task, she won’t be able to have a chance to fully experience and learn from, for example, the science experiment the class is working on any given day, or the book the teacher is reading and talking about.


And while it may not seem like it, board games and puzzles are excellent everyday opportunities for helping children learn and practice these skills. During any given game or puzzle, children need to focus on the task at hand, strategize and plan for upcoming moves or plays, perhaps collaborate with others to get things accomplished, learn to control their emotions when they lose (and win), and/or look at things from different perspectives. Some games may also help with developing reading skills more directly—depending on the type of game, the game-playing may encourage learning letter knowledge, word reading practice, and/or building up knowledge of the world.


That means that in our story above, as happens in households across the world, the little sibling has the chance to build his Everyday Learning Skills thanks to his older sibling and the game-playing experience: Tommy knows that unless he can play by the rules and manage his emotions and behavior, he might not be invited to play next time. And by practicing this self-regulation—the managing of his emotions and behavior— over time (sometimes more successfully than others, of course), Tommy is building the key Everyday Learning Skills he needs in order to learn, and to read, successfully.


So if you’re here in the U.S. and have extra family time over the Thanksgiving holiday, choose a board game. And when your child isn’t first to the Candy Castle, or when she is sent back to start in Sorry, support her as she tries to manage her emotions, and maybe help her figure out a different game strategy for the next round. Because when you encourage her to find a way to handle the disappointment and channel those feelings into thinking about the next time she plays (rather than slamming down the dice and walking away from the table), you are actually giving her a great chance to build reading skills. In this case, the last one in may very well be the winner.



Words that matter: How the preschool parent conference relates to high school reading success

November 17th, 2017

As you head into a conference about your preschooler, you’re probably thinking about how she’s adjusting to the new classroom and whether she’s learning from the activities. What you might not be thinking about is how and whether your preschooler’s skills are laying the solid foundation needed for success in school and life. But we know, for example, that a child’s vocabulary at age 3 is strongly related to reading at 10th grade. So, what does that mean for a preschool conference?


You want to be sure that the time you spend with your child’s teacher gives you a clear understanding of your preschooler’s early reading skills. That means talking about things like how he is demonstrating his growing vocabulary and knowledge about the world, and understanding stories being read – but also about how consistently he is following directions and getting along with others, and managing some tasks independently.


To promote early literacy and home-school connections, we have been focused on helping parents gain a solid understanding of their own children’s reading-related skills during these foundational years. To that end, here are some key questions to ask your child’s preschool teacher that will focus your conference on the pathway to strong reading:


Ask the teacher…

  1. Does he understand the books you read to him? How can you tell he understands (or that he struggles to understand)?
  2. Does he take part in conversations you have in class — about the books you read or the topics you are studying?
  3. Does he seem to have the social and emotional skills that are appropriate for the preschool classroom? For example, does he notice when others are sad or hurt and try to help out? Can he follow through with everyday tasks (e.g., putting his coat away, only painting on the paper and not the table), and show independence when he is participating in the regular class activities?
  4. Do you think he is building understanding of letters and sounds? How do you know?


Even though today it’s hard to imagine your preschooler as the 10th grader who is reading advanced texts, doing homework projects, taking tests, and preparing for debates, you want to walk out of that short-but-important preschool conference knowing how he is progressing along the road to reading.


To find out about your child’s strengths and weaknesses on each of the three critical reading-related skills, sign up at pupreading.com (for children birth – grade 3).

The parent-teacher conference: Are you going in prepared?

November 10th, 2017

It’s getting to be parent-teacher conference time again. I must admit that throughout the years, I pretty much raced into those conferences without a thought about my role. I just hoped to hear good things about whichever of our children was being discussed during that 15-minute timeslot, and then I pried myself out of the little chair and went on my way.

These meetings, in the fall and spring, between the most important people in a child’s life, take place more than one hundred million times a year in our country—but lots of research tells us they are rarely productive conversations. In most cases, this is because they’re not actually closely linked to the child’s learning and skill growth. The conversation is often too broad and vague – and even when there is talk of performance against the standards, and (sometimes) in comparison to peers, parents are often left with a snapshot of how their children are doing and what happens during the day. The conversations are less clear and concrete with respect to where their children stand on critical skills, and what parents can do to help them move forward. Yet we know from decades of research that parents who are part of productive home-school partnerships have better outcomes—including higher grades and test scores, participation in advanced courses, and going on to college.

In retrospect, I was also part of conversations that could have been much more productive.  I walked out of conferences feeling pretty good most of the time, but I didn’t walk away with a strong sense of a partnership around my child’s learning, and I also didn’t know what I could or should be doing at home. Of course, teachers and parents are in very different places, with different backgrounds and priorities, and different expectations—and there is little training on both sides around how to have effective conversations.

What’s our solution to this problem? At PUP, to get to more productive conference conversations, we support parents to find out for themselves about their child’s reading-related skills, and then encourage them to share the results with the child’s teacher a week before the conference. Then, when the conference happens, PUP parents have an opportunity for an honest talk about their child’s reading strengths and weaknesses. And, of course, to find out how they can work together with the teacher to help their child build strong reading skills.

So how do we set parents up to be active and informed enough to really support their children’s reading development?

We help you walk into your child’s conference with

  • a pretty good idea of what it takes to be a successful reader. That means you know the kinds of skills that children need to read well (and it’s not just about knowing letters and sounds and reading words).


  • some understanding of the skills your child already has, and the skills he or she may still need to work on to become a strong reader.


With this kind of preparation, we are hoping that you will walk out of your child’s conference with:

  • specific things you can do to build up the skills your child needs to become a strong (or even stronger) reader.


  • a sense for how the classroom instruction is supporting those skills he/she needs, what sorts of indicators will help you and the teacher see that progress has been made, and a plan for when you can check back in with the teacher to talk about your child’s progress.


Within a month, at schools in all communities, suddenly the conferences will be over. That means that this important chance to foster strong and deep home-school partnerships will have come and gone. It is our hope that we can help parents – and teachers -capitalize on the time and commitment it takes to organize and attend a conference.  Otherwise, there are more missed opportunities for having the kinds of productive conversations that lead to improved student reading outcomes.









Why not build a baby’s reading skills while going about the day? Learn how.

November 3rd, 2017

Parents of babies spend a lot of time on a small number of things—feeding, entertaining, and especially trying to get the babe to sleep for a few long stretches at a time. So it’s hard to imagine asking this tired parent to spend time developing the baby’s skills for later reading. But the good news is that the time spent doing exactly those things is also an opportunity to invest in laying the foundational skills that support strong reading in the years to come. Read here about the three things you can do to build your child’s reading skills from birth, and then it should start to make more sense!

  1. Create daily routines and predictability.

Why is this so important? From the earliest days, it’s important for babies to begin to feel secure and safe in the world and connected to people in their lives—this lays the foundation for strong social and emotional skills, which are critical to reading success. And one of the best ways to build this foundation is through daily routines and predictability–doing some of the same things each day, at fairly consistent times, especially around sleeping, eating, and playing. These routines might be really brief moments in the day (a song that you sing or play each time you are laying her in her crib) or they might be a bit longer. For example, maybe after the baby has finished eating, there is a spot on the floor with a blanket and a few of the same toys each time—at first, you help her play with the rattle and before long, she is doing that herself. She comes to like that spot, is learning how to play, and getting connected to people and things in her environment. This consistency in her day will help her know what to expect, which will help her feel calm and settled, and soothe more easily. But also she’ll have the confidence to try things on her own, like entertaining herself or putting herself back to sleep—which tells us she’s starting to manage her own emotions and behavior. (Read more here about Everyday Learning Skills.)

  1. Talk to your baby.

Why is this so important? Decades of research tells us that one of the strongest connections to later reading is a child’s early language skills. You might wonder about that connection—well, it’s really about having the language to understand the words and ideas that show up in books. But we know that children can’t learn all that language at the same time as they are learning how to read the words on the page as first graders. So the strong reader is a child who is already familiar with a lot of the words and ideas that show up in books. And it takes years to build up language. Long before they can talk, babies are taking in the language they hear—by listening to the voices and the everyday sounds around them—in the house, the car, and the stroller—and interacting with people in their lives. And they are also learning about language. So you can start to see why we are bringing up reading skills with the parents of babies. Talking to your babe is where it all begins. (Read more here about Sounds & Words.) 

  1. Read to your baby.

Why is this so important? We know that children need lots of language to learn about the world, and to learn lots of language means lots of experiences with language—in both cases, that’s where books come in. When children are read to from the beginning, they hear the language of books, which is often different from the way we speak, and they start to learn a little about all kinds of topics. And when they get older and are beginning to read on their own, they will be more likely to know something about the topics they are reading about, which makes it easier to learn even more from books. When you read to your baby, you also are giving her a chance to develop a positive feeling about books– and hopefully those positive feelings will encourage her to want to learn to read, and to read a lot when she gets older. (Read more here about Print Play & Routines.)

That’s why we say that even during some of the long, often-foggy days of parenting a baby, there are easy ways to begin to lay the foundation for strong reading — and it really can all be done while you are juggling everything else with a new baby.


Is this first grader a reader now?

October 28th, 2017

Amara, a first grader, stands proudly in the kitchen with book in hand and reads to all within earshot, “The cat is fat.”

Amara’s dad, grinning wildly, says, “Wow! You can read!!”


So is Amara a reader now? Sort of. She’s a word reader, or beginning to be one. But to make sure she becomes a strong reader who reads and understands all the types of texts she will encounter in school, there are other skills Amara needs on top of her word-reading skills. The problem is, Amara’s dad may not know that, and may not know how to support her to learn all those other skills.

In our work with parents, we hear lots of questions about how to help children become strong readers, but there is a problem that stands in the way: we all need to think differently about what successful READING demands.

Today we focus on one key fact:

  • Learning how to read means more than learning how to sound out and read words.


Sure – we need to applaud a child’s word reading, and Amara’s dad should be excited for her and tell her so. But while word reading is critical to reading success, it is not enough. At PUP Reading, we want parents to understand that:

Reading = Code Skills + Meaning-Making Skills + Everyday Learning Skills

Stay tuned for next week’s Reading Corner posts with more about what skills children need to be successful readers, and how parents can support them – from birth.
















The Needham Times: Needham parent creates interactive child literacy website

October 18th, 2017

PUP founder Joan Kelley has been featured in her hometown newspaper. You can find the full article, by Stefan Geller, on the Needham Times website:

PUP in the Needham Times

WBUR: A new website hopes to help parents build literary at home

October 18th, 2017

WBUR’s Max Larkin wrote an in-depth piece for Edify on how PUP came to be and how we hope to help our users. Read all about it on WBUR’s website!