MEGHAN COX GURDON

From Meghan's website...

 

"Meghan Cox Gurdon shows how reading out loud offers a refreshing, fast-working antidote to the fractured attention spans, atomized families, and unfulfilling distractions of the tech era. From a thrilling look at what happens in a toddler’s brain when a grownup reads a story, to the way shared books are keeping far-flung military families connected; from the imaginative transport of classic novels, to the rejuvenating late-life consolations of the spoken word: the evidence is clear and the benefits irrefutable." 

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TRANSCRIPT

Molly Ness

So, as somebody who is devoted, obviously their parenting life as well as their writing and research life to understanding how important read alouds are, can you in a nutshell without somebody who has had the amazing experience of reading your book? What is the power of a read-aloud? And then what does that mean for kids who live in book deserts who don't have that read aloud?

 

Meghan Cox Gurdon

Right. These are- these are very important things to understand. So, I have grouped over the course of working on my book with the perfect metaphor to describe what a read-aloud is- I don't think I've arrived at one yet. But let us- let us start with a kind of hackneyed one, which is the idea of the jewel or the gem, a thing that is valuable in itself and that also has different facets. And that- that is what read aloud-reading aloud is. When, you know, the experience is different for babies and toddlers and then slightly older children and then adults and teenagers and the elderly and whatever. But if we start with little kids, what happens when we read aloud with them is, first of all, physically close to them. So, there is a kind of physiological regulation that human beings get from one another, from being tucked in close together. There's a real, real warmth to that. That is really good for the mind and the body. We have the beauty of language which is being brought off the page for the child to take in effortlessly through the ears. And one of the things we forget is, you know, reading is not a natural activity. Speaking is completely natural. Learning to parse the meanings of the scratches on a sheet of text is an arduously achieved skill. But everybody is able to listen to words- they're spoken to them. It's our natural language. As Dante said, speech is our first language. And reading and writing is a kind of translation of our first language. So, I'm getting a little away from the metaphor of the Gemba. Bear with me here. This is one of the facets of the gem. When we read to a child, we present a story and idea, and all kinds of wonderful things, characters and scenes, and whatnot and humor. We give these to a child in- in that child's first language, which is speech. We also with picture books when children are very small, of course, you know, we open these portals of wonder. I mean, a book can take you as we know, a book is a frigate. A book can take you anywhere. A book is a, you know, a passport to other worlds. And those are those are the ways we describe books because it's true. So, we all we can we liberate them from the here and now. We liberate them from the difficulty of parsing out what words are themselves when they're a little older. We are in close proximity with them and they sort of warm experience. And one of the great things about reading aloud with smaller children is that it foments very easily conversation between adult and child. And this is not something that every parent finds easy or even every teacher. I would guess, though, you being a teacher could speak to that more. But those little informal exchanges that we have with children, those ways of talking back and forth with them, also very productive for them to learn speech, grammar, vocabulary themselves. Also to learn to express themselves. So, the read-aloud again is this single thing, right? It's just- and it looks like nothing. I think this is one of the interesting points I would love to develop in the context of schools with you. It doesn't look like anything's happening, right. There's an adult and there's a child in the case of a child. There's a book. That's it. I mean, there's no pixie dust sparkles in the air or anything that you can see that makes it look like something is really happening. And yet in that singular experience are these wonderful exchanges. And I'm- I'm running on about this because I really could frankly, I could fill your whole half hour just describing how wonderful it is. So, to get to the second point, though. What do children not get when they don't get read-alouds? What they don't get is they don't get the language in particular that children who enjoy read-alouds get. And as you, I'm sure, familiar, there's this concept of the word gap. And it has been variously estimated between 4 million and 30 million words. These are- this is an enormously consequential chasm between those children who come from what we call word rich backgrounds- word rich households and word poor households. And in a word rich household, a child is exposed, well, you know, to millions more words and the consequences play out at school. A child from a comparatively word poor environment. And it might even be you know, it's not necessarily there's any parental malfeasance. Some people aren't just that talkative. Some families are more taciturn. Some parents aren't around their children that much, you know. There are lots of reasons that this could be that don't necessarily imply neglect or any kind of wickedness. You know, those children arrive at school behind the children in- in terms of their comprehension and their expressive language than the children who come from comparatively word-rich environments. And that, unfortunately, is a very difficult thing to overcome. When you start out behind- the distance between you and the more able children doesn't just sort of stay the same. You're kind of lagging them by six or nine months or whatever it is through the course of your education. No, it gets worse. It widens because the more words that children know, the more easily they can pick up more words. So, you know, there's a description of this is called the Matthew Effect, to whom much is given, more is given. And that, unfortunately, is the case with the word gap. So one of the things that I argue for in The Enchanted Hour and I implore all parents and those in the, you know, who have children in their lives to read to them as much as possible, as frequently as possible and for as long as possible each time, because it is one of the most wonderful ways to make sure that children are getting this rich, nutritious diet of words, syntax, and grammar. 

 

Molly Ness

I spend the majority of my life as a teacher educator, and when I work with teachers, I find a lot of folks say I would love to be able to read aloud, but my principal or my school leader, or my administration sees it as frivolous, as a waste of instructional time. I can't quantify what the benefits are for reading aloud. So, I'm so glad to hear you say that it's not this- it's sort of this nebulous thing that we can't see, and we can't calculate, and we can't measure. But the power is still so important and it's so much a part of creating our kids as lifelong readers. In your writing and research for The Enchanted Hour, my hunch is that you came across really innovative programs to facilitate and- and spread the power of read-alouds in some of these book deserts. Can you talk a little bit about what you saw in your research?

 

Meghan Cox Gurdon

Yeah, absolutely. So, I had a wonderful time talking to the people at the Family Reading Partnership in Ithaca, New York. They have really done magnificent work in creating a whole culture of books and reading, and not just in Ithaca itself, which is, of course, a college town twice over, but also in Tompkins County in upstate New York. And it's is great. I mean, there are posters all over the town, you know, read it, read me, read any time, any place. The language or the phrasing of it changes here and there. But you'll see people with yard signs. They've put bookshelves into places that I think you would probably consider book deserts like courthouses, federal buildings, or buildings where- where people who have poorer families, let's say, have more contact with government services. And so, in those places, they will find bookshelves and they can, you know, that it's just that the barrier to the entry that is it's been reduced for those families and those children and they can take the books with them- in sheriff's offices. I mean, all over Tompkins County, they have these bookshelves. And they also do this wonderful thing they are working with- with Cornell. And Cornell has, um, has a program that that sends actually thinks that the lacrosse players. And they go into local schools. They wear fish costumes. Sometimes they have these funny cockamamie costumes that they wear. And so, these big hulking guys go into the classrooms and read to little kids who, of course, are star-struck by this, you know, contact with these massive athletes. And it's very I'm going to talk to the athletes about it, too. They love it. It's kind of at first a little weird, right? Because that's another thing about reading aloud that we do have to address. It doesn't come naturally to everyone. And it can feel a little odd to read, but it's very sort of rewarding for them, for the boys, too. So that's- that's one- one group. Another, of course, as I'm sure you're well aware of- is- is Reach Out and Read, which is a massive, fantastic philanthropic organizations that gets books into the hands of pediatricians. And then from the pediatricians into the hands of the families who come to see them. And there's a wonderful Reach Out and Read operation at Bellevue Hospital in New York, where I spent some time. And one of the great things that they do at the hospital there is there are volunteers who sit on kind of soft pallets in the waiting area and they have little stacks of books, a little baskets of books, and they'll just read aloud to any little kid who happens to be, you know, running around. And it's really rather remarkable. You can see, you know, there the parents sitting on the bench, often on their phones, because this is a big part of our world now. But the children are drawn like iron filings to a magnet when there is a volunteer sitting there quietly reading aloud so can you see the children all can scrunching up next to the volunteer. And what the volunteer is doing is A- giving those children a read aloud, but B- modeling what it looks like for families- parents who may not have grown up with it themselves. And one of the things about it that's so great is it looks, as we've said, like nothing. But it's also incredibly playful. You know, it has reading aloud has all sorts of powerful generative effects. But it's not you know, it's not school. It's well, forgive me, it can be done in school, but it's- it's a pleasure, right? It's a pleasure to take in. It's an easy thing to take in. So, that's great for children, right? They can they- they can have fun and then the parents can see that. And there's also a fantastic organization called United Through Reading, 

 

Molly Ness

Which is airing soon. And I'm thrilled to hear about their work. 

 

Meghan Cox Gurdon

Oh, they are amazing. And they- they are doing such good work for military families, keeping deployed, parents connected with their children through read-alouds and- and not just deployed parents, sometimes parents who are in the military work such long hours on base or whatever, that they're not there for bedtime, you know, a lot of times. And so, so United Through Reading, as the name implies, you know, unites families in this beautiful activity. They have- they have recording facilities all over the world and all sorts of different installations, and I heard about these guys out on the, you know, in Afghanistan and they could shuck off their guns in their packs and they could go into a little tent and for half an hour, read a couple of stories to their children at home, have those recordings parceled up and sent off. And then, you know, in a short time later, their children were seeing their parents, you know, their moms, but mostly dads, in this case, reading out loud. And, you know, it's not you don't get them. You don't get the you know, the personal snuggling up with that. But you get that lovely focused parental attention, which I left out of my facet description in the beginning. But that's really something to you know when a parent reads with a child, the parent is totally with the child. And especially now that we're all on our phones we're half distracted half the time. I mean, I'm speaking for myself here, but I think that's a lot of us, right? To actually be with a child and have them know that they have your full attention. This is something they need, and they crave, and they deserve.

 

Molly Ness

I attended a conference recently where the presenter showed brain scans of brain activity post read-alouds and scientifically we were able to see dopamine being released and really understand the biological impact of a read-aloud. And it was pretty fascinating to actually be able to say, OK, the kid listens to a read aloud and we are seeing a dopamine release and the power of that pretty, pretty transformative. My hunch is that I will speak for myself as somebody who has spent a lot of time in classrooms and a lot of time invested in the world of reading research. Even I was surprised about the staggering statistics about book access and about the presence of book deserts. And so, my work in this podcast is to try to showcase the work that people are doing to overcome these book deserts. In your experience as a parent, as a writer, as a reporter, as an author, how can we address the book access crisis? How can we overcome these book deserts? What will it take?

 

Meghan Cox Gurdon

The technology is really- you know this is a really big problem. I mean, there is as you know, there's a sort of … the poorer the child, the greater the use screens. And that's not, of course absolutely true. They're- they're affluent families that are on screens all the time. You know, when parents are very busy or distracted or have, you know, it's just so easy to put the kids in front of a machine. There's everything about new commercial culture and popular culture that tells them that's okay. You know, people are proud of their little kids for being- there are infants, for being able to use screens. I just I don't- that's not really the problem. 

 

Molly Ness

You know, I feel like I’m usually somewhat pessimistic about technology. I now feel like we are- things are starting to change. We now have a generation of kids who are young college students or upper high school students. And we're really starting to understand the impact of technology not only on brain development but on their social development. And we're starting to be able to look to that generation of kids who had access all the time and were given cell phones when they were in second grade and what have you. And we're starting to see a little pushback. I know of a rising 4th grader.

 

Meghan Cox Gurdon

Ohh, lucky. Oh, nice. 

 

Molly Ness

Absolutely. Ten years ago, everybody would have given that rising 4th grader access all the time. And now there is a pretty strong and vocal movement about people saying, no, we're waiting because we can look to the generation just above her and see we went way too far and way too quickly. And now we're starting to understand the ramifications. So, I'm sure turn the corner and be a little bit more optimistic that we the pendulum swung too far and that we are swinging back a little bit more. But- but you're right. It's going to it is certainly a real challenge.

 

Meghan Cox Gurdon

That question would have had a different answer when you and I were little. I think now there are there is a greater difficulty posed to those of us who are ardently devoted to books and the reading of books and the cause of a book- based literacy. And that is the temptation and the distraction posed by technology. You know, we what we know from our life experience that when you give children, let's say, picture books, you know, and they sit down with them, they are enthralled, right? It's very easy for little children to become enthralled with picture books. But we also know that if you have a picture book set beside an iPad and you put the two things out, children, because, you know, whatever- whatever insource … properties technology has, it works on them just as well as it does on us. And, you know, people will gravitate towards the technology. So there's books now facing competition not merely from, you know, circumstances that might make it difficult for a child to have access to them in the concept of the desert, but also in this, the abundance and plenty of the technology that is the opposite of a desert. But it isn't something that necessarily drives us to those- to books and to what they offer for children. You know, you mentioned that the brain science. One of the things we see from the research done in Cincinnati at the children's hospital there is that picture books give a child's brain time to engage within all sorts of different and important ways because the pictures are not moving, right? So, a child can look at a picture and hear a story and kind of sit with it for a moment and give the brain time to respond to what it's seeing. When they're offered technology that doesn't happen, that deep brain engagement doesn't happen because the shock and awe of the visual is just too much to overwhelm it. So, I think when we talk about book deserts, one of the things we have to do is to find ways to carve out for children places where they have access to the peace and quiet of engagement with books. And here I think, you know, it's a lovely idea to imagine every child everywhere having access to an enormous library. I mean, that's the ideal. That's the dream world. Absent that, though, even a few books, you know, even a little bit, even one or two portals is something important and can allow a child to escape. But what's required, I think, unfortunately, because it's difficult to get adults to do what you want. What's required is persuading parents to take a little bit of time every day with their kids and their books. And that's- that's how you water that desert. You know, you have to get I think you've got to get the families to see that this is a beautiful, safe encounter that they can have. It's not expensive. It's not enormously time-consuming. And it has fantastic effects on their personal relationships and on their child's ability to develop appreciation for the written word. I mean, it's a tough it's a tough problem.

 

Molly Ness

It's a tough problem. But in my opinion, it is an inexcusable problem. And I'm referring to book deserts themselves as the problem. And it's an over- it's a problem we can overcome. And some of the work I'm doing in this podcast by showcasing how people are overcoming this- these book deserts- is to say here are some creative solutions around this problem. Let’s group think together. Let's learn from other literacy leaders in the field who have done this work to increase access. And I also when I talk about book deserts, my belief is it's more than just a matter of access. Certainly, we can give lots of books to kids, but to really engage kids as readers and to set them up as lifelong readers, it takes more than just a physical book. It takes creating a culture of literacy. And so, when you talk about the peace and quiet of engaging with a book, we need to foster communities where people are talking about what they're reading. And there is a space and a time and a respect for book culture and for reading life. So that actually leads to my final question, which I ask of every guest because I very much believe that overcoming book deserts entails really engaging in conversations about their literacy lives and our reading practices. I'd like to ask people to choose one. And I know this is a very difficult task as a lifelong reader. Choose one book from your past or present that forever has changed you as a reader and as a person. What would that be? 

 

Meghan Cox Gurdon

Oh, I actually this is my favorite question because I actually find it really easy one to answer. For me, the book is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. And I was given a tattered copy of this book from by my aunt when I was 11 years old. She saw it. We were passing some kind of some sort of scruffy bookstore. I'm not sure what it was. And it was maybe 50 cents didn't have, you know, it's dust jacket or anything. And she said, oh, you must read this. Which, of course, that's evangelizing about the books we love is a great way to spread a culture of reading, right? A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is about I mean, I was a poor child. It's about a poor child. I identified in all sorts of different ways with the character Francie Nolan, the main character. But there is a passage in if you if you'll forgive me, Molly, I'm going to just read a little bit from it because…

 

Molly Ness

I get a read-aloud, please!

 

Meghan Cox Gurdon

You get a read-aloud. In this passage from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, we actually get a really ardent description of the importance of reading, even if we don't really get what we're doing, even if we don't really understand what we're giving to children. In the scene, the elderly mother of- of Katie Nolan, who's the mother of Francie Nolan in the story, she's an elderly Austrian woman. She cannot read or write. And she says to her daughter, who's going to have a baby. And has asked, what must I do to make this a success? And the mother says that she must read to her daughter. She's a Catholic herself. And she said, you must read her. You must read your children a page every day from the Protestant Bible because the language is so beautiful. And you must read them every day from Shakespeare. And she says every day you must read a page of each to your child, even though you yourself do not understand what is written down and cannot sound the words properly. You must do this that the child will grow up knowing of what is great, knowing that these tenements of Williamsburg are not the whole world. She then goes on and says, and you must tell the child the legends I told you, as my mother told them to me, and her mother to her. You must tell her the fairy tales of the old country. You must tell of those, not of the earth, who live forever in the hearts of people, fairies, elves, dwarves, and such. She goes on a bit, and they have a little chit chat back and forth. And the daughter says, Why? Why must I teach her things that are not true about Santa Claus, for instance, when I do not believe them? Because, says her mother, the child must have a valuable thing which is called imagination. The child needs to have a secret world in which lives things that never were. It is necessary that she believe. She must start out by believing in things, not of this world. Then, when the world becomes too ugly for living in, the child can reach back and live in her imagination. I myself, even in this day and at my age, have great need of recalling the miraculous lives of the saints and the great miracles that have come to pass on Earth. Only by having these things in my mind can I live beyond what I have to live for. And there you have it. I think you have books and- and language as a solace and consolation, as the incubator of the imagination and all available, whether you're rich or poor, you know.

 

Molly Ness

Well, beautiful words from Betty Smith in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. And more of your beautiful words available in your book, The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction. Thank you so much for your time and for being such an advocate of reading aloud and overcoming book deserts.

 

Meghan Cox Gurdon

Right back at you, Molly.

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