Expert says the path to literacy starts with babies

Jody Feinberg

Jean Ciborowski Fahey isn’t a woman who demurs when asked her age. “It’s great to be 60 and doing what you love,” she said.

Ciborowski Fahey, a literacy expert, has dedicated her life to promoting reading readiness in young children and preventing the difficulties that can undermine their future academic success. She started The South Shore Hospital Reading Partnership in South Weymouth, Mass., 10 years ago and continues to educate local parents and children.

“It’s painful to watch kids not be able to read, because their self-esteem really suffers,” said Ciborowski Fahey. “These are garden variety poor readers who don’t have to suffer. We can prevent a lot of these kids from having difficulties.”

The key is to give children lots of opportunity to hear words and engage in conversation, starting in infancy.

“The journey toward literacy begins at birth. We know that even little tiny babies are listening for the voice of the important people in their lives and responding to the rhythm of language,” she said. “We know that when kids hear words, it’s easier for them to learn how to read words. They should have a rich language environment that plays with words.”

Ciborowski Fahey, who has a doctorate in education, leads workshops at South Shore Hospital, teaches graduate students at Lesley College in Cambridge, and consults to the state Department of Education and Massachusetts Family Literacy Program.

“Reading, unlike walking and talking, is not innate,” she said. “It’s an invention, which means we have to teach it.”

She has also written a picture book in rhyme, “How Eva Learns to Read,” that she uses in her teaching. Through the story of a mother reading to her daughter, Ciborowski Fahey shares insights into how parents lay a literacy foundation in their children. It is, in part, inspired by her own experiences reading with her daughter, now 13, whom she adopted from China at age nine months.

“I’m looking for creative ways to communicate cutting edge literacy science to parents,” said Ciborowski Fahey, who previously made a short film “Raising Readers” for the Web site “If the book is entertaining enough to children, the parent will read it again and again, and the message may stick better than from a brochure or class or video.”

In her presentations, Ciborowski Fahey tells parents that the goal is to prepare kids to learn to read in first grade, not to teach them to read in preschool or kindergarten. In fact, she discourages a push for early reading.

“Parents feel there is some kind of race, that they have to get their children reading first,” she said. “I caution against that. Kids need the first four years to develop a strong foundation for reading.”

Word play through rhyme, poetry, song and repetition is important because it reinforces the patterns and parts of word sounds. This is known as phonological awareness, which children need in order read.

“Hold your baby on your lap and read to him,” she said. “Watch when he generates something and respond to it, even if he’s just making sounds or pointing a finger. Talk and sing to your baby as you go about daily life.”

Although children can learn from educational television, they need conversation in order to practice sounds.

“The child misses the back and forth exchange and that is important in the development of the brain,” she said.

Ciborowski Fahey developed her passion for literacy when she worked with children brought to Children’s Hospital for learning disabilities. She noticed that the children often were in the third grade, the year when they are expected to have solid reading skills.

“They hadn’t made that important transition from learning to read to reading to learn,” she said. “I felt like we can’t wait for the problem to show up. We need to do what we can to prevent it when the brain is most malleable.”

What if parents have provided a rich experience with language, but the 4- or 5-year-old is unable to do the things that are a foundation for reading such as connect sounds with letters, hear the sounds inside a word, recognize letters and make rhymes?

At that point, Ciborowski Fahey advises parents to consider a professional evaluation. Parents can receive free evaluations for pre-school children through the school department or seek an evaluation from a medical facility.

Even when children can read independently, parents should continue reading out loud to them. That promotes more advance language and appreciation of literature.

“When adults speak to kids, we speak from a pool of about 70,000 words,” she said. “When we read good literature, it not only brings us close, but we expose them to rare words and ideas that don’t show up in conversation.”

Patriot Ledger writer Jody Feinberg may be reached at