Elvira Meyerholtz 150


We were fortunate to have Vera Meyerholtz present a webinar, Connecting Early Literacy to Health on April 20, 2016, sponsored by Nemours BrightStart!. Many of the participants had questions that we were unable to ask Vera.  She was kind enough to answer them and they are posted below.  Here is a link to the recording:  Connecting Early Literacy to Health – Healthy Growing Bodies and Able Young Readers.


Q.1. What level is functionally literate? What does that mean?

A.1.  According to the webinar, Functional Illiteracy represents those who have surpassed an 8th grade reading level, but have not yet reached proficiency in the English language.  They can read and understand words as well as possibly write simple sentences, yet their limited vocabulary interferes with their ability to use printed media to learn, grow their knowledge, and seek opportunities.

In order to read or write well enough to deal with the everyday requirements of life (job advertisements, past-due notices, newspaper articles, banking paperwork, and so on…) one must be categorized as proficient in literacy. Although no specific grade level has been associated with language proficiency, we see that most proficient adults in the U.S. have attended two years, four years or graduate studies in college.


Q.2. Should teachers use baby talk? What is the impact on vocabulary?

A.2. Baby talk is changing regular words into words that are nonsense words, for example “wook at dat coot wittle baybee,” instead of saying look at that cute little baby.

Because baby talk is modeling the wrong way to speak, it is not a good choice when talking to children and it will delay children’s speech and language development. Mispronouncing words to sound cute will only further confuse children as they hear other adults use the correct pronunciation of the word.

Parentese / motherese or infant directed speech on the other hand is different from baby talk. This form of speech, with its many different names, makes it easier for children to learn language as the adult uses a slower, high pitch when talking. This type of language leads us as adults to over-exaggerate words allowing children to hear spoken words correctly, just said slower and over-enunciated, for example the big ball might be a biiiiiiiiiig baaaall.

Just remember when we talk with infant and toddlers we want to be sure to model positive language interactions using clear words, helping them to learn about the world around them.


Q.3. Does singing songs with infants and toddlers increase vocabulary?

A.3. Yes, it does, as long as the words to the songs are true words and not nonsensical words! Singing songs with infants and toddlers is a great way to change your voice during the day to keep children excited with a rich vocabulary experience that will encourage them to try and use those words again. Repetition of words helps children learn and store those words in their working memory, so remembering to sing the same songs at different times during the day will also help contribute to children’s vocabulary growth.


Q.4. Where do readers with disabilities fall into the drop out rate?  Students with IEP for dyslexia, for example.

A.4. Though it varies widely by state, the national dropout rate among high school students with specific learning disabilities (SLD) stands at 19%, down from 35% in 2002, according to the most recent report of NCLD’s “The State of Learning Disabilities” (2014). Source: www.ncld.org.

*Dyslexia makes up about 80% of all students with SLD.


Q.5. Since illiteracy has such a stigma attached to it, what are some ways to encourage those already struggling without causing them unnecessary embarrassment?

A.5. Nearly all children can learn to read, but the path is easier when the right tools are used from the start, and any delays are acted upon early.  If a child is struggling in 1st or 2nd grade, it is likely he has not mastered some of the foundational reading skills. Learn what these foundational skills are as understanding what is needed will give you insight on how to plan for future success. Here are some additional ideas…

  • Analyze results from reading assessments given at school.  Familiarize yourself with the areas in which a child is on track and/or behind compared to his classmates.
  • Identify extra support in the classroom.  Ideally, you should include small group instruction, multi sensory materials and strategies proven by research to work with struggling readers.  Choose failure free activities that are explicit and build skills systematically (from easy to difficult)
  • Consider an evaluation by a child psychologist or literacy specialist. This can be obtained through schools or private providers within the community.
  • Support families with effective activities to do at home.  Surprisingly, simple yet powerful behaviors such as reading stories out loud every day, making eye contact during conversations or preparing engaging literacy experiences will make a difference.  Invite your child to participate in activities that expose him to the skill in unique ways.  Practice the skill with fun, interactive materials, and review the skill for confidence and mastery.


Q.6. What about children whose parents speak Spanish at home, should they be read in Spanish and deal with English immersion later in Kindergarten?

A.6. Research shows that children who are read to in their home language will have an easier time learning a second language. So, parents should continue to develop their child’s early language and literacy skills in the language that is most comfortable.  This is important for two reasons…

  1. It will be easier for these dual language learners to speak, read and write English in the future
  2. It respectfully preserves the cultural values and beliefs of the family