Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

Ashley Valentine of Rooted MKE, a BIPOC children’s bookstore in Milwaukee, brings experience as a former teacher, tutoring company founder, and mom of two young children to her family literacy work. So I couldn’t wait to ask for her best early literacy tips for parents. 

In our far-ranging chat, her depth of expertise shines through in her discussion of topics including:

  • The best books to read with kids at each age and stage
  • What to keep in mind when selecting books for kids to read for themselves
  • Ways to tell if a book is too challenging for a reader to tackle independently
  • How parents can know if their child needs additional reading support
  • How to find community-based assessment and tutoring services if your child struggles with reading

Watch the video (or scroll down to read the transcript) to get her advice.

Maya Smart: Hello, I'm so excited to be here today chatting with Ashley Valentine, owner of Rooted MKE, a really lovely children's bookstore in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Ashley, thanks for joining me today.

Ashley Valentine: Thank you for having me.

Maya Smart: Obviously, the books in your store range in age from books that are appropriate for babies all the way to books that would be a great fit for teens and even adults. Can you describe in general the kinds of books that you think parents should think about providing at different ages and stages?

Ashley Valentine: For small, little ones, so like baby to maybe two-year-olds, board books are always awesome, because it gives kids the opportunity to manipulate the book and use a book as a baby is going to use a book, so you don’t have to be careful about the pages. They can’t eat the book, it’s not consumable, but they can nibble on it a little bit. It’s not going to be destroyed. The words are usually bigger. A lot of sensory goes into the board books depending on the title that you choose. So it gives your child the opportunity to feel texture, to hear different sounds in the book. 

And for, I would say, three to—three to five, board books are appropriate for, as well, because three-year-olds are not necessarily learning to read, they’re learning to associate letters with sounds. So just understanding that letters make sounds that eventually form words.

And although three-year-olds and younger kids who are getting ready for preschool are not actually physically reading books, they are showing reading readiness skills. So if you’ve been reading a book for four nights at bedtime and then you notice that your toddler is starting to repeat the words in the sequence that they go, and they can point to the words and say what that word is, are they reading because they’ve looked at the letters and identified that this makes this sound and I’m putting the sounds together? No, but they are memorizing the words in the book and that’s an early reading-readiness skill. 

I would say second to fourth grade are when those hardcover picture books or soft-cover picture books are a perfect fit. It gives the kid the opportunity to read and practice their reading while using some of the rich illustrations to help support them as they’re sounding out words and trying to figure out what words mean. So being able to use pictures to support with figuring out what words are, and then the pictures also help to tell the story. So although they’re not necessarily working on comprehension, they’re internalizing what the author’s message is through the illustration. 

Middle-grade chapter books are always awesome because it gives a younger student, so maybe a first through—no, a second through a fourth-grade student, the ability to begin to read a chapter book even if they’re not a really strong reader. It looks like a chapter book. It’s consumed like a chapter book, so it’s getting them used to the idea of reading a book that’s more text-heavy than picture-heavy.

Everybody loves graphic novels. At least students love graphic novels, and I think that’s an awesome segue from looking at a picture book into starting to read books that are more heavy in text. Although graphic novels don’t have as much text as a chapter book, it’s a lot of pages, so a lot of information to consume and it gets an early chapter book reader accustomed to looking at the information on the pages and internalizing it to receive the message because there’s not so much wording. So they have to start to make inferences around what’s happening and what they think is going to happen next and making predictions because it’s providing you with pictures, but the pictures don’t give you every single detail. You’ve got to use some of your own background knowledge to put the story together.

I think at that point you get into the chapter books and you get into young adult titles and young adult titles are perfect for reluctant teenagers or even adults. I love reading a young adult title because I feel like the commitment to reading the book is not as intense. I don’t have to choose this massive book that I may or may not finish. A young adult title is typically easy to read, a leisurely read, and it still tells a beautiful story and it’s very accessible.

Maya Smart: And so when parents walk into your store and they're looking to find a book for a gift for, maybe not even a special occasion, but they're looking for something for their child, what are some of the things they should think about when making that selection, beyond the child's age?

Ashley Valentine: What is your kid into? Parents often come in and they’re like, “My kid doesn’t like to read. Which book is going to be a good fit?” Well, if they don’t like to read and you pop up at the house with a book, then you haven’t taken in consideration what they enjoy or where are they in life. What journey are they on right now? Are they embracing their natural hair? Are they joining a new club? Are they really heavy into sneakers? Are they building friend groups and dealing with some tension amongst their friend groups? Places where kids can make a connection to the book is where they’re excited about reading the book and they’re going to read it beyond the time that you allocate if you have reading time in your home. So connecting a book with something that your kid enjoys or a theme or idea that your child is into is helpful in supporting the kid in making their own personal connection with the book.

And then I would also consider, not necessarily what grade they’re in, but when they’re reading in their leisure time, what do those books look like? So how much text is on a page, and you can just pull a book that you think your kid is interested in and having the kid with you and doing a five-finger check. So reading a book and you’re counting the errors. So if there are words on the page that you don’t know and you get to five at the end of the page, then that book is probably too difficult. The goal is to be reading books, if it’s a leisurely read, with one to three errors per page, because it’s a strong likelihood that you’re understanding what you’re reading if you’re getting most of the words correct. So opening up a book, reading one page, and if by the end of the page you’ve got five fingers up, then that book may be too difficult. And you don’t want to go by grade level, because not everyone is performing to the same standards.

So grade level is not an indication all the time of if a book is appropriate. That’s why I like having kids come in and do a five finger check if they don’t feel like they’re a confident reader, they can do that on their own, sitting in the store or sitting in the window, read a book to yourself, and then they’re monitoring and tracking their own fingers to be able to tell, is this book too hard for me? And if it is, then we can steer them in the direction of a book that may be easier for them to read and that’ll encourage them to want to read if it’s something that they know that they can do independently.

Maya Smart: So if it's a younger child, they might be reading aloud and the parent could track the errors, or if it's an order child that's reading silently, they kind of have to have the awareness of, oh, I hit a snag there and raise a finger.

Ashley Valentine: I would say parents are just as capable of supporting kids in reading as anyone else. It doesn’t necessarily look the same as what a classroom teacher is doing in a formal classroom setting, but anytime that you’re spending with literacy and around reading with your kid is supporting them in reading. So the level of support that a parent has to offer a kid is just as high and oftentimes more impactful than a stranger, because the kid is at home and spending time with you every day. 

So any encouragement that you’re able to offer, any opportunity you have to celebrate your kid around reading, I think is really beneficial. And it definitely helps kids feel like, I can do this. You would be surprised how many kids go through a whole tutoring session and they’re so excited about all of the victories that have happened during the session and they’re like, “Can I go outside and get my mom and then we can reread this page so my mom can see?” Because kids are excited for their parents to see like, Hey, I can do this. And they want their parent to be involved in the victories around literacy, because they may not experience that at school. So home provides another safe space just to celebrate the things that a kid can do, even if they’re not performing where you think they should be.

Maya Smart: Celebrate what they can do. That is a wonderful reminder for every parent. You were a fourth-grade reading teacher. Parents are often told that K through third grade is learning to read, and then fourth grade and beyond is reading to learn. Can you explain to parents what should be happening in those earlier grades so that a child might be ready to read to learn, and if you even agree with that notion of third grade being critical?

Ashley Valentine: I think in practice that is what I’ve experienced as an educator. So first through third is where kids are learning their letter sounds and blending and how to piece together the different parts of a word in order to spell words and understand what those words mean and just be able to say the words. So definitely the learning how to make sense of the letters, because the letters then turn into individual sounds that turn into blended sounds that turn into words.

Once you get to fourth grade, a lot of that foundational early-reading skill development doesn’t happen anymore, and it is true that you’re looking at stories and you’re reading stories with the expectation that the students have all of their foundational literacy skills. And now we’re having conversations about what we’re reading and how can we connect to the things we’re reading, and we’re answering literal questions about the things that the author says in the books and inferential questions. So that’s when you’re bringing in your own knowledge and understanding and background knowledge about the world and what’s happening around you to be able to infer what the author is talking about when it’s not literally spelled out in front of you on the page.

And many, many of my students struggled in the fourth grade because when you’re still learning how to read and unfamiliar with letter sounds when they’re no longer in isolation, but you’re putting the letter sounds togethers and all of these different phonemic awareness skills where you go from being able to hear sounds to manipulating sounds, if students don’t have stronger foundations in those areas, you start to really see that in the fourth grade when we’re no longer working on those things in literacy stations. So typically in the classroom you’re working on those things in smaller groups, either with an educator or developing the skill with an educator and going off into a small-group setting and practicing those skills with your peers.

So if you haven’t participated or if you haven’t grasped those tasks, then when we’re moving to starting to have deeper conversations, you’re lost and you’re not able to engage in the conversation if you have not had this story read to you. So I think it gets really complicated once you get in the fourth grade if you are lacking a lot of those early-literacy skills because it’s really showing and there’s nowhere to hide it anymore because of the reading that’s happening is the kids reading. And it’s a lot less of the read-alouds and more of the kids reading with their peers and doing kind of whole-group reading situations. And it’s harder to hide that you don’t have the skill when you must have the skill to be able—it’s like the barrier to entry. If you’re not reading well, then you’re definitely not able to answer the questions or articulate your understanding well.

Maya Smart: And so as a teacher, you experienced having kids in your class who weren't there and, to use your phrasing, it was showing, and so you took your free time to try to help them build those foundational skills so they could take better advantage of all that was happening in the classroom.

Ashley Valentine: Yes, because there’s then no more time to teach those skills, because so much of the time is centered around, okay, we need to make sure that they’re understanding what they’re reading and able to answer the comprehension questions. So the time that you would be spending teaching those skills is no longer embedded in a reading class. Instead it’s time that’s devoted to intervention or you’ve got to find the time in some other block of time if that exists throughout the school day.

Maya Smart: And then at some point in the higher grades, there isn't even a reading class or just the subject matter classes and probably fewer people in the building, once you get into middle school and high school, that as teachers have the experience of knowing how to teach the foundational things, so that just gets harder and harder. Can you talk about how your bookstore on one hand provides wonderful children's literature for kids to enjoy on their own or with their family and then also the tutoring side of the business?

Ashley Valentine: Yes. In the development of the plan, I knew that I had to offer some sort of way for all students to have access to the books that are in the store. And I wanted families to know that reading a book or getting your kid a book shouldn’t always just be a one-time experience. It’s okay to revisit books lots of times and have conversations around a book several times, and that those conversations don’t always have to be the same. When you read a book the first time and you read a book a second time, you could take away two completely different messages or two different themes and ideas, so that the idea of revisiting a book is just as important as getting a book and reading it together for the first time. 

So I took all of my knowledge as a classroom teacher knowing that all kids don’t come in with all of the foundational skills needed to be strong readers, and I knew that I needed to support that through the tutoring. So we do offer a lot of one-on-one and very small groups. So up to three-student focused literacy support, where kids are coming in for 55-minute sessions and we are working on the skills that we see they need support in once we do a consultation.

Maya Smart: Do you find that schools have the capabilities to provide that one-on-one and small-group, or it's limited?

Ashley Valentine: I think that’s a difficult question. In some spaces where schools have more funding and more staff, there doesn’t seem to be an issue with being able to provide small-group or individualized support where students have skill deficits, and then in other schools where the funding may not be as robust and they’re having staffing shortages, the idea of reallocating staff to support one student when there are 20 students in a classroom seems unbearable, but I feel like at the same time, where there is a priority, then things somehow happen in a school. So where a school decides what’s going to be critical for the year, what they’re going to prioritize, resources are allocated to uplift whatever that vision is for a school. 

So if we were able to think more creatively about how students are getting support (and that doesn’t mean just putting them in front of a warm body with a packet that says “reading” and that individual not having any understanding of how to deliver high quality reading instruction to a kid), any ability that we have to get kids in front of adults who are trained and prepared to deliver the instruction is going to prove to be valuable, because we’re seeing in test scores nationwide that students are struggling, black and brown students especially, with literacy.

So we have to do something different than what we’re doing if we want to see true gains for those students, because whatever we’re doing, it’s not working, if we’re looking at data.

Maya Smart: What advice would you give to parents who are unsure of if their child is where they need to be in any given grade level? How, as a parent, do you find out if your child is on track, and where should you seek additional support if you think they're behind?

Ashley Valentine: When we’re looking at if students are performing where they need to be, students take standardized tests at school on a fairly frequent basis. Although that’s not the end-all, be-all, because it doesn’t always capture the best of a student, depending on lots of different variables that we are not able to control, that’s a starting point. If we’re seeing things that are in the red, if we’re seeing where national averages and norms are and your student is very far away from what those norms are when you’re looking at different charts, then I think that’s an indication that your student may need some additional support. 

I think when you’re spending time with your kids at home and you’re reading—reading together is not just an activity that’s for little kids, all families and all kids in the family and parents as well benefit from spending time together, immersed in literacy.

That could look like reading a recipe together. That could look like going to the grocery store and reading a list together, and sending kids to go get something off of the list and seeing what they bring back. Some of it is visual and kids being able to recognize the things that you use in your household, but some of it is also forcing them to read and pay attention to the sugar-free gelatin as compared to the jello that has sugar. 

So even small differences where kids are needing to read or process the information through reading, you can see how is my kid doing with receiving this sort of information? And then how are they able to articulate their understanding? How are they comprehending what they’re reading to be able to share that with me? And that could be just asking a kid, “What did you do today?”

So even analyzing how they process things. If you notice that your kid consistently is unable to share, even a small detail, or the details are out of order, then that could be something that you want to explore further, and then start to do activities at home where you’re playing word game or games that have them to read something and then say something. So what I encourage parents to do is just spend time with literacy. And it doesn’t have to be an additional thing that you add to your day. It could be just adding a five-minute activity to the things that you’re already doing, that encourages your kid to look at something and read it and share what they understood based on what they read. And that’s something that families can do together.

If parents are seeing that there are lots of skill deficits and they’re concerned about where their student is performing, I think seeing a professional is a first step. And at the same time, I don’t know that a lot of parents have positive experience with educational systems, so I understand how that could be intimidating and give you anxiety and make you feel like if public school or the educational system didn’t work well for you, how can you expect something different for your kid? 

So seeing a professional doesn’t mean necessarily going to a school, but working with a local nonprofit that’s literacy-based or going to a literacy support center out in your community is definitely a tool that can help you gauge where your kid is and then give you a better understanding of what supports they can offer or a team can offer to help meet some of the goals that you have for your family as well.

Maya Smart: Thank you so much.

Ashley Valentine: Thank you.

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