Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

I had the pleasure of chatting with Steve “Homer” True about my forthcoming book Reading for Our Lives: A Literacy Action Plan from Birth to Six, during the March 3 episode of the Marquette Basketball Hour on ESPN Milwaukee 94.5. You can listen to the interview on Apple Podcasts to hear my thoughts on the most important things parents and community members can do to support literacy. 

I take the mic from my husband, Shaka, the Marquette men’s basketball coach, at the 28-minute mark and share how I got into early literacy, why I’m so passionate about it, and why writing the book was much, much harder than I expected. (Hint: It’s good news for readers.) Some highlights:

Homer: You’ve written a book … [Tell] us how this became so important to you.

Maya: This has really been a passion project for me for the last several years. It’s a guide and a handbook for parents to help them and support them as they raise readers. 

It starts with birth, because all of the work that’s done to forge the brain architecture that supports later reading starts in infancy. And I think a lot of parents don’t realize that things they’re doing long before a child can talk really affect their language, learning, and literacy prospects down the road.


Homer: What made you come to this conclusion?

Maya: The seed of the idea for the book began just from being a mother and watching my own daughter’s journey to becoming a strong, fluent reader unfold. I’m named after a writer, Maya Angelou, and my husband and I named our daughter Zora after another writer, Zora Neale Hurston. Writing and reading have always been a huge part of our family spirit and family dynamic. 

So, as she was becoming a reader, I just started asking questions and reading and learning more and more about that process. I discovered that many children didn’t have the opportunities that Zora had to thrive, because their parents didn’t know some of the things that they needed to teach them or help them with.


Homer: What's the most important thing parents could do or people should try to do to help families?

Maya: It would be helpful if everyone understood how important those early nurturing back-and-forth conversations are with babies. Long before they can respond with words, they can respond to you with coos and babbles. The eye contact, the gestures, and the listening— giving them a chance to respond, even when we can’t interpret what they’re saying—is really important, because that’s how the brain connections are formed that support reading. 


Homer: How do you convince or get people to be different than they are or would appear to be, based on the research you've discovered?

Maya: I think a lot of it is information. I think most parents are motivated to set their kids up for success in life, but haven’t been told the specifics of how to do that from day one. … I think parents already have the desire. Another thing people can do in community groups, within their family, within their neighborhood, is give people the support to help them believe that they can do this and that they make a difference. 


Homer: So, in elementary school, we have kids come early to provide them food, we need to have them come early to read or to interact. Does that make sense?

Maya: It does. I think another misconception that a lot of people have is that they can just bring their child to kindergarten, drop them off, and the school will take care of whatever shortcomings the child arrives with, but teachers are under a lot of pressure. And we also know with COVID, and all kinds of other dynamics within school, that it’s hard for teachers to specifically tailor their instructions to the needs of individual kids, in many cases. 

So when kids arrive behind, they absolutely need additional support. And that can come through reading specialists in the school, it can come through volunteer tutors, it can come through library programs and all sorts of things. But we just need a critical mass of people understanding the ingredients that go into solid reading and helping more kids get those, get the practice, the reps in, as you would in basketball or a sport. 


Homer: So is it good to have people just read to them?

Maya: Reading to kids is absolutely important. … Kids learn a lot from seeing you with the book and they learn the direction of the text on the page, if you point it out. But I emphasize the talk around the story. Not just reading it straight through, but pausing and telling them, “this is the title, this is the author,” and asking questions is really important when you go through a book.

But then there’s also a major, major role for just direct instruction in those foundational skills—so teaching kids the sounds of English, teaching them what letters look like. As adults, if we’re all fluent readers, we have no memory of what it’s like when you don’t know the difference between a letter or a number, or just a drawing on a sheet of paper. Little kids have to learn all of those things, and our talk when we bring their attention to print really helps support that.


Homer: All right, [kids have] got phones. We’ll have them use that phone to do all the things you just said they need to do. Is there any legitimacy to that theory, even though phones are always viewed as bad? I've always thought kids can literally learn everything on their phone. Is that a problem rather than a benefit?

Maya: I think there is, and always will be, a strong role to play in the one-on-one, back-and-forth dialogue and exchange between real people in real time. So there’s a role for devices at some point when kids are older, but in the beginning, they just need you, they need your attention. They need your love. They need your gestures, your words.


My goal isn’t to publish the book. My goal is for a parent to feel confident that they can support their child in reading.

Maya Smart

Homer: Which means it's going to be tougher, because that's an easy alternative that didn't exist before, right?

Maya: And the other thing about technology is sometimes it takes the parents’ attention away. So sometimes we have to be intentional about putting our devices down, so that we can give kids the language nutrition and experiences that they need to learn and grow. 


Homer: Has there ever been such a book or an approach taken by others?

Maya: There are books that emphasize different points that are within my book. What makes my book unique is that it shows parents how the whole path unfolds, from when you bring that newborn home all the way to the point when they are in school and are getting explicit reading instruction. I think parents need that big picture of how this thing that you’re doing with your two-year-old affects their IQ in middle school. So it tries to connect those dots, to give parents that big-picture perspective. And then it also teaches parents how to teach specific skills, beyond reading to kids.


Homer: Parents are going to go, all right, Maya, what's the most important thing I have to do? What's number one?

Maya: Number one is that closeness of holding that newborn baby, when you bring them home, and beginning to talk to them from day one to build those language skills. I use the acronym TALK: Take turns. Remember that it’s a conversation—even with a baby that can’t yet say mom, dad, or any other words, it’s still a conversation—so listen for those coos and babbles. 

The A is ask questions, because in those pauses, after we’ve asked a child of any age something, their little brain is at work, trying to respond and answer, and that’s how they grow and learn. So T taking turns, A is asking questions, L is labeling and pointing. So “this is the table,” [as you’re] pointing to it. So their eye has joint attention with yours and they learn the words that go with the objects in their immediate environment or on the page in the book. And then K is keep the conversation going

It really is about that kind of back-and-forth, that ping pong, that extra pass, when you’re talking to a child—always try to get that extra exchange in the conversation.


Homer: When does reading start?

Maya: I think it starts from day one. That’s something that’s different about my raise-a- reader book, that it doesn’t start with teaching the alphabet song or even reading a book, although those things are important. It really is about how you forge the brain architecture that supports reading down the road.

Homer: And lastly, writing a book—is it as hard as you thought? Not as hard?

Maya: Much, much harder than I expected. I really wanted it to be a guide that is informed by actual research, so that the recommendations that I give are all based in evidence. I interviewed a ton of reading researchers and brain scientists and psychologists and all of these people to get their best recommendations, as opposed to just spouting my opinions about these topics. 

But then after I had all of the scientific information and reading all these studies, I had to translate it in a simple way that people can remember and implement, because my goal isn’t to publish the book. My goal is for a parent to feel confident that they can support their child in reading. And then when that child gets to school, that parent can become an advocate for all kids, because they’ll know what it takes to do reading instruction.