Nancy Bailey’s Delicious Recipe for Reading

Parents have always taken pride in their offspring’s precociousness, a tendency against which Jean-Jacques Rousseau railed in Emile, the bible of the “New Education,” published in mid-18th-century France. The Enlightenment philosopher introduced formal reading at the advanced age of 12. Mon Dieu!


We’ve come a long way, baby—helped by the likes of Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, a proponent of dialogic reading, as well as education policies that have run roughshod over children, squashing their innate curiosity and zest for learning.

Nancy Bailey, author of the book Misguided Education Reform, is a veteran teacher who left the profession because of same. She keeps vigil at her website, with the bracing tagline “Revive, Rally and Recover Public Schools.” Bailey sees every child as unique. “They are not widgets to be placed into roles that the government dictates,” she declares, “but human beings who have hopes and dreams.”

Here, she weighs in on the use of dialogic reading in preschool, designed to turn young children into “reading rockets.”


Yes. Mother Goose can fly alone! She doesn’t need any help from dialogic reading, which is like close reading for preschool. This formulaic reading exercise was created by Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, an experimental psychologist who is director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution. Here is more about Dr. Whitehurst.

By having adults overanalyze the story plot and picture by interrupting and asking specific questions, children are given too much direction without being allowed to figure things out on their own. Their right to interpret the meaning of the story, or the pictures, by themselves is stolen.

Let’s consider nursery rhyme, which is important to preschoolers. Reading Dr. Seuss, Mother Goose or any of the many rhyming books, can pique a child’s interest to read. The enjoyment of hearing sounds and making sense of the meaning of the verse is exciting to a child.
Dialogic reading breaks up the flow of reading the verse. Parents read the rhyming book once for enjoyment. But then they are to read the book over and proceed to break up the flow of the story and ask questions in a process called PEER.

  • Prompts the child to say something about the book
  • Evaluates the child’s response
  • Expands the child’s response by rephrasing and adding information to it
  • Repeats the prompt to make sure the child has learned from the expansion

Here is an example of what the reader should do.

Imagine that the parent and the child are looking at the page of a book that has a picture of a fire engine on it. The parent says, “What is this?” (the prompt) while pointing to the fire truck. The child says, truck, and the parent follows with “That’s right (the evaluation); it’s a red fire truck (the expansion); can you say fire truck?” (the repetition).

The goal appears to be to get the reader to read less of the story and the child to read more of the story on their own. This is a hefty ambition for a preschooler—even a kindergartner!

And there is more to prompting children with this method than what I noted above. It involves the following exercises, explained more thoroughly on this link to Reading Rockets.

There are completion prompts, and recall prompts, open-ended prompts, and wh-prompts (what, where, when, why questions), and distancing prompts.

I can see the reader and child getting all tangled up in questions and answers. For a very young child this could be intimidating. If they don’t know the answers to the questions they might also learn to find the words and the rhyme distasteful.

All of this seems contrived. It makes a pleasant experience into a task, and it takes away the child’s control over the story. Isn’t it better to read the story as the child wants and have them ask the questions? Adults steal the process with dialogic reading.

Take Sam in Green Eggs and Ham. What is Sam? He looks like a dog to me, but does that matter to a child? Should a reader stop and explore Sam? Well, I’d say if the child asked, that would be important to discuss; otherwise, it is the verse in this story and the simple funny pictures that matter. Children are smart enough to understand the pictures on their own.

Consider Humpty Dumpty–the picture of a frightened egg-like character falling off a wall is enough to tell a story. If the parent or child wants to talk about the picture, there shouldn’t be some formula to follow. It comes naturally. Likely, the child will initiate the conversation.
Sometimes young children become obsessed by a book of rhyme or a story. That’s fine. But will they love a book—any book—if they have to do a major thesis on it?

Here is my formula for reading a book to a young child. It is called CHILD.

  • Choose a silly or interesting book.
  • Have fun.
  • Interject enthusiasm (inflection is nice, too).
  • Laugh (when appropriate) and listen.
  • Dream.

You don’t need complicated formulas to teach reading early on. Reading is fun. If it is fun, children will want to do it.

In this era of Common Core duplicity, think simplicity in 2016.

P. S. I’m in the process of checking on the claims by some that the research indicates dialogic reading works.


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