Today’s interview is with Carolyn Saper and Alice Letvin of ReadAskChat. Visit their website.
Thank you for participating our interview. Please tell us a little about yourself.
Carolyn: Alice and I have been colleagues for the last 35 years. Early in my career I taught first and second grade (and a little kindergarten) before joining the Great Books Foundation, where I met Alice. Eventually I became the editorial director. After leaving Great Books, I joined the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute as the senior editor of curriculum and assessment. I was one of the authors of its STEP Literacy Assessment. One of my most pleasurable recent activities—in addition to ReadAskChat, of course!—was to serve on the national advisory committee of the American Writers Museum—another startup education venture. My AB in English literature and MST in K–9 curriculum and instruction are both from the University of Chicago.
Alice: As a child and throughout my life, reading and sharing literature with others has been my passion. After earning my PhD in Comparative Literature from Washington University in St. Louis, I joined the editorial staff at the Great Books Foundation, later serving as president for ten years. While there, we created and implemented nationwide an exemplary interpretive reading, writing, and discussion program to extend the benefits of literature-based, open-ended inquiry to the regular classroom,. Subsequently, as editorial director of the Cricket Magazine Group, I led the publication of its series of world-class literary and science magazines for toddlers through teens, including the beloved Cricket magazine, which has inspired so many young writers, artists, and thinkers. Collaborating with Carolyn on ReadAskChat is the culmination of all that we have learned about engaging both children and adults in the pleasures of imagination and sharing ideas with each other.
How did the idea for your app come about?
Carolyn: The inspiration for ReadAskChat comes from personal experience. My husband and I are adoptive parents, and when our daughter Jiji came home at 9 months, she was clinically failure to thrive. She couldn’t hold her little head up or babble, or reach for shiny objects—things that 9-month-olds should be doing. But after only one month of reading picture books, singing songs, playing and snuggling, and “chatting” about anything and everything, Jiji was a fully caught up and happy 10-month-old. (And now she’s about to graduate from college with a degree in philosophy.) For years, Alice and I have shared a love of reading and discussing books, so when the stars aligned and we were both ready to pursue a new project, we put our experience of making inspiring literature accessible to children and developed ReadAskChat. Jiji’s cognitive and emotional blossoming as a baby was never far from our memory. We both marveled that the simple act of creating a routine of sharing wonderful stories with a very young child seemed so immediately impactful, with lasting effects. We believe in the potential of ReadAskChat to enable all families to have a similarly joyful and brain-building learning experience with their own babies, toddlers, and preschoolers.
How do you suggest parents help limit kids screen time?
Carolyn: Our child grew up in the digital age, so I recognize that parents can find this challenging. But my husband and I grew up in the age of TV, and our parents simply established TV-viewing limits early—which became the accepted family value. In our home, we simply removed devices from our daughter’s room at a set time of day, and said—“light’s out.” But I’m convinced that because we also established a norm of reading and conversation (starting before our daughter was even capable of conversation!) that we set a pattern of live—not virtual—deep communication that continues to this day.
Alice: I want to make the point that we don’t consider engaging with ReadAskChat as traditional “screen time.” ReadAskChat is a digital library and is meant to be used by children and parents together. It’s actually the very opposite of a “babysitting app” that parents hand off to their kids, which would constitute passive “screen time.” ReadAskChat is anything but passive. Our aim is to replicate the picture-book experience in which parents read with their children. We guide parents in a method of interactive reading that involves reading, rereading, asking text-specific questions, and engaging in back-and-forth exchanges. While our selections are short (because our audiences are so young), they are content rich, with illustrations that can support close observation and reward extended conversation.
Reading comes in many forms – digital, physical, storytelling and more. Which of these ways is the best for kids to learn?
Alice: Very young children—the ReadAskChat audience—only learn language from other people. So reading with children, rather than turning on an audiobook or video—is the best way to build reading readiness. But the difference between a digital book and a physical book shouldn’t make any difference. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently revised its guidelines for recommended screen time with the caveat that digital experiences should be parent-mediated. What’s important is that parents and children read together—sharing ideas, having fun, being silly, taking turns making up stories about characters, and generally having a warm, enjoyable time with each other. There’s more and more research evidence supporting the importance of social-emotional learning. We tell parents: Watch your child’s reactions. Build on what your child says or seems curious about. Talking about richly drawn fictional characters—of the kind we include in ReadAskChat—helps your child practice reading the emotions of others—to understand what is going on under the surface. This is also an important thinking and comprehension skill. Stories teach empathy and the ability to relate to others. This is key because getting along with others is the single most important school readiness skill, according to most kindergarten teachers.
Carolyn: Our background is in print publishing, so we are occasionally asked why we created a digital library. Our primary reason is that we wanted to increase access to high-quality children’s books to families who for many reasons (including income level) may not have high-quality children’s books in their homes. But smartphone and tablet technology now makes it possible for almost all families to have easy access to an app like ReadAskChat. The technology also makes it possible for us to embed suggestions for how to engage with each story at three developmental levels—babies, toddlers, and preschoolers. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard someone say, “I know I’m supposed to read and talk with my little kid about books, but I have no idea how to do that!” ReadAskChat is particularly designed for those parents.
Tell me more about how parents can help their kids learn?
Carolyn: The research is pretty clear that the single most important learning activity that parents can do with their children is reading and talking about books together. What we would add is that whatever parents do, it should be joyful. This is why we took great care in making sure that the stories and illustrations in ReadAskChat appeal to both child and adult. (Alice and I still laugh at the frogs in Naughty or Nice? and at the hilarious observations of the Animal Tails narrator.) Our long experience has shown us time and time again that when the parent is having fun, the child will too. And we fervently believe that learning should always be fun!
Can you give an example of how parents can integrate ReadAskChat into their daily routines?
Alice: Children appreciate consistency and routines, so reading and chatting together every night at bedtime is a wonderful opportunity for bonding with your child. Such early shared experiences set the pattern for enjoying reading over a lifetime, and are often our most treasured memories of childhood. I’ll never forget hearing the magical “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod” for the first time, as my mother read it to me. But ReadAskChat is also designed to be integrated into busy schedules. While sitting in a waiting room or riding a bus, a parent can make best use of the time by pulling out the ReadAskChat library on her smartphone and engaging her child in conversation inspired by our short but content-rich selections. In addition, the ReadAskChat MORE! activities encourage parents to “keep the conversation going” through hands-on exploration—looking for animal footprints, for example, or by applying story concepts, such as indoor fun, to their own lives. After reading and chatting about “Kitchen Drums,” for example, we suggest parents give their child pots, pans, and spoons to make loud and soft “music” like the children in the story.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Carolyn: Our original vision for ReadAskChat was based on a social justice mission. Our own families have so benefited from a culture of reading and exploration of ideas that we wanted more families to share in those benefits. We have grave inequities in our country, and access to good children’s books is one that we thought we could address. So we actively seek out organizations that focus on early learning, literacy, and/or parenting education and work with them to implement ReadAskChat with their constituencies. We recently developed a robust set of training materials and offer those to organizations. Our app also gives families the option to read all the conversation starters in Spanish because talking about the stories is what we’re all about. The stories remain in English because our mission is to foster school readiness, which in the U.S. means having some exposure to English.
Alice: Carolyn and I share the conviction that all children should be given the opportunity to realize their full potential as lifelong learners and empathic human beings. To achieve this result, ReadAskChat focuses on the first four years of life, when 80 percent of brain development occurs. Because parents play the first and most critical role in their children’s education, we aim to engage parents early on. Rather than dreary skills drills, the distinctive contribution of ReadAskChat is its emphasis on open-ended, imaginative, and joyful exploration of ideas. If parents and children are having fun, both will be learning about each other and the world around them.
Thank you so much for talking with us today and sharing a bit about your company. We really appreciated the chance to get to know you!