048: How to read with your child

Waaaay back in Episode 3, we wondered whether we had missed the boat on teaching our babies to read (didn’t you teach your baby how to read?). We eventually decided that we hadn’t, but given that many parents have a goal of instilling a love of reading into their children, what’s the best way to go about doing that? And what if your child is the kind who wriggles out of your lap at the mere sight of a book?

Our second-ever repeat guest, Dr. Laura Froyen, helps us to delve into the research on this topic. We conclude by talking through some of the things parents can do to promote a love of reading, because it turns out it’s not as intuitive as one might think! 



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Burchinal, M., & Forestieri, N. (2011). Development of early literacy: Evidence from major U.S. longitudinal studies. In S.B. Neuman & D.K. Dickinson Handbook of Early Literacy Research (Vol. 3). (85-96). New York: Guilford.

Bus, A.G. (2003). Social-emotional requisites for learning to read. In A. van Kleeck, S.A. Stahl, & E.B. Bauer (Eds.), On reading books to children: Parents and teachers (3-15). New York: Guilford.

Butterworth, G. (2001). Joint visual attention in infancy. In G. Bremner & A. Fogel (Eds.). Blackwell handbook of infant development. (213-240). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Carlsson-Paige, N., G. Bywater McLaughlin, and J. Wolfsheimer Almon (2015). Reading instruction in kindergarten: Little to gain and much to lose. Available online at: http://www.allianceforchildhood.org/sites/allianceforchildhood.org/files/file/Reading_Instruction_in_Kindergarten.pdf

Evans, M.A., & Saint-Aubin, J. (2011). Studying and modifying young children’s visual attention during book reading. In S.B. Neuman & D.K. Dickinson Handbook of Early Literacy Research (Vol. 3). (242-255). New York: Guilford.

Fletcher, K.L., & Reese, E. (2005). Picture book reading with young children: A conceptual framework. Developmental Review 25, 64-103. Full article available at: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Kathryn_Fletcher2/publication/223236320_Picture_book_reading_with_young_children_A_conceptual_framework/links/0912f503ce1f9d05ec000000.pdf

Landry, S.H., Smith, K.E., Swank, P.R., Zucker, T., Crawford, A.D., & Solari, E.F. (2011). The effects of a responsive parenting intervention on parent-child interactions during shared book reading. Developmental Psychology 48(4), 969-986. Full article available at: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Paul_Swank/publication/51831766_The_Effects_of_a_Responsive_Parenting_Intervention_on_Parent-Child_Interactions_During_Shared_Book_Reading/links/0912f5097cf5ddf41c000000.pdf

McBride-Chang, C. (2012). Shared-book reading: There is no downside for parents. In S. Suggate & E. Reese (Eds.), Contemporary debates in childhood education and development (pp.51-58). Abingdon, U.K.: Routeledge.

Morow, L.M. (1993). Literacy development in the early years: Helping children read and write (2nd ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Notari-Syverson, A., (2006). Everyday tools of Literacy. In Learning to Read the World: Language and literacy in the first three years (61-78). Washington, D.C.: Zero to Three.

Otto, B. (2008). Literacy development in early childhood: Reflective teaching for birth to age eight. Long Grove, IL: Waveland.

Phillips, L.M., Norris, S.P., & Anderson, J. (2008). Unlocking the door: Is parents’ reading to children the key to early literacy development? Canadian Psychology 49(2), 82-88.

Reese, E. (2012). The tyranny of shared book-reading. In S. Suggate & E. Reese (Eds.), Contemporary debates in childhood education and development (pp.59-68). Abingdon, U.K.: Routeledge.

Rosenkotter, S.E., & Wanless, S.B. (2006). Everyday tools of Literacy. In Learning to Read the World: Language and literacy in the first three years (81-100). Washington, D.C.: Zero to Three.

Scarborough, H.S. (2001). Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice. In S.B. Neuman & D.K. Dickinson Handbook of Early Literacy Research. (97-110). New York: Guilford.

Schickedanz, J.A. (1999). Much more than the ABCs: The early stages of reading and writing. Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

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Whitehurst, G.J., & Lonigan, C.J. (1998). Child development and emergent literacy. Child Development 69(3), 848-872.


Read Full Transcript 


Jen:                                     [00:39]                  Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. Our guest today is Dr. Laura Froyen who’s the second ever repeat guest on the show with the first being Dr. Peter Gray, so she’s an esteemed company here. D.r Fryoen received her Ph.D In Human Development and family studies with an emphasis in couple and family therapy from Michigan State University where her research focused on how marital and family relationships influence parenting and child development. She continued this research as an assistant Professor of Human Development and family studies at the University of Madison, Wisconsin, and while she loved her work as a new professor, she found that she missed working directly with families which she had been doing while she was working on her Ph.D. When she was pregnant with her second daughter, Laura had a life changing car accident, which luckily both she and her daughter came out of in one piece, but the experience caused us to reevaluate what she wanted to get out of life and she realized that she really wanted to work with families again. She now offers parent coaching as well as parent support groups and classes. Welcome back, Laura.

Dr. Froyen:                       [01:37]                  Hi. Thanks so much for having me back. I’m glad to be here.

Jen:                                     [01:40]                  All right, so we’re going to talk about something that we first discussed. What seems to me like forever way back in episode three of this podcast where I was still getting my legs under me and that’s the topic of early literacy and at the time my daughter was… I think she’d probably just turned two and she had started to express her own interest in literacy. I was absolutely shocked at how it turned out, actually. We were standing waiting outside a restaurant called fish for, for our turn to order at the counter and there was a little slogan on the window that said “fish or cut bait,” and she pointed to the F and she said, “what’s that?”

Jen:                                     [02:14]                  And then she pointed to each individual letter all the way through that slogan and had me tell her what each one of them was and at the time I’d been doing a lot of reading about people who teach their babies how to read. And I was thinking, “Oh God, did I miss the boat on this?” And I ended up realizing no, I didn’t. And I actually wrote most of a followup episode on things that parents can do to encourage a love of reading and also a reading ability in children. And I actually never got around to finishing it and releasing it before I got pulled in other directions. So today we’re going to go over some of that research and we’re also specifically going to talk about the topic of shared reading, which is when a parent and child read a book together and it’s really commonly accepted wisdom that shared reading is one of the best things that parents can do to encourage their child to read. And it turns out that it’s not quite as simple as that. Who would’ve thought?! So let’s dig into some of this research. So, Laura, I wonder if you can start out by talking just a little bit about what are usually described as the benefits of shared reading or shared reading with your child.

Dr. Froyen:                       [03:16]                  Right. Okay. So shared reading is hailed as one of the key ways that parents can help support their children in learning to read. Most of us have heard this and it often is given in an almost prescriptive way to parents as a key to helping children learn to read and to learn to love reading. But the research is more nuanced than that, as you were saying, and really what it shows is that shared reading is a lovely convenient vehicle for getting children exposed to more language and is most effective in supporting their language development and of course language development as a construct, as closely tied to literacy development. And those with more sophisticated language skills often also have higher reading skills as well. In addition, there is often an emotional piece to shared reading that is beneficial to the parent-child relationship. So Jen, if I asked you to picture in your mind a parent and child reading, what would that look like to you? Can you describe it for us?

Jen:                                     [04:05]                  I guess I would picture probably a mother, but maybe a father, a child and they are sitting on the couch or on the bed maybe just before bed, and the parent is reading through the words in the story and they want to get through the story because I remember feeling so uncomfortable about not finishing the story and the parent might be asking questions about things that the child sees on the page. But the overall goal is to just kind of get through the story.

Dr. Froyen:                       [04:37]                  Right. And what does it look like visually? Are they touching or they snuggled?

Jen:                                     [04:45]                  Yeah. I always snuggle; my daughter always wants to sit on my lap, so yeah, I know I was snuggling. Yeah.

Dr. Froyen:                       [04:49]                  Right. So there’s this warm and affective piece, you know, there’s a section, there is connection, there’s physical touch. That’s also I’m really connected to supporting children’s future enjoyment and love of reading. So there is this kind of instructional piece that we think about a lot when it comes to shared reading, but there’s also this more emotional piece to shared reading that I think is important as well.

Jen:                                     [05:09]                  Mmm. Okay. And so you had me described there what I thought shared reading look like, and it seems to me as though that can kind of shift as the child gets older, is that right? And seemed to sort of do this without really any training because most people aren’t trained on how to read with their children. So what kinds of things do most parents do?

Dr. Froyen:                       [05:31]                  Okay. So most parents, even early literacy researchers like myself, you know, are not terribly great at technically in the technical way that you’re supposed to read to your children. And so most parents tend to use strategies… When children are young, they use strategies to redirect the child’s attention to the book. They point label and comment about pictures and then as children age parents ask more open ended questions and have more conversations about the book and there is some research that suggests that we parents really aren’t that good at reading to our kids from a technical instructional standpoint and that sometimes we don’t even read the title of the book. And I know I’m probably guilty of that at at a time or two. I’m also guilty of wanting to rush through and finish the book because I’m exhausted. I want to go to sleep myself.

Jen:                                     [06:15]                  Uh huh. Been there.

Dr. Froyen:                       [06:21]                  Yup. In an ideal world parents would start out with simple interactions where the parent is describing the book or labeling the pictures in the book. And then as babies motor and verbal skills improve, they request more interaction from the child like prompts to identify “can you point to the cat?” Or a request for involvement, “would you like to turn the page?” And then even prompts to produce language as they get older, “can you say cat?” And then when we get more sophisticated as children age, like requests for labels, “what is that?” Or elaborations on what the child says, “Oh yes, that’s a cat.” “What color is it?” And then open ended questions about the pictures and stories. “What are they doing?” “Where’s the dog here?” or “How is the girl feeling?” So you can really get more sophisticated as kids age. And some parents do these things naturally and there’s some research to suggest that parents sometimes simply read the story without engaging in conversation or directing attention. And what’s interesting about the research on that is that even in studies where we look at, at a shared reading and we are not doing an intervention, so we’re not trying to improve parent skills, those shared reading activities are still related to children’s language development. And so even when we’re not doing our best, we’re still doing something good for our kids. Is that makes sense?

Jen:                                     [07:36]                  Yeah. So you said a couple things there. I want to dig into a little bit. We’ve talked a bit about “most parents”…

Dr. Froyen:                       [07:42]                  Right

Jen:                                     [07:43]                  And when, when we’re, when we’re not trying to have an intervention to improve reading and when we are. And it seemed to me as I was reading about this, if we’re looking at the way parents read enough studies, look at the way parents read, they’re often looking at white parents and white children and if they’re looking at ways to improve reading, they often look at minorities or people of a non dominant culture as I prefer them because they’re not really a minority anymore. What’s up with that?

Dr. Froyen:                       [08:10]                  Well, I mean I think that what’s up with that is that there’s just an historical bias. So this research started in the seventies and back then researchers, we’re not as good at finding diverse samples first of all, or valuing that finding a diverse sample is important or the idea that the families who do things differently and who have different values have different practices and that that’s okay and they can be equally supportive of the goals that they have for their child. So to be honest, the whole concept of shared reading could be considered an incredibly privileged thing because it assumes a lot of resources that many parents simply don’t have time, energy, access to books the parents’ own to read and comfort with books and heck, you know, I, like I said, I’m often too mentally exhausted at the end of the day to put my most interest shared reading and engaging in practices that I know from my training that will be most effective and I’m highly educated and I love reading and it’s still hard. And so yes, we are mostly often we’re talking about white families and to be honest, we’re often talking about mothers, not fathers too. And research on fathers is showing that they have very different strategies often when they’re doing engaging in shared reading but not necessarily different outcomes for the child, which is interesting.

Jen:                                     [09:31]                  I wonder if you could tell us what kinds of different strategies?

Dr. Froyen:                       [09:34]                  They often will be, and maybe this is getting into some stereotypes too, but they will be goofy or have different goals. Sometimes they will take more time than mother as well, which is an interesting piece because it’s possible they’re not quite as mentally exhausted or “touched out” as as us. And that’s a kind of a guest. A guest from me.

Jen:                                     [09:56]                  Yeah, we definitely see the goofiness play out in our household. When my husband reads nursery rhymes to my daughter, she gets to choose if he wants to sing them or rap them, so she often chooses to rap them, which… And Mama does not rap, so. Okay. And so the other thing that as you’re sort of describing what supporting reading is like, it made me think back to the episode we did a long time ago as well on scaffolding and we’ve talked about that a number of times as well on the show. Can you just kind of help us briefly understand what scaffolding is and how it comes into play here?

Dr. Froyen:                       [10:33]                  Sure. So scaffolding is essentially the idea of meeting a child where they are and providing the supports needed to help them meet their goal. So the idea comes from Vygotsky and centers around the idea that children have a zone identified as the space between what they can do for themselves and what they can do with support, and this is called the zone of proximal development. A good example is my two year old putting on her clothes. She is adamant that she wants to dress herself and she’s pretty good at it, but the end when she’s pulling up her pants, she can’t quite get them up over her diaper. So she needs my help and she often wants me to put her hands in the right place so she can do it herself as opposed to me just doing it for herself. So she wants a scaffold there.

Dr. Froyen:                       [11:11]                  She wants assistance in getting her hands into just the right position and then she can pull it up. But if she’s frustrated or maybe has a little bit less self regulation going on for her, right, then I will add some more support either through verbal direction or physical assistance. So for what that looks like in reading, it looks different depending on the skill level of the child. I will use my kids as an example too. So scaffolding with my two year old might mean when she says, “what’s that?” pointing at a giraffe, “I can say, oh, what are those called? We saw them at the zoo, didn’t we? It has a long neck, is it a g…?” And I will start saying the word and she walked and finish it for me with my four year old, she often likes to read books that she has memorized, allowed to me.

Dr. Froyen:                       [11:51]                  And I will sometimes need to say one or two words to kind of get her started on kind of what the next sentence is. Or she may ask them really, we’re really big into Moana in our house right now. And so we have like four Moana books. Uh, and so she will ask, “Where’s Moana?” Like the word Moana; she’ll point to the words and say “Moana” and I’ll help her find it. I’ll say, hm, so Moana starts with a MMM sound; what letter should we look for. And then she’ll say, and I’m, here it is, is this the word? And I’ll say, well, let’s see what this word says and I’ll help her sound it out. And then she’ll often interrupt saying, “Moana, this is it, and here it is again.” And then go through the book finding Moana’s name.

Jen:                                     [12:31]                  Yeah, that’s, that’s really helpful. And so it’s sort of a process then of providing support where it’s needed and then withdrawing that support as the child gets more competent, I guess. Is that a good way of summarizing?

Dr. Froyen:                       [12:44] Absolutely.

Jen:                                     [12:45]                  Okay. And so when, when we’re thinking about studies that researchers do on reading, it seems as though when I’m reading through these things that the researchers typically train one set of parents on how to read with their children and they don’t train another set of parents and they just kind of see how the two sets of children compare at the end. And so I’m wondering if you can talk a bit about what are some of the ways that researchers have trained parents to read with children that have been the most effective at improving literacy outcomes and whether these are appropriate to all kinds of parents because it seems to me as I was reading these studies that so many of them require parents to praise their children excessively and direct their children’s attention to something rather than letting the child’s interest be its own reward and having the parent follow that child’s interest and firstly, I’m curious as to why I think that is. And secondly, for those of us who are really interested in parenting our children using a more kind of respectful parent-friendly way and I guess would be one way of saying it is, is there a way to improve the way that we read to our children in a way that is more respectful to our children’s own interests?

Dr. Froyen:                       [13:56]                  Yes, absolutely. And I think we can get into some of those things. I want to say that first of all, I agree with you that most of the interventions that I read, the things that they’re teaching, the parents don’t resonate very much with me, but part of me has to be really cognizant of the idea that I think that might be a little bit of my privilege showing. I already knew how to do most of these things naturally because it was how I was read to as a child. My mom had a Masters degree in English and then I’m able to kind of put my own respectful parenting spin and child-led spin on kind of what I already know. So when I’m looking at them looking at these interventions, if we’re thinking about teaching these two parents who don’t have, you know, the kind of the natural inclination to do some of these things. At first, yes they have to be taught in a way to actually just start doing these things, you know, expanding, recasting what children are saying, asking them questions, getting them engaged. And then once they have those skills down, then they can kind of take a step back and look for ways to do those things within a child -ed perspective. I don’t know if that makes sense. Yeah.

Jen:                                     [15:07]                  So it’s almost like you’re saying that they need to be trained on the non-respectful way first and then the respectful spin on it. Is that what I’m hearing?

Dr. Froyen:                       [15:15]                  Well, I don’t know that I, I don’t know if I wouldn’t necessarily even call these things “not respectful.” I would definitely call them not necessarily child-led.

Jen:                                     [15:24]                  Yeah, that’s true.

Dr. Froyen:                       [15:25]                  Yeah. So I think that I been child-led is a skill and you know, it, it really is. It’s something you have to practice and I think that it’s harder for parents to get started on being child-led when they don’t know what to do to support the skills, you know. So being child-led for someone who doesn’t have these other skills can often look like just doing nothing. Right? And letting the kids do whatever they want versus honing in on what the child is interested in. And then having the skills to kind of go out and find ways to support those things. So teaching the support is a way to let them have those skills and then I guess putting it in the context of really advocating for child-directed learning. And I think it’s also important to remember that most of these studies and interventions were designed in the ’70s, you know, quite a long time ago actually, and being child directed and child-directed learning and child led play and learning were not as popular back then. You know, they, they weren’t something that we fully understood it in terms of how they benefited children’s learning.

Jen:                                     [16:40]                  Yeah. Okay. And so just to put this in, we’re talking very theoretical terms here. Just to put this in concrete terms for people who are listening, when we’re talking about parent-led strategies, that would be things like “Oh, look at the giraffe!” Or “what’s going on here?” Or “how do you think that character feels?” And if it was more child-led, you would not necessarily say as much initially, but you would look to your child to say, “Oh, what’s that?” Or “what color is that?” Or “I want to count the penguins!” as my daughter did last night with the book that we were reading. And then you kind of help and support that process and build on what the interest is that the child has expressed rather than trying to direct the child to what you think is interesting in the pages. Is that about right?

Dr. Froyen:                       [17:22]                  Yes. Yep.

Jen:                                     [17:23]                  Okay. All right. So, so the studies typically teach the former method and in some cases it has been shown to improve reading outcomes. Are there studies that have shown that the child-led approach also improves outcomes?

Dr. Froyen:                       [17:37]                  Hm. Well, there was, I don’t know, I mean, so what’s interesting is that the dialogic reading, which is the most well studied parenting intervention when it comes to shared reading, when you go through and you read this study is starting in, I think the first mention of it was in 1978 going through. You can see that their emphasis on being child-led changes over time, the way that the authors talk about it in their papers and the way that they do their training with the parents. And so I think it would be really interesting potentially for like a literature review for a Grad student or something would possibly be really interesting to look at how that has changed and if it has made an effect. But I don’t know of any specific studies that have looked at a more child-led study.

Dr. Froyen:                       [18:31]                  I did send you one when we were preparing for this that looked at improving parents’ overall responsiveness to their child. And so these researchers targeted parent responsiveness across settings and then they look to see if these changes, the changes that they made in their responsiveness actually changed the way they approached shared reading activities and that was a really interesting study and the results show that not only were mothers who received the training more warm, encouraging and responsive during shared reading, but they also increased their use of language facilitation techniques and as a result children were more engaged and had more verbalizations, asked more questions, and were more cooperative during the reading activity. So I think that that was a really interesting thing that if we, the idea that we can teach parents to be more responsive and more sensitively attuned to their children in general and that that can then translate into all of their activities and particularly ones that are important for language development.

Jen:                                     [19:26]                  Okay. So you used a new term there, you said “dialogic reading.” What is that and why is it important?

Dr. Froyen:                       [19:32]                  Oh Gosh. Did we not talk about dialogic reading?

Jen:                                     [19:33]                  We didn’t talk about that yet, no. We’re going to right now.

Dr. Froyen:                       [19:37]                  Okay, good. I’m so sorry. Yeah, dialogic reading as a specific approach to shared reading that’s aimed at supporting children’s language development. So in dialogic reading, the parent is encouraged to prompt the child with questions, extend the child’s verbalizations. So that sounds like if the child says “cat,” you say “yes, that’s a cat,” extending what they’re saying and providing them with more language stimulation; to praise the child when they tell the story and when they label objects correctly and as the child’s skill develops the parent teen use to encourage more and more sophisticated language. It’s a complicated intervention. So parents are trained really intensely on it, but they are changed in a number of things and the training changes on based on age.

Dr. Froyen:                       [20:23]                  So for two to three year olds, they are trained to ask “what?” questions they are trained to answer and welcome the child’s questions and then ask follow up questions. They’re trained to expand or recast (it’s sometimes called) what the child says and then they’re instructed to ask more open ended questions and then help the child with needed praise and encourage like you were talking about. And then they encouraged to follow the child’s interest and be more focused…

Jen:                                     [20:49]                  Yay!

Dr. Froyen:                       [20:49]                  I know, right? And be more focused on what the child wants out of the story than making sure you read every word. And then of course having fun as a piece of it too.

Jen:                                     [20:59]                  Okay. So it’s sort of a combination of a lot of different things that we’ve talked about them with some scaffolding, some parent led direction, but also some child led direction as well.

Dr. Froyen:                       [21:08]                  Yes, yeah.

Jen:                                     [21:08]                  Okay.

Dr. Froyen:                       [21:09]                  And then for older kids you add more sophisticated prompts. So you might ask the child to complete the last few words. So as you’re reading you might stop before there was when there was like two or three words left and asked the child to complete. You might be asking them to remember part of the story from a previous reading. You might ask them the who, what, where, when, why questions. And then you also might ask them to connect their life to some aspect of the story or when you’re out in your real life, connect back to the story. So if you’re at the park and you see some ducks, you say, “Oh wow, we just read a book about ducks, didn’t we?” You know, that type of thing.

Jen:                                     [21:45] Mmhmm. Okay. And so this is sort of in the literature, this is kind of THE way that is supposed to be the best way of improving literacy outcomes. Is that an accurate thing to say?

Dr. Froyen:                       [21:57] Dialogic reading really targets language outcomes for the most part. And I think that that primarily, you know, I’m not exactly sure it’s… With research, there’s always a chicken and an egg type of thing. So are we targeting, are they targeting expressive language because when they looked at the results, that’s what it improved or were they targeting it on purpose? You know, so, but they really, if you look at what they’re asking the child to do, and what they’re asking the parent to do with the child, they really are focusing quite a lot on language. And the reasons for that might be as languages, uh, is a construct that hangs very closely with pre-literacy early literacy skills.

Jen:                                     [22:33]                  What is sort of being assumed here is where we say expressive language is language the child speaks and so if a child has a more sophisticated spoken vocabulary, they’re assumed to have a reading ability that’s going to be superior as well. Is that right?

Dr. Froyen:                       [22:50]                  So often having more words that you say and know and can reproduce is not necessarily related in a causal way, but the technical term, not technical term but I was saying that with air quotes, but we say those things hang together so they kind of. They’re developing close to the same time. Maybe one is a little bit ahead and then the other one jumps ahead. So they kind of work together and are often influenced by many of the same things.

Jen:                                     [23:18]                  Okay. Alright. So it seems as though in the literature that shared reading is kind of promoted as a panacea for all problems. Whatever ails the child, whatever they’re reading or learning problem, the parent is just told to read more to their child. But I know that some studies have found that shared reading might not be as important as we’ve all been told. We read one meta-analysis of 31 studies that that parental reading with preschool is accounted for and wait for this number, eight percent of the variance, in the children’s early literacy achievement. So I’m thinking eight percent, what the heck is going on here? And what is more important than shared reading if shared reading is only eight percent, and why do the “experts” promote shared reading is the key to solving children’s problems when eight percent is a very small number?

Dr. Froyen:                       [24:10]                  Yeah, yes. So here we are getting into a bit of a conversation about how research influences policy and broad recommendations. So often policy makers and larger organizations are looking for clean, simple ways that are based in research, but in all of the boiling down and simplifying some of the nuances get lost, right? And so back when reading was starting to be promoted, policymakers and translational researchers were looking for ways to close significant gaps in language and literacy development and shared reading just kind of jumps out as a no-brainer and it takes very little money to put into action because the onus of it is largely on the family.

Jen:                                     [24:50]                  It’s always a good policy…

Dr. Froyen:                       [24:52]                  So I mean, and maybe we’re being a bit cynical here, but really that sometimes it does boil down to that type of thing and really though, policy makers and program programming, individuals and corporations have tried to promote speaking more to children to address this issue, but it’s hard to know what that means in action and it often takes more sophisticated training.

Dr. Froyen:                       [25:14] Whereas we can say read more to your child and shared reading can be a little bit easier because the parent just has to read the story, and often the national context of the story reading will encourage more language exchanges between the parent and child than they would have had had they not been doing the reading. And then so while eight percent of the variance or a 30, or you know, it’s as high as I think 32 percent in some med analysis does seem small. It really isn’t an insignificant amount. When we think about all of the other factors that determine children’s early literacy and language skills like age and development and socioeconomic status, parent education school and teacher quality, the home learning environment in general, and even self regulation skills. So there’s a lot of factors that can go into a child’s development of early literacy skills and knowing that we can influence at least eight percent of that by encouraging parents to read. It’s not that small, you know, if we really think about it that, so I mean if we’re talking about like if a child knows 92 words or knows 100 words and they enter into preschool, I mean I’ve obviously they’re going to new wave any way more words in the integrated school, but you know, if we’re thinking about like that’s eight percent, you know, that’s, that’s not insignificant, you know. So

Jen:                                     [26:30] Especially when you multiply it up by the amount of words they actually do know, 8% starts to become more significant. Yeah.

Dr. Froyen:                       [26:39]                  So sometimes like policymakers are looking for quick and dirty ways to make big changes and reading is one of the ones that they have kind of latched onto and even all of the research that’s critical of kind of naming shared reading as this kind of catch all cure all. Even the ones that are critical still say that reading is important and reading is a lovely thing to do with your children. So I don’t think we can necessarily go wrong with reading even when we’re not doing all of these extras that the interventionists would want us to do.

Jen:                                     [27:13]                  Okay. Alright. So then that brings me to a topic about, you know, what happens if your child doesn’t love to read. So my daughter does love to read. When her daycare is closed, she, she absolutely loves it because whatever temporary sitter we have coming in is going to read to her old. But some children just aren’t. And if a parent tries to read to the child, the child’s kind of wriggling away and wants to play with trains or blocks or something else. And I’m curious, is this any reflection at all on what the parent is doing? A lot of the studies on shared reading focus on the importance of responding sensitively to the child’s comments and it seems to me is there, if the child is telling you they don’t want to read and the parent says, well, “we’re going to read whether you like it or not because it’s good for your brain development,” then it’s…you know, you’re saying that there’s really no way you can go wrong with shared reading. But what if the child doesn’t want to read – could we be doing more harm than good. And is there anything that a parent can do to get a child interested in reading and does it matter if they can’t?

Dr. Froyen:                       [28:16]                  Yeah, so I think, you know, I always try to encourage my families that I work with; the parents that I work with to not parent from a place of fear. You know? And so if your child isn’t into reading, there are lots and lots of ways to get the skills and language input that reading offers to your child without picking up a book. So reading as a convenient vehicle for these things. It’s just a convenient packaged, easy vehicle to do these extra kind of language and literacy inputs and opportunities. I think one of the most powerful ways that parents can encourage children to be interested in reading is to make sure that their experiences with reading are enjoyable and meaningful, and so this means not forcing the issue, taking away any sense of weight to this that the parent might be holding onto because we all know that kids have a radar for what we want them to do and they’re super good at doing exactly the opposite, right?

Dr. Froyen:                       [29:14]                  And they can sense our investment. So if instead you can approach it with calm confidence, that they’ll be interested when they’re ready for it, it can free the kid up a bit and it doesn’t have to be so powerful. And the meaning making comes when you can support your child in developing their own interests in a number of ways, one of which may be reading. So if your daughter is super into construction books, you may watch a couple YouTube videos, you may drive out to a construction site and you may go to the library to pick a book or two, but it doesn’t have to be all of the ways, you know, reading doesn’t have to be the only way that your child is getting these language inputs.

Jen:                                     [29:48]                  Yeah. And so when you’re going to the construction site, the important part is not necessarily watching the trucks, but it’s what you’re talking about when you’re watching the trucks, is that right?

Dr. Froyen:                       [29:58]                  Yes; it’s engaging. And there is an emotional piece of it where your child is feeling seen and heard and knows that if I have an interest I can go to my Mom and tell her or my Dad and tell them what that interest is and they will support me and figuring, figuring out how to get more of it. You know, I mean, and that’s a powerful thing for a young child who has very little control or say in their world most of the time.

Jen:                                     [30:19]                  Yeah. All right. Thank you. That’s really helpful. And so I’m thinking ahead a little bit. We’ve talked a lot about young readers and I was thinking as children start to learn to read what happens in their minds, and I read another really interesting statistic when I was preparing for this episode and so some researchers were interested in finding out what children were looking at when the parent was reading a book. So they had a children sit and then others laps and they read a book together and the child was wearing this helmet with these two little cameras sticking out the front that tracked the child’s eye movements. And so what they found was that children spend…and again wait for it, somewhere between two and six percent of the time that they were reading the book and looking at the print. And the rest of the time they’re looking at the pictures and maybe it shouldn’t have blown my mind, but it kind of did blow my mind and it sort of seems to me is though we think of reading books together as something that helps a child learn how to read, but then I’m thinking does it really because they’re not looking at the words and then I thought about the dialogic reading, which doesn’t seem to be helping our cause because we’re stimulating conversation about the pictures and not the words. So I’m wondering what you think about all this and should we be talking about the words as well as the pictures?

Dr. Froyen:                       [31:39]                  Right. So first I love eye tracking study is so fascinating and there’s some really interesting new ones coming out on screens too, which is fascinating. So right. But I think it totally depends on your goal. So dialogic reading is aimed at improving language development, so focusing on labeling and recasting and expanding all make sense in that context. If our goal is early literacy skills than absolutely teaching print concepts like the direction of turning pages and the direction that text flows and where the author and illustrator are indicated and then drawing attention to words and letters and prompting for letter names and letter sounds may get you further. And so and I think the goal changes as children develop so you’re not going to be necessarily pointing out letters and letter sounds to your one year old, but you are going to start doing that a little bit with a four year olds, you know, and my, my two year old has very…her language developed very quickly and she identify letters and sounds now at two but that’s not typical, and so you have to alter… And my, my now four year old and had no interest; zero interest in any of that at you. You know? And so we just read the book and talked about what we were talking about and now she’s at a different place, you know. So you have to be really individual and go with where your child is in their development and what they’re interested in.

Jen:                                     [33:04]                  Okay. So this is not to say that when your child is three, you should be starting to teach them letter sounds more of a. has your child expressed any interest in letter sounds that would then lead you to have more of a conversation about letter sounds right?

Dr. Froyen:                       [33:20]                  Right. Yes. Yeah. And, and putting it into like my example before with Moana, putting it into context, if she wants to know where my one is, I can help her find it and one of the ways we can help her find it is by sounding out the first letter of the word and then she find that first letter, you know? And so yeah.

Dr. Froyen:                       [33:38]                  And that’s totally driven by her love of Moana for whoever’s listening. If your kid’s not into Moana, then what are they interested in and are they interested in finding words on that topic and how can the parents support that interest through helping the child to recognize words and sounds so yes. Okay. All right. So shifting ahead again in time, I guess even a little bit further in another metra-analysis because there’ve been so many studies on reaching haven’t there? There was one on shared reading that found the, and I’m going to quote here when children are older at the time, at the final time of measurement, the effects of shared book reading are weaker and so when I’m reading that I’d take this domain, the when the researchers asked parents how much they read with their child or if they train parents to read with their child. If the researchers follow up a month or two later, then chances are the parents who read a lot or who were trained to read more effectively have children who come out ahead on measures of language and literacy than those who don’t read a lot or weren’t trained, but if you wait a couple of years, which children as they go through their lives are going to get to that point eventually. It basically comes out to a wash and there’s no longer anywhere near as much of a difference between those two groups. Am I reading that right?

Dr. Froyen:                       [34:55]                  Yes. Yeah, and I don’t know if it’s exactly clear in this study if they’re seeing that it all evens out in the end or maybe that the gains that are noted early on would hold if parents were given booster interventions, so it’s, it’s possible that it’s not even an effect in the child per se, but the fact that the parents did really well on their dialogic reading or whatever it was and then kind of that petered out over time or they kind of didn’t keep building those supports too. So maybe if they got the intervention when their child was two and they didn’t get the four and five year old suggestions, maybe they just kept doing the two year old ones and then they weren’t making them more sophisticated, you know, and so I think and it can be really hard and meta-analyses which are looking at, oftentimes they’re looking at 50 or 100 interventions, it’s hard to know the answer to that question.

Jen:                                     [35:45]                  Yeah. And they all measure things differently.

Dr. Froyen:                       [35:46]                  Right. And then it also could be that if children were older, at the final time of measurement, they could have been older at the start of the study as well, and then we would expect their language skills to be more advanced at the beginning of the study. And one thing we do know is that for language skills, things do tend to even out more over time, much more so than literacy skills where gaps are harder to close.

Jen:                                     [36:08]                  Okay. I’m recalling the same is true for boys and girls, right? Don’t girls get ahead on language skills by a couple of months. And if you compare girls with boys at age 18 months that their skills might be quite different and that is to be expected. You’re not expecting a boy to have the same language skills at age 18 months as a girl, is that right?

Dr. Froyen:                       [36:29]                  Right. Yes. And, and, and, and those, those gaps narrow and they kind of converge.

Jen:                                     [36:35]                  Okay. And hopefully the researchers have taken those kinds of things into account.

Dr. Froyen:                       [36:40]                  Right. And then again, with meta-analyses, you can’t always be sure.

Jen:                                     [36:44]                  Right. Yeah. Okay. And so sort of related to that, do you think there’s some kind of publication bias in this research because it seems to me that so many of the studies that get published are the ones that have the clickbait headlines, and that maybe if a researcher finds there’s no difference between a group of parents who is trained to read and one that isn’t, is that researcher going to be able to get that work published, do you think?

Dr. Froyen:                       [37:09]                  No. Yeah, no, there’s absolutely a publication bias. So I, I know researchers who’ve left intervention research simply because they keep getting null findings and null findings means that there was no effect of their intervention or not a significant effects, you know, statistically significant effect, and they couldn’t get their work published. And without publications it’s very difficult to be a successful professor. And so in the, the academic atmosphere that we’re in right now, in almost all fields there is a publication bias in research, you know, so we’re, we are seeing the papers and the analysis that had results that were easily interpretable and fit within a good theoretical framework and that were helpful to understanding more about children or parents or whatever it is, the topic that we’re researching. But the ones where we find no effect usually are not published, which is sad because null findings can be really interesting, but we don’t get to see them.

Jen:                                     [38:15]                  Darn those click-bait headlines!

Dr. Froyen:                       [38:16]                  Yes.

Jen:                                     [38:17]                  I think a good meta-analysis will actually try and search around for unpublished studies, right? So that they can take that into account.

Dr. Froyen:                       [38:26]                  Yes, some do. Yeah. It’s hard to do that, though.

Jen:                                     [38:28]                  Yeah. You’ve got to be in the field for a long time and know that people are working on these kinds of things, don’t you? And usually they’re not on them for long because they can’t get published.

Dr. Froyen:                       [38:37] Exactly.

Jen:                                     [38:38]                  Okay. All right. So let’s, let’s kind of get really into the practical stuff now. So if I’m a parent who does like to read with my child, but maybe I’m feeling a little bit intimidated by all this talk about how the way that parents naturally read with their child isn’t maybe as effective at teaching her to improve language and literacy skills as a parent who’s received formal training in this topic, what are some of the things that I could do and I don’t want to put pressure on myself or on anyone else here. These are just kind of, you know, some fun things to do that can help to improve my daughter’s literacy skills and love of reading,

Dr. Froyen:                       [39:16]                  Right? So first I would encourage parents to take a big step back and find trust that your child will develop these skills on their own timetable and most likely, if you’re listening to these podcasts, you’re likely doing a lot right already. So give yourself some grace and understand that young children do not need constant stimulation. They do not need constant instruction from you. They need opportunities to engage in deep immersive play and opportunities to interact with warm responsive adults. So you’re just giving yourself a pat on the back. You’re likely already doing a great job.

Jen:                                     [39:49]                  Good job!

Dr. Froyen:                       [39:54]                  …and your children can be your reward. So, right, so then you can work to create a cognitively stimulating environment with lots of open ended toys and puzzles, open ended toys or things that don’t necessarily do anything but can be anything like blocks and balls, those types of things.

Jen:                                     [40:12]                  Okay, and so we’re not talking about battery operated toys here, then, that may be advertised as being cognitively stimulating…

Dr. Froyen:                       [40:20]                  Yes. There’s very little research to show that the gadgets and the tech toys are helpful for kids. Mostly what kids need to learn is an opportunity to direct their own learning and adults are more sophisticated partner to do that with who can help support them.

Jen:                                     [40:42]                  Yeah, and there is great research on things like blocks and and open-ended toys really are good for children’s development.

Dr. Froyen:                       [40:50]                  Yes. They use them in such amazing creative ways. It helps them develop so many skills beyond just what you see them doing on the surface. I also recommend using a rotation system so that their play environment is simple, engaging, and fresh. I have a blog article on my favorite simple, open ended toys that my children use daily. If you’d like to include that in the show notes, I can send that to you.

Jen:                                     [41:13]                  Yeah. Yeah. I’d love to. And just for parents who are a little deeper into their Resources for Infant Educators approach, I know there’s some disagreement there on whether toy rotation is is or should be practiced and I can get. Listener wrote to me awhile ago and said, is there any research on this? And I did some digging and I actually couldn’t find anything beyond paper that was actually truly horrific. And it described a environment where the toys were rotated to the children every 15 minutes they were required to stop playing with what they were playing with and move to something else.

Jen:                                     [41:45]                  So I said, “well you could do this, but I wouldn’t recommend it.” But yeah. So. So RIE’s approach is to not rotate toys and instead keep a consistent set of toys out because it imposes the parent’s view of what the child should be playing with by mixing sets of toys together in certain ways, which the parent makes those decisions when they set the toys out. So. So from what I can tell, there’s no research on either side that supports one or the other, but yes, in my house we do rotate toys and I do see that my daughter seems to come to things with a fresh perspective when she hasn’t seen them in awhile. So just for the people who are interested in the more RIE approach to that.

Dr. Froyen:                       [42:29]                  Yes, I know and I love RIE, I very much do. I also love balancing things, and making thigs work for you. And so then you can also read regularly by yourself into your child if that’s something that you enjoy. So focus on enjoyment and engagement.

Jen:                                     [42:45]                  And if you don’t, you don’t have to.

Dr. Froyen:                       [42:47]                  Right, exactly, but also recognize that even if you don’t like sitting down to read a novel, you likely do a lot of reading. You’re probably on Facebook, that’s reading; you’re probably reading your email, that’s reading; you know, those are all things that are reading opportunities. And if you’re going to be doing them, you can share them with your kids possibly, you know, and so my husband is not a big reader but he reads and writes academic papers. He’s a professor and so he does talk about that with my kids.

Jen:                                     [43:19]                  Or even just read the newspaper, right?

Dr. Froyen:                       [43:20]                  Right, right. Yes. And even if the newspaper is on your phone, you know, so we live in a technologically saturated environment, and my kids call my kindle my book, you know? Yeah. And then making meaning out of this. So some meaning making processes are key for children to learn. So making sure that you are showing how reading is meaningful to you and how it can be meaningful to your child. So that often involves using reading and writing and daily activities. For example, I often, when I’m writing a grocery list, I’ll hand each of my daughters a posted note and a pen and they write their own lists. And then this isn’t just an act or play, we take their scribbles to the store and ask them what’s on their list, a budget, we get it.

Jen:                                     [44:06]                  Oh really? That’s awesome.

Dr. Froyen:                       [44:08]                  Yeah, and I mean it isn’t always in the budget and sometimes they say it’s like a chocolate bar or something that’s not necessarily going in our cart…

Jen:                                     [44:18]                  “Can’t you see, Mama? It says “chocolate!”

Dr. Froyen:                       [44:19]                  Right. Exactly. But, but at the same time we’re really trying to make this meaningful. So you write this down, you bring it to the store, you know, and at the same goes for reading a recipe together or taking it down in order for lunch and not just in a play kitchen, although I think having writing materials in every imagine to play area in your house as a really good idea because you never know when play is going to take a direction where they could naturally incorporate writing. Right? So if they’re having a play restaurant, they can have a notepad. If they are having a pretend birthday party, they can have cards to make thank you cards for the gifts that were given or make birthday cards. And there’s lots of ways to incorporate those things into their natural imaginative play and if you put the materials there, they’ll use them; it’s beautiful to see.

Jen:                                     [45:08]                  Yeah. We’ve been doing a lot with writing letters to people lately. Actually; it started after my daughter’s birthday and she is super interested in beading and so I said, you know, do you want to send a necklace to your grandma and your aunt to say thank you for your birthday gifts. And she, she really wanted to do that. And she drew a picture and dictated a letter to me for each of them and mailed it out. And she just loved the process of mailing it out. And so since then she’s probably written letters to half the kids in her class and she draws a picture. And then she has me write their name on the picture and then she dictates what she wants me to write. And of course she can’t read it. But what she’s learning, I believe, is that her words have power and that I understand how to take the words that are coming out of her mouth and translate those into letters on the paper and that that’s a meaningful process, right?

Dr. Froyen:                       [45:59]                  Right, yes. This is symbolic representation.

Jen:                                     [46:02] Exactly. She will know. She recognizes the letters already, but she can’t read them except for her name. Every time she’s going to be able to make that connection that: the things are coming out of my mouth or on this paper and Oh, this is what this word says

Dr. Froyen:                       [46:14]                  And you know what’s interesting, so I didn’t send you this paper, but one of the researchers that I worked with in my grad school program, she researched writing development and in their coding systems where they have children will give a writing sample. They use drawing pictures as an early form of writing. So when your child draws a picture of her friend, when she’s writing a card to her friend or she draws a picture of her friends and her, maybe they’re going to to the park or something. She. She’s writing a story there even though it’s not before, it’s even if it’s not with scribbles that she is using symbols and her drawing as a representation for her feelings and emotions and thoughts about this person. It’s beautiful. So exciting. Yeah

Jen:                                     [46:56]                  Yeah.

Dr. Froyen:                       [46:59]                  Yeah. Okay. So I mean there’s, there’s so many ways that you can pull print and reading into your life. Like engaging with environmental prints, so environmental prints though words and letters that we see in our environment. So cereal boxes, road ,signs shop windows. One of the first words that my daughter knew how to write was stopped because we would see on a stop sign at the time and because I didn’t just walk past the stop sign, you know, we talked about the stop sign and what the characteristics, you know. And so I mean you can take your environment and take advantage of your environment and this doesn’t… Having a print rich environment doesn’t take any extra effort or buying any extra things. The princess there and it just takes being ready when our kids notice it and then engaging in it with them.

Jen:                                     [47:46]                  Yeah. My daughter is super interested in sorting the junk mail lately. That doesn’t cost me a thing. It shows up at the house everyday, reliably, and we can go through the little flyers and point to letters and words and how they correlate with the pictures and yeah, it’s a five minute thing that she loves to do and then it’s over and we make dinner together.

Dr. Froyen:                       [48:07]                  Oh, I remember when my daughter was in the junk mail sorting things too. She had so much fun. Isn’t that funny?

Jen:                                     [48:15]                  Yeah. And it’s free!

Dr. Froyen:                       [48:15]                  Yeah. Or when my kids, my oldest was a baby. I made a toy for her out of an old cashew cannister; the kind that you’d get at the big bulk stores, you know, so it’s big, and then I put a bunch of lids that I had saved from like jam jars of peanut butter jars and that type of thing. And as babies, infants, the kids love taking the lids out and putting them back in and sorting them. But now as older kids, my daughter loves to read the canister and to pretend that they’re coins for a play restaurant. So this toy that I made for an infant is still relevant for children for my older kids because of the print on them, they’re practicing their letters are noticing the letters that are on them. It’s a lot of fun to see kids use things in the simple things in their environments that don’t cost a lot of money and that can last for a long time.

Jen:                                     [49:06]                  …and are not battery operated.

Dr. Froyen:                       [49:08]                  Right.

Jen:                                     [49:10]                  All right. Anything else you want to add on that front?

Dr. Froyen:                       [49:12]                  No, I think that that’s…I think we’ve covered quite a lot in here and yeah, we’ve covered quite a lot. I think we’ve given lots of good ideas. One thing too, when you’re reading a book, I want to be clear that you do not have to make sure you read every word. I don’t know if we’ve been crystal clear enough on that, but you can follow the child’s lead. The child wants to read the first page and the last page and nothing in between, that’s fine. You don’t have to rush through the story and try to get it finished. Just take your time, enjoy it with them and follow their lead. Slowing down is really a great way to approach this to just going nice and slow.

Jen:                                     [49:48]                  Okay. And so that, that was a really helpful list of things for people who do love to read, especially parents who love to read but not all parents love to read, including our husbands. And so we now know that reading is not the catch-all way of improving literacy that we all were told it was. And so I assume these parents who don’t love reading must feel a little relieved right now, which is awesome. And so I’m wondering, are there activities that parents who don’t like to read can do to help their children improve these literacy outcomes?

Dr. Froyen:                       [50:22]                  Yes, absolutely. My favorite one is cooking, so following a recipe not only offers literacy opportunities but you can also be working with math concepts like we need three eggs and fine motor skills like stirring or measuring or pouring and all of those things are closely tied to writing and then there’s also sensory stimulation, so cooking is a really wonderful activity if you have the patients or the mess, which I don’t have. And then there’s also lots of fun games that you can play to support language development and early literacy skills in school readiness in general. So Red Light, Green Light and Simon Says are both great for self regulation. Mr Fox, What Time Is It?

Jen:                                     [51:00]                  I’m sorry, what was that?

Dr. Froyen:                       [51:00]                  Oh my gosh, maybe it’s a Midwest thing.

Jen:                                     [51:05]                  Or an American thing.

Dr. Froyen:                       [51:06]                  Or an American thing. True. So Mr Fox, What Time Is It? Is a game where one child is the Fox and all of the other children stand far away from him and they say what Mr Fox, what time is it?

Dr. Froyen:                       [51:16]                  And the child who was the Fox says what time it is and they had children. Take the number of steps or what time it was. He says it’s [10:00], they take 10 steps and then as they get closer the Fox says lunchtime and then they chased them around the yard. It’s a lot of fun. So those are great for numbers. And then there’s rhyming games, or games where you kind of think of objects that start with the same letter of people’s names or you can do: I’m going on a picnic and I am bringing apples and then the next person has to be and they choose blueberries. Those are fun games. And I also made up a game that my kids love. That’s based on a common phonological awareness assessment where you have them break words apart or put them together. So what is Sun Flower together? Sunflower or you break them apart. What is cupcake without cake. And they can say cup. And those are just, those are games that we often play in the car actually to pass time.

Jen:                                     [52:10]                  Yeah. Where you don’t need something in front of you. Okay. Okay, great. And so just as we wrap up here, I’m thinking about how parents deal with reading and shared reading once their child can read independently and I thought I remembered reading somewhere, but I can’t for the life of me remember where that parents often don’t keep reading with their child once their child can read, but that they should. But then there was also a meta-analysis with a finding that the positive effects of shared reading kind of get diminished once a child can read alone. What’s your overall thought on the direction of that?

Dr. Froyen:                       [52:42]                  I think it really depends on your family’s “why” for the reading that you’re doing and the desires of the child. So if they’ve been reading together to support independent reading later on and then the child learns to read and wants to read on their own, that’s great. But if they want that emotional connection and warmth, that’s great too. I know that my older niece sometimes like so have my sister and her mom lay next to her and read her book while my niece reads her books independently, you know, they’re reading together and lived in and you know, I sometimes read to my husbands, so it’s a shared reading, doesn’t have to stop when both parties can read and can be cozy and connecting and lovely all around, and so I don’t think it has to stop, but again, it’s kind of based on what, you know, what works for the child and the family.

Jen:                                     [53:36]                  Yeah. Okay. Awesome. Thank you so much for sharing all this information with us. I’m so grateful you back on the show!

Dr. Froyen:                       [53:44]                  I’m happy to come back anytime. You know, I like to geek out on this stuff with you.

Jen:                                     [53:47]                  Indeed I do. Well listeners can find lots more information about Laura as well as download a list of activities that can support children’s literacy development; it’s a short list’ it’s not meant to be intimidating at all. It’s just a sort of a free printable that can help to remind you of some of the things that you can do to support literacy development. And you can find that on Laura’s website at laurafroyen.com, and also on my website at yourparentingmojo.com/reading

Also published on Medium.


About the author, Jen

Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.

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