Once upon a time, in a neighborhood very much like yours, two baby girls were born. By coincidence, both little girls were named Sara. One was Sara Anne; the other was Sara Beth. Both little girls were healthy and bright-eyed. Both mommies and daddies had full-time jobs. And, of course, both sets of parents loved them very much.
In the first few weeks, Sara Anne and her parents got acquainted. Her parents sang lullabies to put her to sleep. They spoke to her in soft and soothing tones. And when they couldn't figure out what else to do, they held her and rocked her.
Sara Beth's parents were frustrated by her cries. They yelled at each other, "Can't you keep that baby quiet?!" They complained to the doctor that she cried all the time.
As months went on, Sara Anne's parents began reading to her. She found the sound of their voices comforting.
"Well, Sara Annie," her mother would ask as she picked her up from daycare. "What did you do today?"
"Yeah, me too. How was lunch?"
"Yeah. Sorry about the strained carrots."
"Want to sing?"
"Row, row, row, your boat ...," her mother began and Sara Anne sang along.
When Sara Beth's mommy picked her up at daycare, she strapped her into the car seat and said ... nothing.
"Ga-ga-GA," Sara Beth began.
"Ga." And Sara Beth fell silent.
On trips to the grocery store as Sara Anne got older, her daddy talked to her about what was on the shopping list. He named the fruits and vegetables.
"Oatmeal or Cream of Wheat, sweetie? Oatmeal? OK. Just thought I'd ask. Oh, paper towels are on sale. Probably ought to pick up some. What color?"
"OK, blue then. I'll tell Mommy you picked 'em out."
"Bananas? Sure, we can get some."
On Sara Beth's trips to the store with her daddy, he checked his list as they roamed the aisles in silence.
"Bah," said Sara Beth pointing to the bananas.
"Hmmm?" said her daddy as he turned away.
"Quiet, honey. Just a few more things."
"Bah-bah-bah," said Sara Beth, clapping her hands.
"We're almost done. Just be quiet for another minute."
And Sara Beth was quiet.
By the time she was 3, Sara Anne knew her colors and could count to five. She could name farm animals and knew their sounds. She loved hearing the same story again and again. She could sing "The ItsyÐBitsy Spider."
Sara Beth called all animals with four legs "doggie." She indicated her wants and needs mostly by pointing and grunting. Her room was filled with toys, but few books.
Sara Anne carried on long conversations with her dolls and stuffed animals. When she saw her parents reading a magazine, Sara Anne pretended to do the same. Soon, she started paying attention to words she saw around her. STOP. McDonald's. Cheerios. She even recognized her own name.
On the other hand, Sara Beth did not pay attention to the words around her. She rarely saw her parents read. Her language consisted mainly of demands. However, she did quietly watch cartoons on her own TV in her own room.
Then, sooner than either family could imagine, both babies became little girls. They started kindergarten and were assigned to the same class. At the parent conference, the teacher told Sara Anne's parents that she already knew many songs and poems. She enjoyed circle time, clapping and singing along to new songs. Sara Anne listened attentively to stories and knew some letters and sounds. She was beginning to read and write.
At Sara Beth's conference, the teacher explained that Sara Beth seemed uninterested in songs and stories. She showed little interest in books or letters. Sara Beth's parents looked around the kindergarten classroom and saw books and children's writing displayed everywhere.
"So when will you teach Sara Beth to read?" her mother asked.
"Someday," said her teacher, "but she's got to do some catching up first."
"She's behind? She just started kindergarten!"
Sara Beth's teacher explained that most children need to be read to for about 1,000 hours before they are ready to learn to read. Sara Beth's dad quickly calculated that in his head.
"You're telling us that we should have been reading to her half-an-hour a day since she was born?!"
"Yes," nodded the teacher, "but if we start now and work together we can help Sara Beth become a reader." The teacher described what she would do to teach Sara Beth and what services were available at school - a language therapist, a reading specialist, others - if they were needed. Sara Beth's parents agreed to do some homework, too. They promised to:
• Read aloud with Sara Beth every day for 15-30 minutes. If Sara Beth couldn't listen that long, they'd start with 5 or 10 minutes at a time.
• Have conversations with Sara Beth while cooking, shopping, doing chores.
• Limit television viewing.
Little by little, Sara Beth did become a reader. And although Sara Anne had a head start, eventually both little girls and their families read happily ever after.
• Fresh Ideas: Starting conversations by sharing personal perspectives on timely and timeless issues. Lorie Schaefer is a retired teacher and reading specialist.