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An Interview with Eric Litwin

2023-01-20

Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): WIN ONE/Phenomenon (World Intelligence Network)

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2020/10/05

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How did you originally get into writing and reading? What were the first sparks of literacy for you?

Eric Litwin: Wonderful, I will give some context now and leading up to it. At this time, I have written the original four Pete the Cat books. The series has about 50 books in it. I wrote the original four. They’re really becoming classics. You may find that they are available and found at so many places in Canada, nearly all pre-schools, daycares, and first grade classrooms, and pre-K classrooms in the United States. I have written the Groovy Joe series. Recently, I cam out with my first development book for teachers called The Power of Joyful Reading. It talks about the role of joyful, engaged shared reading experiences, and how it is the root of learning to read, and howe can implement these ideas in our early childhood classrooms, and how all our children build their reading foundations that they need. I will talk about how that is important. I sold over 13,000,000 books. My books have been translated in over 17 languages. I have won 26 awards.

How I came to become a writer of children’s books, and now professional development books, I was a teacher. I was working with 3rd graders. So many of them were struggling to read. They had lost the love of reading. One day, I was walking down the kindergarten classroom, heading to my 3rd grade class. I passed the kindergarten class. I heard a teacher say, “Who wants to read a book?” The children erupted with joy. I looked in the class. I saw the teacher reading with some students. Some were reading together. All of the sudden, a little girl jumped out of her desk, ran to the bookshelf, and grabbed her favourite book, and held it in her arms like a baby. I could tell at that time moment. Her and the children loved books. They love reading and saw themselves as readers. When I went to the 3rd grade class, inspired by what I had seen, I said, “Who wants to read a book?” Some politely shook their head and said, “Yes.” Many looked at me, shook their head, and said, “No.” I asked myself a question on that day. I would end up leaving the classroom and work on becoming a writer, and working on how to make books more engaging, how to develop the love of reading.

That question was, ‘What happened between kindergarten and 3rd grade?” Where did the love of reading go? Scott, that’s what I’ve been focused on for a few decades now. What I came to a conclusion was, it was in the engagement with literacy that children developed key foundations of their reading foundation. I can share those. Without those key elements, they get very frustrated with trying to learn to read. With my 3rd grade students, many were missing these key elements. I started thinking about how I can help them develop those key elements of reading. How can I make books more engaging? What I did, I started writing books with music, movement, call and response, repetition, fluent rhyme schemes and rhythm. All developed to help children get involved with the reading process. My first book came out in 2008. But I was a storyteller and a writer working on my craft since 2000. It was a couple decades ago.

Jacobsen: Now, when we’re thinking about children, they’re at a time of life, which is rapid development. They’re going to be differing from grade to grade. Sometimes dramatically, but pretty big changes compared to later life, so when a child comes to a kindergarten class, grade 1, grade 2, grade 3, they have this excitement in one grade for reading, even for writing. They come to another grade later on, even on grade later, without much enthusiasm for the art of writing or solitary reading [Ed. Or, “shared reading”]. What explains the fact North American children in particular can lose the enthusiasm fairly quickly? What are some practical tips for teachers to re-engage those kids who are in those pre-k through grade 3 levels who appear to have lost the enthusiasm about the written word, about stories?

Litwin: To answer that question, we want to go back to daycare, kindergarten, and pre-K. We want to see what it is that sets children up to keep their joy of reading moving along, and what it is that sets them up to lose that  joy of reading. What we have found, what it turns out to be, children need an abundance of joyful, engaged and shared reading experiences. Here is what is fascinating about this, with young children, this starts right at birth. They experience oral language. This oral language gets connected to print. This needs to happen all the time. This is a full-time job. They need to be immersed in oral language connected to print. What will happen, to the degree that the children enabled and empowered to be immersed in language and print, it is the degree to which they are building reading foundations. So, oftentimes, this reading foundation is called pillars. It consists of a few things.

First, you have to know a lot about sound. I don’t know how technical you want me to get, but there are 44 phonemes. Let’s keep it simple, there’s a certain limited number of sounds. Those sounds are represented by letters, but there are not as many letters as sounds. You have combinations of letters. Some represent combination of sounds. These make words. This is called phonological awareness and phonemic awareness. So, first, they need a lot of sounds. Second, they need a lot of words. Vocabulary is a major predictor of how well they will do in school. Another is “speaking like a storyteller.” This is called fluency. It is how appropriately quickly that they recognize the word. Also, it is how they use expressions. An expression in a word is what conveys meaning. This is what we call prosody. Finally, they need to know a lot about print. This is called print awareness.

These are the three components. I break it down into a simple reading chart. These are the things that kids need to know. When they get into nursery rhymes and see the words on the board, all the components come together. When you say, “Humpty Dumpty had a great fall,” you can see the words. There are two ls there. It is in a book. There is print awareness. We also are learning words: fall, wall. You can start to make connections. All of these experiences are important. What my suggestion is in the joyful reading approach book, co-written with Dr. Gina Pepin, The Power of Joyful Reading: Help Your Young Readers Soar to Success!, the basic point is: we can immerse our early childhood students in these joyful, engaging reading experiences throughout the whole day. We can interweave them into our routines, our activities, and our instruction. Let me give you an example, many schools, most teachers, will have expectations. The rules repeated many times a day. Why not put the rules in a poem, write it out on the wall? “Sittin’ in your chair, hands in your lap, smile crocodile, and clap, clap clap!”

We are doing this because we need to share and express ourselves. We can interweave this into our lunch menus, our activities. In addition, we can interweave them into our lessons. So, all of my lessons, I am not sure if you have children, Scott. All of my books have messages of resiliency. I have many books with math lessons built into them, like the original Pete the Cat and His Four Groovy Buttons has subtraction. These are all important components of how we can provide a strong reading foundation fro all of our students. Here is the thing, everything relies on this. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, shared reading experiences are necessary for children to develop their sole language, cognitive, and socio-emotional development. If you think about it, it puts shared reading experiences in the health category with food, love, and shelter. Many pediatricians, now, are recommending books to families and children in a program called “Reach Out to Read,” which is a thoroughly research-based program on its absolute necessity.

If you are not having these shared reading experiences, then you are already at a disadvantage because you’re not building the key components of a reading foundation. What will happen is, children will reach 3rd grade without these fully developed, without having the reading foundation, and reading becomes frustrating. After a certain level of frustration, they lose interest. At that point, everything becomes harder, and harder, and harder for them. Everything depends on basic reading skills. From educational success, which will affect our future opportunities, but also our self-esteem, how we view the world, everything relies on it. Everything is built upon it. That is the message of the power of joyful reading. Here is the wonderful thing, when we introduce reading to children in a way that is most effective, it looks like joy and happiness because there is human interactivity, engagement, and joyful expression. All of the things that make up joy.

Jacobsen: In terms of the reading and educational statistics coming out now, girls tend to do better in school. They do better in the areas in which English language is more demanding, e.g., English, English literature. How does this play out in early years behaviourally and cognitively in terms of the literacy of young girls and young boys?

Litwin: That is a really wonderful question. I will acknowledge that I do not know the answer to it. I will also acknowledge this is similar to another question that you asked. Why is this happening? What are the variables involved? I will share a number of variables that are highly correlated to lower achievement in reading. The first variable is poverty and low income. This must be seen without judgment or blame. There are many, many reasons that children who grow up in homes that would qualify as poverty or low income would have less achievement in reading, e.g., less access to books parents moving between jobs and so are busier. They don’t have as much time to engage in joyful reading experiences. In the United States, children who live in households that fall in the category of free or reduced lunch; you are 125% of the poverty line. To receive a reduced lunch, it is 185%.

That  is a rough indicator of poverty and low income in the United States for children. It is a rough indicator because, sometimes, schools have so many children who qualify or participate. The statistics in the United States and the number of children in household who qualify, subsequently, as homes at or below the poverty line are between 41-42%.

Jacobsen: Wow.

Litwin: Right, that’s the exactly reaction I’d expect here. It is a stunning, stunning, fact. So, it is no surprise so many children have so much trouble learning to read. Also, let’s also go back to the research, the American Academy of Pediatrics shows poverty severely impacts reading. We have studies showing this. There is also something called the ACE, adverse childhood experiences. This could be a parent wo is an alcoholic, or abuse or neglect. According to the CDC, 1 in 7 children come from homes where they experience ACEs. We also have a number of children who are English learners. It is not their first language. Obviously, there are many benefits to having a second language, but it does produce a lot of challenges if you’re not hearing as much English. It makes it harder to learn it. It is certainly not as negative. It requires just understanding of the situation. Finally, now, there is also competition with electronic devices.

So, learning to read, language experiences, they have characteristics that make them optimized. One is that children learn through interactivity with cherished adults. I go through this in my books. There is enormous interactivity going on, in my books. Engagement and interactivity are part of what optimizes initial learning to read. In addition, experiential has to be part of the experience. Children don’t learn by just listening. They need engagement, singing along, physical activity. It needs to be recurring, needs to have over, and over, and over again. Finally, we can optimize this. What I am trying to say, sitting in front of an electronic app, it is not going to be a highly effective way to learn to read. It is possible for electronic devices to benefit learning to read, e.g., reading a book with grandma on Skype is wonderful. If there is no recurring process, actual experiential engagement, it is not going to be an effective way of learning. At this point, children are spending more and more time in front of screens.

So one, parents who are distracted by their own screen may engage less with their children. Second, children engage is their own screen. There was a recent study. I think it was the Cincinnati or Cleveland one. The outcome of the study is that children who spend more time in front of screens have lower language development. I am going to read from the book, right now, because I go over all these things:

For example, researchers at the Reading and Literacy Discovery Centre at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital found a troubling association between an increase in screen use and a decrease in the development of our young children’s brains, especially in areas related to language development. The exact cause of the decrease is not known.

That’s important. We don’t know why.

However, it may be the result of a decline in the use of everyday language and in reading experiences between young children and their cherished caregivers. That’s another reason why children may have difficulty learning how to read.

Learning challenges and reading challenges, what is being discovered is that many children are facing these challenges. So, they need even more, even more, engagement and immersion in joyful and engaging, shared reading experiences to build their reading foundation and to make sure their primary reading foundation is joy. There must be a condition that even though reading will be frustrating for many children. We can’t help that. But it shouldn’t be the primary experience. We have to meet every frustrating experience with overwhelming joyful experience. Those are some of the experiences why some of those children are having difficulty reading. But, as you can see, these are big challenges.

Jacobsen: In the United States, decades ago, there was a search for and a great emphasis on genius. This came alongside standardized testing. This phenomenon, cultural trend, has declined in terms of an emphasis on these things, as a culture in America. At the same time, there are still accelerated programs, gifted programs, etc. For those children who do fall under those categories, or would be suitable for some of those resources, what are ways in which to meet the demands of children who have a seemingly insatiable need for the written word?

Litwin: Fortunately, there are so many ways to feed that demand. Libraries are, obviously, an astonishing resource. In addition, we are surrounded by print in our lives. We can also encourage our gifted children to write their own print. But the most important answer to that has to do with what is called deep reading. This is a phenomenon that is often thought of in graduate school. When you go deep into a subject, it does wonderful things for your brain. It is part of the magic, when you are lucky enough to go to college and graduate school, especially when you get to specialize in an area. It takes us to new levels. With our children who have an insatiable desire, we would encourage deep reading into subjects. That is an endless, endless resource for them. It is such a joy. I have to say, this recent book, The Power of Joyful Reading. I have been thinking and reading about this topic for two decades. I left the classroom to advocate for this.

My picture books, which became big commercial successes, were designed to model the successes of this reading program. I love reading fiction. But the opportunity to deep read and write about a topic is just wonderfully joyful! [Laughing] It is just wonderful. You know that! You’re a writer.

Jacobsen: Yes [Laughing].

Litwin: Our gifted and talented students will benefit greatly from it. So will everyone else, some of my attention goes to the goal of every child having a strong reading foundation. To do that, learning to read needs to be joyful, immersive, something that we just do all the time. It is to read in everything we do: At school – definitely, at home – hopefully. That’s my primary focus. How do we make that happen? How can we make this happen in our society? Because all the efforts to improve reading scores, in my opinion, if we do not get to the root problem, will not succeed.

Jacobsen: Eric, last question, any recommended organizations or other authors, in fact, who could be resources for individuals who might be reading this for a young person that they are mentoring or a child of their own?

Litwin: Absolutely, in our book, in terms of research, we wanted to make sure our research was accessible. We focused on four sources. One is the American Academy of Pediatrics. You can Google that: “Early Literacy.” They have statements and a lot of wonderful advice. Also, the American Psychological Association has a lot of brain-based research. In terms of our parents, there is a website called leading rockets. It is a phenomenal resource. The International Reading Association is also a wonderful resource as well.

Jacobsen: Eric, it’s been a lovely conversation. And I thank you so much for your time today.

License

In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at www.in-sightpublishing.com.

Copyright

© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

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