Emily Oster

25 min Read Emily Oster

Emily Oster

Why Kids Can’t Read

How we missed the mark on literacy education

Emily Oster

25 min Read

Today’s podcast is inspired by … a podcast. Specifically, the excellent podcast Sold a Story, hosted by journalist Emily Hanford. The topic of its first season was how reading is taught in American schools, and, for a lot of parents, it opened their eyes to the fact that there isn’t just one way to teach reading and that many schools weren’t doing it right. 

In the past couple of years — I think in large part due to Emily’s work — many U.S. states have embraced legislation about how kids are taught to read in school. The phrase that you may have heard is “science of reading,” as in “Let’s make sure schools are using reading curricula based on the science of reading.” But what does that actually mean? And how would you, as a parent, know if your school was doing it?

My conversation with Emily starts with the basics — what does science say about reading, and how do we know what’s the right approach? — and we then talk more practically about how parents can evaluate their own kids’ learning and whether the legislation we’re seeing is doing any good.

Here are three highlights from the conversation:

What does phonics mean, and why is it important for learning to read? 

Emily Hanford:

Phonics is an important component of learning how to read. There has been a huge amount of research over the past 40 or 50 years that has revealed a whole lot that wasn’t known before about how reading works in the brain. How do we even do that? How do we read? How do we learn to read? And it turns out that having a good understanding of how the sounds in words are represented by letters is absolutely critical when it comes to becoming a good reader. That might sound kind of obvious to people, but the fact is we’ve been having debates — really crazy, very passionate debates — for hundreds of years about how to teach kids to read; whether you should start with letters and the sounds, or you should start with sort of the meaning of the text, whole words, whole sentences.

What about memorizing words or learning to read with cues?

Emily Oster:

Very young kids can [also] learn some words with pattern recognition, almost visual recognition, the same way they know the McDonald’s sign. They see the McDonald’s sign and they can recognize that.

Emily Hanford:

It’s a phase and stage of learning to read. It isn’t actually reading, although actually what you identified there are two different things. So it is true that you can memorize a certain number of words by the way they look. And actually, when you interview older readers who struggle with reading, this is one of their main strategies. They memorize the look of words. They store them like little pictures in your mind. But it turns out that when you’re a skilled reader, that’s not how you’re storing words. You’re not storing them as pictures in your mind. You’re storing them through this sort of linkage between the sound, the spelling, and the meaning. So that’s one thing, and that’s actually one reason why a lot of kids can look like they’re pretty good readers for the first couple years — kindergarten, first grade, maybe even second grade. They’re chugging along, and things sort of fall apart by third grade because suddenly the early reading books only have so many words in them. Some kids are really good memorizers and they can memorize all those words, but when they start getting into more words they’ve never seen before, longer multisyllabic words, they don’t know how to attack those words. They don’t know what to do and they’re really lost.

What does the research say about the right way to teach reading?

Emily Hanford:

I think all of this debate about reading instruction is actually more a debate about direct and explicit instruction versus more discovery-oriented learning. All of this is always some shades of gray. There’s obviously room for both, but it’s really important to recognize that with something like reading, in particular at the very beginning, if you want to make sure that kids know it, then teach it to them. Don’t expect them to discover it on their own.

Emily Oster:

So, I think the reason for that is a fallacy associated with what is true of kids who are good readers at the beginning. One of the reactions I had most strongly to a lot of the discussion in the podcast is, there are a lot of kids who are going to learn to read no matter what. I mean, people vary. There’s heterogeneity. And for kids who are naturally better at reading, they’re going to learn to read and then they’re going to enjoy it and you’re going to feel like, “Oh, wouldn’t it be great if everyone was little Lucy there, who just sits in the corner and reads her book and is doing so great? Let’s try to generate an environment where everyone is experiencing it like Lucy is.” And we miss that maybe that’s the unusual thing, and that if we don’t scaffold more explicit teaching for everybody, we’re not going to get them to sitting in their corner and reading Harry Potter.

Emily Hanford:

Yeah. And then what ends up happening — and not, I think, because sort of intending it to be this way — is that the child or the child’s parents of the kids who aren’t learning to read like little Lucy, who learned easily, kind of get blamed, because the question is “So you’re not trying hard enough. You didn’t do enough before this kid got to school. You’re not doing enough at home to read to him.” And I think you’re very right to identify that as a major fallacy at play here. There are a number of people who struggle to learn how to read. You might be a very smart person. It doesn’t have to do with intelligence, right? There are very smart people who struggle to learn how to read and they need to be taught how to do it. They may stumble along and come to reading eventually, but there’s a lot of stuff they miss out on, there’s a lot of stuff around spelling in particular, right? So there are a lot of kids, I think, who are sort of limping along because they’re not getting the instruction they need. And then there’s a subset that is not a small number who are not limping along at all. They’re really struggling. They really can’t figure this thing out. And they’re starting to really get lost in the shuffle early on in school. And they’re getting disengaged or having behavior problems because this reading thing isn’t making sense and no one’s explaining it to them.

Full transcript

This transcript was automatically generated and may contain small errors.

Emily Oster:

This is ParentData. I’m Emily Oster.

Video:

Butterfly in the sky/I can go twice as high/take a look, it’s in a book/Reading Rainbow A book opens the world for a kid. It’s fun. It expands their horizons. Reading Is Fundamental brings these boys and girls all kinds of books. Learn to read with Hooked on Phonics. The musical reading program. Hooked on Phonics worked for me. Call 1-800-ABCDEFG.

Emily Oster:

It’s one thing to say that reading is fundamental, and I remember hearing this. But where I really learned how important reading is is from television, specifically from the show Punky Brewster.

And the episode of Punky Brewster where she and her friend are babysitting, and the kids swallow something from underneath the sink, and we realize that Punky Brewster’s friend does not know how to read and is unable to read the Poison Control instructions.

Video:

911 Emergency. Hello. My brother just drank from a bottle of stuff under the sink in the kitchen. I don’t know what to do. I- Calm down. Your address registered when you called. I’m sending somebody right now. But what do I do? He looks real sick. You have the bottle your brother drank out of? Yes, I’ve got it. It’s right here. Okay. Now, there’s a label on it that tells you what to do in case someone swallows it. Read it to me. Read it? Yes. I can’t read it. Is the label worn off? No, I can’t read. You can’t read, at all? A little. You got to try. It’s very important.

Emily Oster:

Reading is really fundamental and not just for poison control instructions while you’re babysitting, although that’s important, but also for all of the things that we want our kids to learn in school.

They need to learn to read so they can read. They also need to learn to read so they can do math, and do social studies, and do science. Reading comes up all the time. And yet, in the US, only about a third of fourth and eighth graders are testing at grade level in reading. That means two-thirds of kids in those grades are not reading at the grade level we expect. And in the US, 14% of adults cannot read. Why is this and can we fix it?

If you’ve been following some of the recent media and political rhetoric on reading, you might have heard the phrase science of reading, phonics, or phonics versus balance literacy, or phonics versus a whole language approach. These are all referring to different ways that we might think about teaching kids how to read.

Phonics is probably the simplest to understand. When we talk about phonics, we’re talking about understanding the link between letters and sounds. So, when we teach kids to read with a primarily phonics-based approach, we teach them that sounds correspond to letters and that you can put those letters together by putting their sounds together and read. So, you teach the kid that, “S says suh,” and, “A says aa,” “a T says tuh.” And then, you teach them that, “You can say suh-at.” And then, they’re reading “sat”. And pretty soon they’re reading “hat”. And then, they’re reading “mat”. And we go on from there.

That has been the predominant method of teaching people to read for an extremely long time. But in the US, beginning in the 1960s, there was a movement towards what some people call a whole language approach, which was the idea that maybe instead of using this phonics system, which while simple, is quite boring, we could instead teach kids to read by exposing them to more interesting books and by having them absorb the words. It turns out that that whole language approach to learning to read is actually not very effective for most people, that for most people phonics is a much better way to approach reading instruction. And particularly for kids who are struggling to read, phonics is really required to make progress going forward.

My guest today on the podcast is Emily Hanford. Emily is a journalist who has worked on these issues, the issues around children being behind in reading and issues around how we teach kids to read, for many years. And in 2022, she released an incredibly successful podcast called Sold a Story, which has sparked a raft of discussion about these issues, and ultimately pushed legislation and changes in how kids are actually taught in schools.

At the core, her podcast is about not only how we should teach kids to read, but how we ended up with a reading instruction system, in many places in the US, which actually isn’t based on the best data. Her podcast is a long story about economics, politics, it’s about resistance to change.
Today, on this podcast, Emily and I will talk a little bit about her journey on Sold a Story. But we’ll also talk much more about the data on the science of reading and practically about how parents can know if their kids’ schools are teaching reading well. As a parent, how do you know how it’s going? What would make you concerned? And what would be some methods that you could use to step in?

We also discuss a bit how we got to this place and whether the wave of state legislation about the science of reading is actually going to rescue us.

After the break, Emily Hanford.

Emily Oster:

Emily Hanford, I am absolutely delighted to have you on the podcast.

Emily Hanford:

Well, I’m very happy to be here. Thanks for asking me.

Emily Oster:

So I’d love to start by having you introduce yourself.

Emily Hanford:

Sure. My name is Emily Hanford. I am a senior correspondent and producer at APM Reports. We’re the documentary and investigative reporting team at American Public Media. We are public radio, public media. I’ve been working at APM since 2008, covering education, making long form radio documentaries, and now podcasts about education. And I’m the host of a podcast called Sold a Story, which first came out in the fall of 2022 and has continued since. We have several new episodes, including a couple of new episodes that came out in the spring of 2024.

Emily Oster:

The podcast is what we’re here to talk about. It’s a really amazing podcast, so we’re not going to rehash all of it, although I will tell people, if you haven’t listened to that podcast, as soon as you’re finished with this episode, please go listen to the entire thing.

I did want to take this opportunity to publicly say thank you because my daughter, my 12-year-old at the time, 11-year-old, listened to the podcast and she loved it and it was great. And then she wrote to you to say how much she loved it and you wrote back to her, which was so nice and totally made her weak. So thank you for doing that.

Emily Hanford:

Oh, I’m so glad to hear that. I just got a message just yesterday of the youngest listener I’ve known of so far. Someone wrote to me and said that his 4-year-old son has been listening. Four years old. His parents have been playing it and he’s been saying, “No, no, play a little bit more.

Emily Oster:

That’s amazing. He’s going to learn to read. So the podcast is about how kids learn to read and about the crisis and how we teach kids to read. I thought without rehashing everything you talk about there, I think it’d be useful for people to understand a little bit the stakes of what we’re talking about and even what the words mean. So now because of your podcast, this idea of phonics and science of reading, those words are out in the world, but I’m not sure it’s always visible to people, like what does that mean. So do you want to give us a little bit of an overview about what does phonics mean when we say teach phonics? How is that different from what might be happening otherwise? Emily Hanford:

Emily Hanford:

You’ve asked a very complicated question that could have a very long answer [inaudible 00:02:33].

Emily Oster:

I know. You have so many podcast episodes. Summarize it in two and a half minutes.

Emily Hanford:

Okay. Well, one of the things that I actually like to start out by saying is that the podcast, and I would say the science of reading, and I’ll get back to that in a minute, are about a lot more than phonics. Phonics is an important component of learning how to read. There has been a huge amount of research over the past 40 or 50 years that has revealed a whole lot that wasn’t known before about how reading works in the brain. How do we even do that? How do we read? How do we learn to read? And it turns out that having a good understanding of how the sounds in words are represented by letters is absolutely critical when it comes to becoming a good reader. That might sound kind of obvious to people, but the fact is we’ve been having debates really crazy, very passionate debates for hundreds of years about how to teach kids to read, whether you should start with letters and the sounds, or you should start with sort of the meaning of the text, whole words, whole sentences.

I think everyone who’s been involved in these debates shares the same goal of helping kids learn how to read, but the question has been sort of how does a kid get to that goal? How do you go from being a four or five, six-year-old child who knows how to speak a language but doesn’t know how to read it yet? What does it take to become a reader of a language? What’s happened is that cognitive scientists and many other researchers have been engaged in really interesting research that has sort of taken place outside the world of traditional education school sort of oriented research. It’s sort of been the cognitive scientists kind of on the other side of the quad, and they have discovered all these really fascinating things about reading.

The most important thing to understand is that you cannot be a good reader without having a good understanding. It doesn’t have to be a conscious, you can explain all the rules of the language understanding, but you have a really good ability of understanding the relationship between letters and sounds. And it turns out that a lot of other research has shown that the most effective way to make sure people have that knowledge, which is critical to ultimately becoming a good reader, it’s not the end goal, it’s not all you need, but it is a critical foundation, that the most efficient, most effective way to do that is to teach that to kids right out of the box, right away. They can learn it, they need to learn it. It’s teachable. And if you teach kids that at the very beginning of school, you increase their chances of becoming good readers.

We have fought about phonics for so long that it’s gotten caught up in a lot of stuff about reading and it’s turned out that there are many schools in the country that maybe teach a little bit of phonics, but they’ve also been teaching all these other sort of strategies and ways to get the words that don’t necessarily include looking at the word carefully, sounding it out, connecting the pronunciation of the word with the spelling and the meaning. And that’s what your brain has got to do for you to learn how to read those words quickly and efficiently. We’ve had a lot of approaches to reading that haven’t included a really good foundational focus on that, nor a good understanding among teachers about why that’s so important.

Emily Oster:

I want to pause on the data piece because I think that that piece is incredibly interesting.

Emily Hanford:

Of course you do.

Emily Oster:

Yeah, of course I do. Of course. I would think that. But where I think it’s a little hard for people to sometimes understand that is I, as a fluent reader, when I read, I have no perception that I am sounding anything out. When I’m looking over here at something, it’s say’s “Ballot enclosed.” And I just look at that and those words, they appear in my head, I should probably vote on whatever that is. But they just appear in my head and I’m not perceiving that I’m sounding them out.

Emily Hanford:

Well, and just to complicate it a little bit more, it turns out that you can actually, there is sort of a direct route for you at this point in your life between words that you’ve seen a lot that you know really well, which probably include “ballot enclosed.” There’s sort of a direct route for you to be able to look at that word and know what it is without really any sounding out. Now the reason you can get this direct route from the reading that word to knowing it is because at some point you laboriously sounded out the word ballot and you connected B-A-L-L-O-T, ballot, and the meaning and all those three things get tightly connected into sort of a word form and your brain can just get them instantly. Longer words that you don’t see as often, you may spend actually just a little bit more time on because you are doing a little bit more work to possibly chunk it because your brain isn’t immediately like, “I got that word.” This stuff is completely fascinating. There’s a really great book written by a French neuroscientist named Stanislas Dehaene, and it’s called Reading in the Brain.

And for me, some of the most interesting data on this comes from what sort of putting people in an FMRI and seeing what their brain is doing when they’re looking at particularly longer words and recognizing that in fact, whether I perceive it or not, I am in fact chunking that word and sounding it out of course instantaneously, not in a long form act like my kids learned, but that skill remains as a central way that we are reading even when we don’t perceive it. And I think that connection for me has been very important in thinking about why that set of skills is so crucial because it remains so crucial. It’s not something you use and then forget and then never use again. It’s the whole thing.

Emily Oster:

Yes, that book is amazing.

Emily Hanford:

And I highly recommend it-

Emily Oster:

It is amazing.

Emily Hanford:

… to anyone who wants to understand this. But the larger point you’re making is critical, which is, what it seems like we’re doing when we’re reading is not what we’re really doing. And this is why this sort of whole word approach became very popular because it seems like, “Oh, look at what skilled readers do. They know these whole words in an instant.” And we do know these whole words, tens of thousands of them in an instant. But the question is, how do we do that and how did we get there? How did we first learn how to do that? That’s critical. You have to first learn how to do it. And then how you’re doing it now, turns out there might be a little bit of a difference between how you first did it and how you do it now, but you need to go through that process of doing it initially.

I think this is one of the bigger tensions in the sort of debates about reading. I mentioned earlier that some of this really eye-opening research was taking place in psychology departments among cognitive scientists that weren’t in the education school. I think a lot of the research that has been taking place in schools of education has a lot of value, but much of it has been observational research, other kinds of research too. But that’s a very strong tenet within education research, is to sort of observe what learners, observe what children, observe what kids in classrooms are doing, and to do descriptional kinds of studies that are based on what you can observe.

What’s so fascinating when you get inside people’s brains is what you can observe is not what’s actually going on behind the eyes. And that’s what makes cognitive science so fascinating. Some of this stuff is kind of counterintuitive in a way. It doesn’t seem like that’s what’s happening, but that’s what is. And that’s why I think it’s really important for teachers to have some understanding. They don’t all have to become cognitive scientists. But I think it’s really profound for many teachers to gain a little bit of knowledge about what some of the cognitive sciences shown us about learning to read and learning in general over the past 50 years or so because it changes their notion. It helps you understand something about how people are actually learning, which has implications for teaching.

Emily Oster:

Yeah. And I think the other piece of this to get into what we see with kids and why this can be hard is actually for very young kids, they can learn some words with the kind of pattern recognition that almost the visual recognition, the same way they know the McDonald sign.

Emily Hanford:

Absolutely.

Emily Oster:

They can see the McDonald sign, they can see, they can recognize that. It looks like a form of-

Emily Hanford:

It’s a phase. It’s a phase and stage of learning to read. It isn’t actually reading, although actually what you identified there are two sort of different things. So it is true that you can sort of memorize a certain number of words by the way they look. And actually, when you interview older readers who struggle with reading, this is one of their main strategies. They sort of memorize the look of words. They sort of store them like little pictures in your mind. But it turns out that when you’re a skilled reader, that’s not how you’re storing words. You’re not storing them as pictures in your mind. You’re storing them through this sort of linkage between the sound, the spelling, and the meaning.

So that’s one thing, and that’s actually one reason why a lot of kids can look like they’re pretty good readers for the first couple years, kindergarten, first grade, maybe even second grade. They’re kind of chugging along and things sort of fall apart by third grade because suddenly the early reading books only have so many words in them. Some kids are really good memorizers and they can sort of memorize all those words, but when they start getting into more words they’ve never seen before, longer multi-syllabic words, they don’t know how to attack those words. They don’t know what to do and they’re really lost. So one thing is word memorization.

The other thing that you talked about though is definitely a phase in learning how to read, which is that sort of learning by cues. So you know the McDonald sign, you know Coca-Cola. Kids are sort of seeing that as a picture and the logo or whatever the picture is that goes with the word is key to them understanding. And there’s actually fascinating research that shows that kids can know a McDonald sign, but if you take away the big M and just give them the word, they can’t read that word, which means they weren’t reading the word, they were reading the combination of the word and the symbol. So young parents would be like, “Oh my gosh, my kid is reading.” Well, they’re not really. They’re understanding how to understand these various symbols in their environment. And they have yet to get to the alphabetic stage, which is really understanding that those letters themselves represent sounds and meaning in words.

Emily Oster:

I want to ask about the… We sort of talked about the cognitive science piece of the research. And then I wanted to ask about the research in classroom. So if we said some of these approaches to teaching kids to read work better, some of them seem like they’d work better based on the brain, how do we know what works in the classroom?

Emily Hanford:

Yeah, it’s a really important question. So to go back to one of the things we were talking about earlier, the science of reading. So I just want to pause for a moment on that phrase because I do think it’s being used a lot these days and it’s being used inaccurately pretty frequently. So the science of reading is not a thing you do or a way to teach or a program you buy. It’s basically just a term that refers to this big body of evidence that I sort of referred to before, this cognitive science. But it’s more than just that. So it’s important for people to recognize that this science of reading, loosely defined, is not just this brain research, neuroscience, cognitive science research. But when people are referring to that, they’re usually also referring to a lot of studies that have been done in real classrooms with real kids. Some of it with small groups of kids, but I think it’s widely misunderstood that a lot of this research was with entire classrooms of children and in entire schools.

But it’s also really important to recognize that the science of reading, the cognitive science, the getting inside the brain, understanding what goes on, doesn’t give you… It is not sort of directly translatable into a way to teach, right? The scientific research has implications. Understanding something about how people learn can then inform how you teach. What you teach, when you teach, at the order you teach it in all very profound, very important things. But translating that stuff into practice is one of the things that’s going on right now. But there is a large body of research going back decades of looking at particular approaches in classrooms going back. Long before we had all this cognitive science research, long before we could peek inside people’s brains to see what was going on, people were testing out various approaches to things like teaching little kids how to read.

And we have a pretty robust, there was a really important book written about this in 1967 looking at a whole bunch of research that had been done through the first part of the 20th century. That research has always found consistently that sort of starting with the letters and sounds and focusing on phonics and early reading instruction is a more efficient, more effective approach for more kids. You tend to give more kids a better chance at being good readers. And now all this brain science and cognitive science has in some ways helped us understand why. It’s helped us understand why that worked.

And that research is ongoing. So not only was there a huge amount of research done in the middle, early part of the century, partly because people have been fighting about phonics for so long, people started studying it a long time ago. “Let’s try to figure out what really works best.” But there’s been continuing research through the ’80s and ’90s, huge amounts of money of our taxpayer dollars have gone to these long-term studies that have looked at different approaches to instruction over a long period of time. And the consistent finding is that phonics instruction is critical. It’s not the only thing you need. It takes a lot more to be a good reader, but you can’t be a good reader without understanding the sounds and letters and words. And that if you want kids to know something, the best thing to do is to teach it to them.

So there is another line of research just about instruction itself in all areas, sort of whether you want instruction to be sort of direct and explicit. Especially at the early stages of learning, anything direct and explicit instruction of helping kids or the learner, whoever it is, understand the concept that you’re trying to teach them, how you break that down and teach it to them. And then later when they have a lot of foundational skills, we all know this from our own development, you can do so much more of this exploration and the discovery of new knowledge on your own, but having the skills is necessary.

So I think all of this debate about reading instruction is actually more a debate about direct and explicit instruction versus more discovery-oriented learning. All of this is always some shades of gray. There’s obviously room for both, but it’s really important to recognize that with something like reading in particular at the very beginning, if you want to make sure that kids know it, then teach it to them. Don’t expect them to discover it on their own. Don’t make that a sort of core or even sort of tangential kind of element of the instruction. And I would say it’s sort of a core tangential element of the reading instruction has been this idea that we’re going to kind of let kids discover it for themselves.

Emily Oster:

So I think the reason for that is a fallacy associated with what is true of kids who are good readers at the beginning. So one of the reactions I had most strongly to a lot of the discussion in the podcast and just this general discussion is there are a lot of kids who are going to learn to read no matter what. Now maybe they could learn it faster or they could learn it better. But my mother and I talked about this when your podcast had first come out or maybe when I was writing about it. And she said for her, she would’ve learned to read no matter what. She basically knew how to read when she got into kindergarten. But for her brother, that was not true and that her mother basically had to come into the school and say, “You’re not actually teaching him. I have to teach him how to read.”

But I think there is this sense of for kids who are just naturally… I mean, people vary. There’s heterogeneity. And for kids who are naturally better at reading, they’re going to show up pretty much anything you do, they’re going to learn to read and then they’re going to enjoy it and you’re going to feel like, “Oh, wouldn’t it be great if everyone was little Lucy there who just sits in the corner and reads her book and is doing so great? Let’s try to generate an environment where everyone is experiencing it like Lucy is.” And we miss that maybe that’s the unusual thing and that if we don’t scaffold more explicit teaching for everybody, we’re not going to get them to sitting in their corner and reading Harry Potter.

Emily Hanford:

Yeah. And then what ends up happening, and not I think because sort of intending it to be this way, is that the child or the child’s parents of the kids who aren’t learning to read little Lucy who learned easily kind of get blamed, because the question is, “So you’re not trying hard enough. You didn’t do enough before this kid got to school. You’re not doing enough at home to read to him.” And I think you’re very right to identify that as a sort of major fallacy at play here.

A couple of key sort of findings here, that there are a number of people who struggle to learn how to read. You might be a very smart person. It doesn’t have to do with intelligence, right? There are very smart people who struggle to learn how to read and they need to be taught how to do it. They may stumble along and come to reading eventually, sort of, kind of, but there’s a lot of stuff they miss out on, there’s a lot of stuff around spelling in particular, right? So there are a lot of kids I think, who are sort of limping along because they’re not getting the instruction they need.

And then there’s a subset that is not a small number who are not limping along at all. They’re really struggling. They really can’t figure this thing out. And they’re starting to really kind of get lost in the shuffle early on in school. And they’re sort of getting disengaged or having behavior problems because this reading thing isn’t making sense and no one’s explain it to them.

Emily Oster:

And because it’s [inaudible 00:22:06] every class.

Emily Hanford:

Everywhere.

Emily Oster:

I bet you know by the time you get to third or fourth grade, you need to be able to read pretty well to do math and to do science, to do social studies and to do everything else because reading actually is fundamental as they say to anything, everything.

Emily Hanford:

Yeah. And I’ll say this one other thing that you’re identifying about the fallacy. I talk about this often in talks I give. So I think I was one of those kids who learned to read pretty easily. And I have two boys who are now in their young 20s and they learned to read pretty easily too. I’ve been an education reporter for a long time before this ever really occurred to me. I think part of that is because I was living in that bubble of, “Oh, what does it take to learn how to read? Lots of reading to your kids, lots of talking to your kids, it’ll all come together in time.” And when I started to realize how many people struggle with learning how to read and how so many kids are not getting the instruction they need in school, that was a real shock to me.

I mean, that’s how I started on this reporting years ago, long before Sold a Story. Sold a Story was sort of the result of reporting that I had been doing for years. I really wanted and Sold a Story to try to answer some questions about how it happened. Why is it, how is it that a lot of teachers don’t know about a lot of this research don’t know how to teach kids to read? And I know that because they’ve told me.

I was a first grade teacher for 15 years. I guess I thought I was teaching kids to read. But you know what is so devastating? This is not uncommon that a teacher realizes that she, and very often in elementary school education in particular, it’s women, they don’t know how to teach kid to read when they have their own child who really struggles and they realize, “I don’t know how to teach her. I don’t know how to teach my own child how to read.”

Emily Oster:

So for parents listening, I want to give them a little bit of a sense of if I was in my kids’ classroom and I was hearing in the classroom, but I was hearing about the reading curriculum approach, how would I know to be concerned is the simplest way I can ask it. So what does it look like? We’ve said phonics is good, we’ve said some phonics. What does it look like if things are not going the way that they should be?

Emily Hanford:

Well, let me say the first scenario would be a parent… Because it’s kind of rare actually for parents to sit in on classroom instruction, although I do think that’s a good thing to ask to do, go in and volunteer. But the very first thing a parent is probably going to notice is their own child. So the first thing I would say is that if you’re noticing that your own child is sort of struggling with reading, resisting reading, having a lot of temper tantrums around reading, that don’t ignore that red flag warning. That is something that you need to think about. You need to go talk to the school about it. That might be a frustrating experience. You should find other parents in your community who are talking about this. You can find a lot of those people online. You should really try to deal with that problem.

If you do get a chance to go into your child’s class, you probably will see some phonics instruction. And for a long time I think people’s thought, “Well, I’m seeing them. They’re introducing letters, they’re sounding out P-H or whatever, so they’re doing phonics.” And so people checked the box like, “Oh, phonics.” But I think it’s really important to recognize that you want to make sure that kids are not also being taught other strategies to learn to read. So they’re not being handed books that have all kinds of words in them that they haven’t yet been taught how to read in their lessons.

So you want to see some matching up between kids have been taught. You want to see some sort of sequence, like kids are being taught sort of the most frequent letter, patterns first, and it’s building up to complexity and they’re being given books that have words with the letter combinations that they have been taught so they don’t have to guess or memorize the words, they can actually sound out most of the words in the book. So you want to see some connection between the word reading instruction and the words they’re actually reading in the book. So-

Emily Oster:

Can I give one explicit just for people?

Emily Hanford:

Please.

Emily Oster:

Like an explicit example of I think what you’re talking about. So think about the contrast between the Bob Book. So the First Bob Book, which is a series of books, has four letters in it, M-A… Matts, M-A-T-S, and you learn the sounds and then the book is “Matt. Matt sat. Sam. Sam sat.” It’s only the letter sounds that you know. That’s one quite letter sound phonics-based book. You then have a set of books that would say like, “Pam is an orange cat.” And there’s a picture of an orange cat. And although orange is absolutely not a word you have learned, we might say, “Well, what do you think that could say because of the color?” and asking the kid to effectively guess about the word orange. That would be an example of something that was not a phonics-based approach to learning that word. Do I have that right?

Emily Hanford:

Excellent. Yeah, that was excellent example. Yep, and I think that’s actually one of the primary things that parents can look for. And you don’t have to go into the classroom to see that. You can look at what’s being brought home, look in your kid’s backpack.

Emily Oster:

Yeah. Yeah. I mean I think the thing that came out a lot and you talked about was this idea of strategy, of guessing as in not guessing words is not an approach, not typically a great approach to learn to read because it’s not how we do it. It’s not how you do it as an adult.

Emily Hanford:

Right. And it’s important to recognize that I think people who have taught that approach to kids have a good thing in mind, which is like, “Okay, so here are these books.” One of the issues with the English language is that some of our simplest words are the most difficult to pronounce and figure out or the kinds of words you would see frequently in a kid’s book like circus or something like that, right? Or-

Emily Oster:

Knife.

Emily Hanford:

Yeah, Very good.

Emily Oster:

“Why is the K knife? I remember my daughter asking like, “What do you mean that’s what it says?” I was like, “I don’t know.” It’s like the K is silent. The E makes the I say a different thing.

Emily Hanford:

Yeah. Right.

Emily Oster:

It’s [inaudible 00:28:42].

Emily Hanford:

And eventually as you start to get sort of good with these letters and sounds, your brain can also deal with these little exceptions. It’s not like kids need to be taught every rule in the English language, and that’s not actually the goal here. So that’s actually a red flag that I would have for parents to look for. When there is a lot of phonics instruction. I think there can be phonics instruction that’s not very good that’s sort of almost overkill or sort of teaching kids every rule rather than what you really want to see is that sequence from simple to complex. Because eventually what’s happening in your brain is you’re starting to understand how these letters and sounds work is that you are actually starting to do, it’s called statistical learning or basically implicit learning. You are starting to sort of teach yourself this stuff on your own.

But it is really weedy and difficult to understand this. So it’s very important I think for parents to open a dialogue with schools. Many schools are talking about this issue these days, and so I think you can be actually more successful in having a productive conversation with schools today than maybe you would’ve four or five years ago. I think things are really changing.

I would also really encourage parents to talk to their friends and other parents and other parents in the community of kids who are struggling with reading because those parents have often educated themselves quite deeply about what the school is doing, what they have been doing, what they’re trying to change, the kinds of struggles that kids are having, where you can go for help outside of the school system. Other parents are really going to be some of your key assets here in you figuring out what you can do for your child because you really do also… And I don’t mean to put a sense of panic into anyone here, but it’s important to deal with this quickly because the clock is ticking and you really want a kid to not fall behind early in reading. That is a really difficult thing to recover from. You really want to sort of nip this problem in the bud right at the beginning and get your child the help he or she needs right away.

Emily Oster:

I want to ask the question about how we got here, at least very briefly. And this isn’t a big focus of the podcast, so I don’t want to spend a huge amount of time on that. But just very generally, this makes so much sense when you explain it. And you’re right that the research, not the FMRI research, but a lot of this research goes back incredibly long time. So it isn’t like we thought something and then all of a sudden there was one large randomized trial and we thought, “Oh my God, we got it wrong.” This is really, it should not have been much of a surprise. And yet a huge share of schools are using strategies which really are not in line with what should be happening. How did that happen?

Emily Hanford:

Yeah. Well, again, we did have a… There’s five and a half hours you can listen to that tries to explain that.

Emily Oster:

I know. I know, but actually the-

Emily Hanford:

And the answer is the market, right?

Emily Oster:

No, no.

Emily Hanford:

Actually, I’ll take you back to what I think a thought that I started a moment ago and I don’t think I fully completed, which is, I think there were good intentions here. So part of the goal is to figure out, well, we want kids to be able to read books. We want kids to be able to read, we want them to be able to read books. We want them to be able to enjoy it them because the English language actually has quite a few difficult words, which are the kind of words that might be in the kinds of stories that kids would want to read. What can we do? It’s too much to maybe teach them all the phonics they would need to read those words. So let’s try some other strategies. Let’s try to get them into books early by showing them they can do things like look at the picture and think of a word that makes sense and look at the first letter, look at the last letter.

Use your oral language ability, like you know the meanings of lots of words. Use what you know about spoken language to sort of use some clues from the text to figure out these words. This will get kids into books early, will get them going and they will be Lucy off in the corner reading.And that does happen for some kids.

So I think it was sort of hard even in my reporting about this topic, because I think once people understand some of the scientific research, once they understand some stuff about what phonics is, that you have to sound out words in order to know them, it seems kind of obvious to people. You’re like, “Oh wait, well, why would anyone think that there was another way to do it?” Well, I think there’s a good reason why people found that there was another good way to do it, which is the English language is hard. It actually can take a couple of years to take people through the way the English language works to teach them a good phonics program. And we want to get kids reading. We want to get them the enjoyment. We want to get them to the good stuff.

And it works for some kids. If you can figure out a way to get them to the end goal, they do all the work, a lot of the work in between. They get from the beginning to the end, and they don’t need a huge amount of direct instruction from anyone to get there. But half of kids or more really do need significantly more direct instruction in getting there than they’ve been getting in many, many classrooms, not just in the United States, but in other parts of the world. This is really a reckoning that’s going on in many English-speaking countries and in non-English-speaking countries too.

But I think this is particularly significant in the English-speaking world because even for a typically developing reader who’s developing pretty rapidly, they probably need a few years in school and a lot of good exposure and some guidance and instruction on written language to get how English works and a language like Spanish where there’s a much more consistent relationship.

Emily Oster:

Where it’s literally just phonetic.

Emily Hanford:

It’s literally just phonetic and you can sort of teach kids the code of Spanish in a year and most kids will be able to decode Spanish. Now, does that mean they can read Spanish? Not necessarily, because there are a lot of kids who are still developing their Spanish vocabulary. We know kids come into school with very different levels of oral language, spoken language ability, which is how this gets kind of pernicious in terms of the way that it all sort of falls out because kids often from more educated, more affluent homes come into school with more oral language ability. And that is an assist, a very big assist in learning how to read. If you can teach someone how to decode the language, oh, well, they’re really off and running in terms of the rest of what they need to know to comprehend what they read.

And oh, by the way, knowing a lot of words means that you’re going to be able to decode them more easily. You’re going to be sounding them out, and then you say the word and “Oh, you know that word.” Whereas another kid who doesn’t speak English as a first language in an American school for example, or doesn’t have as much vocabulary is not going to have as much of an assistance in learning how to read. So I think this whole debate is just very intertwined with class and race in this country because kids who come into school with this sort of oral language advantage often have an advantage when it comes to learning how to read, especially if they’re not being directly taught, but they don’t always.

And I would say one of the ways that I saw this whole problem most profoundly, myself being an upper middle class white woman who learned how to read easily and had children who learned how to read easily, it really was profound to me when I started meeting a lot of people like me who did sort of “everything right,” I’m doing that in air quotes, before their kids got to school, lots of reading to them, lots of talking to them, and then their kids still couldn’t read. Often what you have in that case is a kid with a true reading disability, right? This is a child who really, really needs a lot of extra help learning how to read.

But if you think of that one little pure example, now think of all the kids out there who are somewhere on that spectrum. That word reading ability is somewhere from really easy to really, really hard, and most kids are in between. And that oral language ability is somewhere from really high to really low, and most people are somewhere in between. That combination of things are what you really are going to be sort of the foundation that takes you to sort of being a good reader or not.

The decoding part, the teaching kids how to read the words, that is very teachable. It can be done by skilled and knowledgeable teachers in a few years in school. The rest of it, all of that knowledge and language comprehension, you need to be a good reader, that is harder for schools to control because so much of that happens outside of school. And it’s also what all of education is beyond learning how to read, right? So I think one of the things that’s happening now in schools is as they’re starting to understand that there’s something they have to do better differently with the early reading instruction, once you get kids to be good little word readers, then it opens up the whole box and a whole set of very, very important questions about what else are kids learning in school. Are we teaching them what they need to know? Are they getting a good education in American public schools?

Emily Oster:

That is probably for a different podcast.

Emily Hanford:

Yes.

Emily Oster:

But before I let you go, I did want to ask about policy changes because I think this is a place where we have seen a lot of states make statements, passed laws that say reading curricula have to conform to some kind of science of reading. As you’ve said, it’s not entirely clear what that really even means, but that’s the language a lot of them are using. Are you encouraged by that?

Emily Hanford:

It’s a tricky one to answer. And if you’ve listened to the most recent four episodes, I sort of touch on this question in all of them. I think obviously policy is really important lever. One of the things that I’ve heard from teachers especially over the last few years is they’ve started to understand all of this stuff about what has been off and missing in their own reading instruction. And they’re kind of looking up to their principals, their superintendents, their school boards, and then ultimately, often there’s state departments of education and their legislators to say, “Help me. We need better materials. We need better training. We need things that policy can help provide.” So I think it’s a very important moment for the policymakers to be looking down and listening to the teachers and parents and others who are saying, “We need policy changes here.”

At the same time, there’s some delicate balance when it comes to good policies turning into good change or instigating good change where you have some balance of sort of bottom up and top down, right? Bottom up needs the top. Top down can become too much, right? Policies have all kinds of unintended consequences. The policy itself is never the solution. It’s sort of like how the policy is implemented, how the policy gets changed to meet what maybe wasn’t right about the policy in the first place or additional things that need to be added.

So it’s kind of a mess out there right now, and I think this is very much a work in progress. I think there are many people who are very glad to see state legislators finally responding. And I think many of those same people are sometimes taking a little pause when they’re seeing what the legislatures are actually doing or how that’s actually getting translated. There’s a lot of now lists or people saying, “You can’t use this curriculum and you have to use that curriculum.” I think there’s a couple of really important questions there. One, curriculum is clearly an important part of this, but definitely not the only part, and in fact may not even be the most important part. I actually think teacher knowledge and training and educator knowledge in general is really important. And how are these different curriculum getting on these lists? What’s the evidence that this is good, that this is better, that this is going to work?

Emily Oster:

All right. My last question, what’s your favorite children’s book?

Emily Hanford:

I heard your sigh right before that. Okay, that is so hard to decide, but-

Emily Oster:

Your kids are older, but I bet-

Emily Hanford:

I know.

Emily Oster:

I bet you thought of that.

Emily Hanford:

okay. I have two books that I’ve just been thinking about in the last few days. Okay, so one, my kids are old enough that one of their babysitters is about to have a baby. So we had to buy baby presents. So one of my favorite books for little kids is Hippos Go Berserk! by Sandra Boynton that one.

Emily Oster:

I think I could recite the whole thing. “One Hippo all alone calls two hippos on the phone.” I think I could do the whole thing.

Emily Hanford:

Phone.

Emily Oster:

But that’s not for this podcast.

Emily Hanford:

Oh my God, I love it.

Emily Oster:

I love it.

Emily Hanford:

And then I’m actually about to go to Australia. And so I was talking to the people that I’m planning with and I don’t know if you remember Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst. What he says all the time is things are going so badly, he just wants to move to Australia. And Australia keeps coming up. And at the end of the book, his horrible day is coming to an end and his mother says to him, “Some days are like that even in Australia.” And I feel like my mother used to say that to me all the time, which is the way of being like, “Just get some sleep, honey, it’ll be better tomorrow. We all have bad days.” So I’m about to go to Australia. So I’ve bought a couple of copies of those books to the people who are hosting me because they have grandchildren and they’d never heard of it before and I was like, “Oh, over here in America, we say some days are like that, even in Australia.”

Emily Oster:

That’s amazing. Those are great suggestions. I’m going to come in here with The Book With No Pictures, which may post date your-

Emily Hanford:

I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Emily Oster:

The Book With No Pictures is a book with no pictures, but a lot of funny words that adults have to say. It’s difficult to describe, but if you are a parent of a child who is slightly younger than yours, your child will love it.

Emily Hanford:

Okay, I’m going to write it down. I’m keeping a future grandmother list over here.

Emily Oster:

Important to have. All right, Emily, thank you so much for joining me. It was such a pleasure.

Emily Hanford:

Yeah, thank you. I loved it.

Emily Oster:

ParentData is produced by Tamar Avishai with support from the ParentData team and PRX. If you have thoughts on this episode, please join the conversation on my Instagram @ProfEmilyOster. If you want to support the show, become a subscriber to the ParentData Newsletter at parentdata.org, where I write weekly posts on everything to do with parents and data to help you make better, more informed parenting decisions. For example, a few years ago I interviewed another Emily on the topic of kids learning to read, Professor Emily Solari, about inequality in reading skills across socioeconomic groups and the role Covid played, how to make phonics fun, and much more. Check it out at parentdata.org.

There are a lot of ways you can help people find out about us. Leave a rating or a review on Apple Podcasts. Text your friend about something you learned from this episode. Debate your mother-in-law about the merits of something parents do now that is totally different from what she did. Post a story to your Instagram debunking a panic headline of your own. Just remember to mention the podcast too, right, Penelope?

Penelope:

Right, Mom.

Emily Oster:

We’ll see you next time.

1 Comment
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AboundJGK
12 days ago

I so appreciated this conversation but in terms of helping parents know what to do next, I don’t think getting advice and support from other families goes far enough, and “talk to your child’s teacher” isn’t an option for families who don’t know enough about learning to read to ask the appropriate questions. We need to change the norms around parent/teacher partnerships to make them more transparent and collaborative: schools need families to help create strong readers, and families don’t have the support to go it alone.
I am on a mission to create productive family partnerships around reading development at scale, and at low cost – and it’s starting to work at innovative schools. There is no reason not to raise the bar!

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SLEEP DATA 💤 PART 2: Let’s talk about naps. Comment “Link” for an article on what we learned about daytime sleep!

The first three months of life are a chaotic combination of irregular napping, many naps, and a few brave or lucky souls who appear to have already arrived at a two-to-three nap schedule. Over the next few months, the naps consolidate to three and then to two. By the 10-to-12-month period, a very large share of kids are napping a consistent two naps per day. Over the period between 12 and 18 months, this shifts toward one nap. And then sometime in the range of 3 to 5 years, naps are dropped. What I think is perhaps most useful about this graph is it gives a lot of color to the average napping ages that we often hear. 

Note: Survey data came from the ParentData audience and users of the Nanit sleep monitor system. Both audiences skew higher-education and higher-income than the average, and mostly have younger children. The final sample is 14,919 children. For more insights on our respondents, read the full article.

SLEEP DATA 💤 PART 2: Let’s talk about naps. Comment “Link” for an article on what we learned about daytime sleep!

The first three months of life are a chaotic combination of irregular napping, many naps, and a few brave or lucky souls who appear to have already arrived at a two-to-three nap schedule. Over the next few months, the naps consolidate to three and then to two. By the 10-to-12-month period, a very large share of kids are napping a consistent two naps per day. Over the period between 12 and 18 months, this shifts toward one nap. And then sometime in the range of 3 to 5 years, naps are dropped. What I think is perhaps most useful about this graph is it gives a lot of color to the average napping ages that we often hear.

Note: Survey data came from the ParentData audience and users of the Nanit sleep monitor system. Both audiences skew higher-education and higher-income than the average, and mostly have younger children. The final sample is 14,919 children. For more insights on our respondents, read the full article.
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Tag a Dad who this holiday may be tricky for. We’re sending you love. 💛

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Tag a Dad who this holiday may be tricky for. We’re sending you love. 💛
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#parentdata #postpartum #postpartumdepression #paternalmentalhealth #newparents #emilyoster

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This graph shows sleeping location by age. You’ll notice that for the first three months, most kids are in their own sleeping location in a parent’s room. Then, over the first year, this switches toward their own room. As kids age, sharing a room with a sibling becomes more common. 

Head to the newsletter for more and stay tuned for part two next week on naps! 🌙

#parentdata #emilyoster #childsleep #babysleep #parentingcommunity

SLEEP DATA 💤 We asked you all about your kids’ sleep—and got nearly 15,000 survey responses to better understand kids’ sleep patterns. Comment “Link” for an article that breaks down our findings!

This graph shows sleeping location by age. You’ll notice that for the first three months, most kids are in their own sleeping location in a parent’s room. Then, over the first year, this switches toward their own room. As kids age, sharing a room with a sibling becomes more common.

Head to the newsletter for more and stay tuned for part two next week on naps! 🌙

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Prevention is key! I suggest:
⭐ Regular tick checks
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⭐ Wearing long sleeves and pants in the woods

Some parents worry about DEET, but repellants with up to 30% DEET are recommended by both the CDC and AAP. The data says you’re in the clear, so go for it. Enjoy your summer!

#parentdata #emilyoster #tickseason #bugbites #bugspray

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Prevention is key! I suggest:
⭐ Regular tick checks
⭐ Using bug sprays with DEET
⭐ Wearing long sleeves and pants in the woods

Some parents worry about DEET, but repellants with up to 30% DEET are recommended by both the CDC and AAP. The data says you’re in the clear, so go for it. Enjoy your summer!

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#emilyoster #parentdata #pottytraining #pottytrainingtips #toddlertips

Looking for Memorial Day Weekend plans? Might be the perfect time to give potty training a shot. Potty training is notoriously difficult, and we unfortunately don’t have a lot of evidence-based guidance on what works best. So I asked the ParentData community to fill out a survey and share their knowledge — about 6,000 people responded.

👉Comment “Link” for a DM to an article that summarizes all of the best potty training advice we collected.

Remember, you are not alone in the potty training struggle! It can be incredibly challenging, so please give yourself some grace.

#emilyoster #parentdata #pottytraining #pottytrainingtips #toddlertips
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We’re hiring an Associate Editor at ParentData! More details at my link in bio. Please share with the great writers and data-loving people in your network. 📊💻

We’re hiring an Associate Editor at ParentData! More details at my link in bio. Please share with the great writers and data-loving people in your network. 📊💻 ...

Do you brand things a certain way to get your kid to accept it? Like calling carrots “rabbit popsicles”? Or telling them to put on their “super speed socks” in the morning? Share your rebrands in the comments below! You never know who you might be helping out 👇

#emilyoster #funnytweets #relatabletweets #parentingjokes #kidssaythedarndestthings

Do you brand things a certain way to get your kid to accept it? Like calling carrots “rabbit popsicles”? Or telling them to put on their “super speed socks” in the morning? Share your rebrands in the comments below! You never know who you might be helping out 👇

#emilyoster #funnytweets #relatabletweets #parentingjokes #kidssaythedarndestthings
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Have you ever panic-googled a parenting question when everyone else is asleep? If so, you’re not alone. 

Today is the first episode of a new biweekly series on my podcast: Late-Night Panic Google. On these mini-episodes, you’ll hear from some familiar names about the questions keeping them up at night, and how data can help. First up: @claireholt!

Listen and subscribe to ParentData with Emily Oster in your favorite podcast app 🎧

#parentdata #emilyoster #claireholt #parentingstruggles #parentingtips #latenightpanicgoogle

Have you ever panic-googled a parenting question when everyone else is asleep? If so, you’re not alone.

Today is the first episode of a new biweekly series on my podcast: Late-Night Panic Google. On these mini-episodes, you’ll hear from some familiar names about the questions keeping them up at night, and how data can help. First up: @claireholt!

Listen and subscribe to ParentData with Emily Oster in your favorite podcast app 🎧

#parentdata #emilyoster #claireholt #parentingstruggles #parentingtips #latenightpanicgoogle
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Sun safety is a must for all ages, especially babies! Here are my tips for keeping your littlest ones protected in the sunshine:
☀️ Most importantly, limit their time out in hot weather. (They get hotter than you do!)
☀️ Keep them in the shade as much as possible when you’re out.
☀️ Long-sleeve but lightweight clothing is your friend, especially on the beach, where even in the shade you can get sunlight reflecting off different surfaces.
☀️ If you want to add a little sunscreen on their hands and feet? Go for it! But be mindful as baby skin tends to more prone to irritation.

Comment “Link” for a DM to an article on the data around sun and heat exposure for babies.

#sunsafety #babysunscreen #babyhealth #parentdata #emilyoster

Sun safety is a must for all ages, especially babies! Here are my tips for keeping your littlest ones protected in the sunshine:
☀️ Most importantly, limit their time out in hot weather. (They get hotter than you do!)
☀️ Keep them in the shade as much as possible when you’re out.
☀️ Long-sleeve but lightweight clothing is your friend, especially on the beach, where even in the shade you can get sunlight reflecting off different surfaces.
☀️ If you want to add a little sunscreen on their hands and feet? Go for it! But be mindful as baby skin tends to more prone to irritation.

Comment “Link” for a DM to an article on the data around sun and heat exposure for babies.

#sunsafety #babysunscreen #babyhealth #parentdata #emilyoster
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