POTTSTOWN PA – A young mother, carrying her infant daughter, walks into the Robinson Street offices of Community Health and Dental Care. She’s smiling, in part because the dental services she’s received there have made her proud to show off her bright profile. She’s happy, too, because her baby, only weeks old, is about to be given a new source of pride: her first books.
The infant won’t do much talking, of course; maybe she’ll manage a gurgle or two. But during the short appointment Mom will hear tips for, and ask questions on, reading to her young one. Years later, by the time that often-read-to-child and others like her begin attending school, scientific studies indicate they’ll have a vocabulary roughly three times greater than some of their peers.
John Zuchero and Ruth Fisher say that’s “Mother Goose power” in action.
Zuchero is a former New Hanover resident whose late wife, Sandy, was a special education teacher in the Pottstown School District. Fisher is well known to Pottsgrove School District parents, as the retired principal of West Pottsgrove and Lower Pottsgrove elementary schools. They and a team of other volunteers operate a non-profit corporation called “Mother Goose: Read To Me,” that promotes the benefits of reading to infants.
The dream of a Pottstown special education teacher
Mother Goose has grown substantially since 2013 when Sandy – who died two years later from a terminal illness – launched the organization. Community Health and Dental, now with several offices across Greater Pottstown, was an early partner, as was the Birthright Pregnancy Center on King Street.
Today, Mother Goose volunteers can be found filling appointments with gift books in hand at several area libraries, the YWCA Tri-County Area, and other medical offices locally and in Philadelphia. Before year’s end, another educational entity also expects to announce it will start working with Mother Goose.
“There are nice connections happening all over,” Zuchero, the non-profit’s president, reports. “As we get our name out, there are more partners interested in what we’re doing, and they end up telling us they know somebody else who can help.”
As a teacher, her husband explains, many connections inspired Sandy Zuchero; chief among them, those between her and students, between her and parents, and maybe most importantly, between parents and their children.
Sandy devoured research published during 2003 that suggested children who heard more words per hour spoken by their parents and others – those who regularly talked and read to them – by fourth grade enjoyed far higher reading comprehension and vocabulary levels. Children of professional families seemed to benefit most because they heard the most, the study showed; those in low- and middle-income families with less verbal interaction had poorer results.
The ground-breaking work by professors Betty Hart and Todd Risley, titled “The Early Catastrophe: The 30-Million Word Gap By Age 3,” motivated Sandy to open Mother Goose. It took time and resources. Ten years passed before the first volunteer appointment was scheduled, but things have progressed since.
The best ways to read to an infant
Reading specialists have stepped up, says Fisher, Mother Goose’s communications coordinator. “We have retired teachers as volunteers who are unbelievably good,” she happily reports. In the past year, across all its activities, Fisher notes the group touched more than 600 local families with a repeated message: “you’re never too young, and never too old, to be read to.”
The most recent research available echoes the refrain. Only four months ago, those attending the May 2017 meeting of the Pediatric Academic Societies in San Francisco heard results of a new study whose lead author, Dr. Carolyn Cates, said again shows “reading to young children, beginning even in early infancy, has a lasting effect on language, literacy and early reading skills.”
Sandy initially hoped to intensively train parents on reading, but many of them lacked time for longer sessions, according to Fisher. The training has evolved – “kind of morphed a little bit,” Zuchero acknowledges with a grin – so parents can receive more information more quickly, usually within a half-hour.
They’re shown best ways to read:
- That’s daily, even if only for a few minutes, with the baby on your lap.
- Parents are encouraged to point to and talk about pictures accompanying the story.
- Create voices for its characters, experts urge.
- Run a finger beneath the words while reading, allowing the baby to follow the movement and connect the text with the sounds they hear.
- Let the child turn the pages, too.
No expectations, no strings attached
“There are no expectations, no strings attached,” Fisher emphasizes, just the hope that Mom or Dad or both will start reading to their child. The group delivers three books, new or gently used, in layette kits for the infants. Then it follows up with another gift of three books at two months, and a third gift of a single book at six months.
Area churches have been supporters of Mother Goose, Zuchero says. Several have held drives to collect books in greatest demand, those with thick, easily grabbed pages, with large colorful images, and short sentences and paragraphs. Book publishers have donated too. Others have contributed time or financial support, both of which can be offered online.
Zuchero and Fisher say the organization continues to be grateful for all the help it’s received, but they contend there’s more thing that ultimately will boost what became Sandy’s consuming cause.
“Read to your kids,” they plead.
Photos from Mother Goose Read To Me, and by The Post Publications