One-on-one interaction is the key to early child development

  Dr. G. Pat Wilson, associate professor of the School of Education at University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee. 

Dr. G. Pat Wilson, associate professor of the School of Education at University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee. 

Many new parents are concerned with their infant’s physical needs and might be missing out on the rapid brain development quietly taking shape as babies try to unravel the world around them. While research indicates that reading to children from day one can have positive lifelong effects on learning and comprehension, it’s the one-on-one interaction inherent in sharing stories that is crucial.

Dr. G. Pat Wilson, associate professor of the School of Education at University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, has been a special education teacher, reading specialist and elementary grade teacher. More recently, she has become a member of the Strategies Committee for the Manatee County Campaign for Grade Level Reading, an effort that focuses on getting kids to read at grade level by third grade.

What do many parents misunderstand about early learning and reading?

Sometimes, as a parent you’re thinking, “they’ll learn at school.” But without parents, school isn’t enough. Especially when there are summers or reasons for absenteeism. Parents need to know the importance of keeping their kids in touch with words and ideas and keep them engaged. They’re little geniuses wired for learning.

What can parents do to get kids to read and build language skills?

All the kinds of things you do in talking to your child and pointing things out, those moments are so powerful in building language. It’s all about interaction.

Start from day one. Don’t think they don’t understand. They may not understand individual words, but they understand you’re talking to them, they know your tone. It doesn’t have to be formal.

Many parents don’t realize that even though their child isn’t talking, they’re absorbing and discerning and learning rhythm. Even in the womb baby hears the music of language. They know it. After they’re born, they associate your words with the music they heard in the womb and they start to hear the individual words and as they grow and acquire language, the growth is exponential. When the environment is language-rich, we pick up the patterns of language, the more interaction, the more growth. We’re really geared and born to learn to language.

Is reading the silver bullet for lifelong learning?

If you think there’s one formula, you don’t recognize the power of other actions. Part of it is helping parents and caregivers enjoy language and reading and sharing that. We can’t say that going to the grocery store and pointing out things isn’t valuable.

Reading for 15 minutes a day may not beat that out. All of these moments combined….it’s all literacy.

So talk while you’re fixing dinner. Those moments count.

Making connections between concrete experiences in everyday life and words on a page or a picture in a book makes it easier for kids to learn comprehension. Point out plants, then read about them or find them in a picture and talk about them.

Words on a page, on their own can sometimes be too abstract for certain learners. Dr. James Gee, a literacy expert, said “you’re not gonna understand something if you only read. You only understand stuff to the depth of your experience.”

On the power of language

I think children need to realize through words, they control a bit of their environment. If they say “Mama,” they get your attention. They learn that their language is an important way for them to understand their world. It gives them a voice. When I say something, there’s a response. There’s security in that.

It’s gotta be really hard for kids who cry and there’s no response. It’s all about interaction.

The number of local kids found not to be proficient in language arts by the 4th grade hovers around 40 percent. Does that surprise you?

It always surprises me and this is one point of data we look at with the Suncoast Campaign for Grade Level Reading to spur efforts in bringing kids to the reading level they should be at in their development. But one of the big things to remember is that they measure reading proficiency on a scale. It doesn’t mean you’re not reading, or are illiterate or can’t learn. It’s a continuum.

For instance, a lot of low income kids progress during the school year, but during the summer when they’re not using the tools, they may start to slide back. By the end of 3rd grade, if you keep sliding back, it’s really hard to make up those gains. That’s why getting young students on track is the best way to improve those numbers.

We talk about reading at grade level by a certain grade or age, but is it ever too late?


There’s a reading recovery program designed for 1st graders that’s been implemented at Tuttle Elementary and some other elementary schools. It’s one-on-one, half an hour a day with the most read-needy kids. You talk about words, read stories, do writing.

We took the model and applied it to a high school student, and after a year he made gains.

It’s not ever too late. But it’s definitely reason to pause and intervene.


Contact Dr. Wilson at

To find out more about Sarasota and Manatee reading programs, contact

The Early Learning Coalition and/or

Sarasota and Manatee county Libraries.

Contact Lisa Fisher at to learn more about the Reading Recovery program at some elementary schools.