This week on The Preschool Podcast, we are excited to welcome Judy Newman, Executive Vice President and President of Scholastic Book Clubs. We discuss the importance of reading and literacy skills in early childhood education, along with the United States of Readers program, how it came about, its mission, and its vision for the future. Additionally, we touch upon how this program is also created to support educators, and what Scholastic is doing to support the participating educators throughout the year.
When children are exposed to books, reading, and words, not only do they learn to grow their vocabulary but they develop their identity through reading and see themselves in books. When they are exposed to books at a very young age they develop strong literacy skills. Reading is a predictor of additional skill development as they grow. Having positive associations with books (there is not one right or wrong way to read), books become a happy place and bring joy, connectivity, love, warmth, and identity development. Books can be a part of who children are.
Tips for reading with young children
Ideally, throughout the day children are exposed to books. Then, for families, bedtime is a perfect time to have some dedicated reading together. Turn the screens off and cozy up with a book. It is a great way to transition out of the day. It does not have to be a specific amount of hours or structured. Let the child lead.
At Scholastic, they publish books for every child, every identity, that is their mission. Children can see themselves reflected in books as mirrors. They can also learn about others and their situations through books.
Judy’s recommended resources
- Judy’s blog
- Literacy and the Youngest Learner: Best Practices for Educators of Children from Birth to 5
Podcast episode transcript
That familiarity with books, that love of books, that it’s not threatening, that there’s not one right or wrong way to read or to pronounce the words correctly. And you can just sit on a grown-up’s lap as a little kid and look at the pictures and identify. And then books become a happy thing.
Judy, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!
Hi, Ron. Thanks so much for having me!
We’re very delighted to have on the show with us today Judy Newman from Scholastic, a name that I’m sure most of our listeners are familiar with. Judy, you’re the executive vice president and president of Scholastic Book Clubs. Tell us why you chose that career path.
Yeah, it’s a good question. And I always like to add another part to my title, which is “Reader in Chief”, because I think it signals not only the corporate side of it, but really my passion, which is how I got into this, which is trying to connect kids to books that they love to read, to become great leaders. So yeah, I mean, I started, I was always a reader as a kid. I loved books, loved to compete in the Newton, [Massachusetts], where I grew up, reading program. And then just kept following my heart, really, and my business training, and got into publishing.
And [I] then had an opportunity to start a children’s book club to compete with Scholastic, called the Trumpet Club, way back in the 80’s. And so I learned the business inside and out because I started one. And then eventually I came to Scholastic. And since then we’ve just been working with teachers – 750,000 teachers across the United States. And then there are other book clubs across the world with Scholastic to help their kids find books that they choose to read and then become readers who love to read and develop their literacy, which, as you know, is so important.
Yes, and it’s certainly a topic we’ve covered a fair bit on the Preschool Podcast, just the importance of literacy in the early years. But we’d love to hear from you firsthand in your role. Why you, and of course, Scholastic more broadly, feel that reading to children and getting children reading at an early age is so important.
Yeah, and I’ve known this as a publisher and as a book club person and as a reader in chief, for decades, we see it that when kids are exposed to books and reading and words, not only do they learn to love books and learn to build their vocabulary and learn to have nice moments with caregivers or with teachers, they develop identity through reading and they can see themselves in books.
And I have a granddaughter and I’m watching her point to things in picture books and that connects to her world. And so I’ve known that a practical point of view for many years. And as I’ve told you, I just decided to go back to Harvard, to the Graduate School of Education, to learn the pedagogical support behind that. And so what we know from research is that when kids are exposed to books and reading at a very young age – really at a very young age, even at birth or before birth – they develop better reading skills and a better love of books. And their literacy develops much better.
Yeah, and I love that you’re living what your you’re preaching, in terms of going back to school and learning. And especially from the perspective of the Preschool Podcast, one of the things we really love to touch on is being able to get the right balance of applying research in science, in early-childhood education, in the classroom, practically and pragmatically. And so it’s great to hear of a leader in an area that’s working with early-childhood education that is really taking that to heart. I really love that and really appreciate that. I’m sure our audience does, as well.
One of the things you touched on a little bit there is just sort of like this concept of a love of reading. So, obviously part of literacy is the mechanics of learning how to read and knowing how to read words on a page. But another part is sort of this love of reading. Can you talk to us a little bit more about that connection with reading and what that means and why that also could be an important element, above and beyond just mechanically being able to read?
Yeah, and it’s a great point, marrying the research and the practice. And that’s really all of our challenge. And we know that, for your listeners will love this, that we know that when kids start out reading very early, they develop that love of reading. And it’s a predictor, a really strong predictor of reading skills and what it means to be a good reader.
And so if you’re just sort of grinding away… and there’s a lot of controversy about this. There are either people who believe in the science of reading, which is that kids particularly who don’t necessarily have a lot of the same background need to understand phonics and phonemic awareness. And I don’t disagree with that, necessarily. But at the same time, having positive associations about books, particularly for caregivers and families upon whom reading to kids is dependent.
I mean, at the beginning, people have to, grown-ups have to expose little guys to books, that familiarity with books, that love of books, that it’s not threatening, that there’s not one right or wrong way to read or to pronounce the words correctly. And you can just sit on a grown-up’s lap as a little kid and look at the pictures and identify.
And then books become a happy thing. They don’t become a dreaded subject or something that’s intimidating or making you feel bad or unsuccessful. Something that brings joy and connectivity and love and warmth and identity development, really. And this is something I’m working on more in the academic side of my brain. How do we talk about identity development through picture books, particularly with little kids, and make books just a part of who they are and how they see themselves as readers? And that comes from joy, not from skill and drill, really.
Yeah, I think that’s just such an important point. And how you positioned it in terms of having that positive connection with books and with reading makes so much sense. I know my kids certainly love watching TV shows, but they also luckily love reading and they love books. And so it’s great to know that when they see books, they love getting into them. And we’ve been able to make a bit of a habit out of that, I think, with our bedtime routine.
Speaking of which, that’s something that’s worked well for us as parents. Do you have any tips or suggestions for folks out there for reading with young children and getting their young children more into books and reading?
Yeah, I mean, I think ideally in the middle of the day or at lunch you’d have a book along. But parents are busy and they have jobs. And so it’s hard to do that in the middle of the day. Obviously, teachers and preschool directors need to make sure that the kids are exposed to books and completely enveloped in books during the day. But for families and caregivers at night, bedtime is a perfect time because everyone’s there, hopefully. And it’s a great way to sort of turn the screens off, which we know from all kinds of research is important for kids to get a good night’s sleep.
And then just cozy up in bed or your favorite chair or wherever and read a book. And that’s just a lovely way to transition, end the day, have a moment together. And it doesn’t have to be hours and it doesn’t have to be particularly structured. And it doesn’t have to be a particular book. It can be whatever book the kids love. I mean, my granddaughter went through a period where she only wanted Goodnight Moon [by Margaret Wise Brown] for like, three months. And so she just read it to her over and over and over again. So, let the child lead and just make it a fun, warm kind of bedtime. It’s just a perfect time to end the day with a book.
And that’s absolutely what we found. The only problem that we run into sometimes is that one book turns into two, turns into three, turns into seven.
But that should be the worst problem. When my kids were little, I used to bring home stacks of picture books from the office that I had to read. So of course, I would take them into bed and start reading. And by the third book, I’d be asleep with them. And they’d be pulling on me, “Wake up, wake up!” But yeah, I mean, that’s a great thing to happen, actually.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s a good problem, for sure. Much better than trying to pull your children out from in front of a TV, that’s for sure. And so I understand that Scholastic has this new program, it’s called United States of Readers. Can you tell us what that’s all about?
Yeah, sure. I mean, when I came to Scholastic – and really for all my career – I’ve been working on this book club model, which is the fliers that go into the classrooms. And I think a lot of your listeners probably remember that with joy and that moment of circling the books and the empowerment of choosing the books you want and having them delivered to the classroom.
But what we were finding over the years is that, increasingly, teachers were having to buy the books for the kids out of their own pocket. And a lot of kids couldn’t participate – there were budgetary constraints at home or various other issues. And so it just started to bother me so much.
And so I said, “You know what? Obviously Scholastic Book Clubs keeps going. It’s a very important part of Scholastic. But let’s create a version of this program that’s funded, that’s a nonprofit. It will actually sort of exist a little bit separately from Scholastic, but will have a service agreement with Scholastic. And let’s do it so that it’s funded. And there’s no prices on the fliers and every kid in the class can participate. And the teacher doesn’t have to feel the pressure to support the kids purchasing.”
So, we launched it with the amazing generosity of James Patterson, the brilliant and prolific author, who I’m sure you’ve heard of. He gave us a grant last year, which is just renewed for this year. And we were able to launch this pilot of a school in every state because it is called the United States of Readers. And we are trying to signal unity and voice together and talking together.
So, we have one school in every state. These are high Title 1 schools, kids living in poverty, not a lot of resources in the school. And typically they have very low reading proficiency scores, which I think are pretty shocking, actually, when you look at it stepping back. And so we’re in 80 schools, at least one in every state and 1400 teachers and 32,000 kids. And we’re just finishing up our pilot year and we’re excited about next year.
And so this gives kids a chance – every kid in the class, every kid in the school, really – to choose ten books a year. We do five cycles, two books each time. And we’re hearing from the field that even though the teachers, which I’m sure are so busy – and particularly post-pandemic, they’re just crushed with work – they’re still so happy to participate in this program because they see the joy when every kid in the class is getting their two books that they chose.
So we’re very pumped, very motivated. We’re excited for year two. We’re going to go out and start raising money to keep this going and use Patterson’s generosity as the kickoff and work with Scholastic Book Clubs. And it’s just a beautiful partnership in every way.
Yeah, it’s phenomenal. And to think of the impact that that might have on those children. Again, if they build that love of reading early, it can be life-changing. I think it really can.
Yeah, and I always worry if I’m a little bit in an echo chamber. But now I’m at school. And so a doctoral student approached me – unsolicited, really. And she said she wants to do her dissertation on the pre-K to second grade or third grade kids. And she wants to run a study whereby she’ll create support materials for families in different languages to support the literacy and to support the books that the kids bring home.
So, she’s going to run this study – and we’re meeting with her later today, actually – where she’d have a control group where the kids just have the books, which is amazing. And then have a group where the parents or caregivers have literacy supports. And we’re going to see if we can turn the knob on that and make a difference. Because bridging the school-to-home connection and bringing the families and caregivers into the conversation is a huge goal, as well. So, we’re so excited. And when a Harvard doctoral student knocks on your door and says, “I want to do my dissertation on your program,” we’re like, “Okay.” It feels very great.
Yeah, that’s wonderful. So, the United States of Readers program is going to help get more books in the hands of young children, which is phenomenal. Which brings me to a next question that I have, which is around the content of Scholastic Books that are going out. And this is relevant to a recent conversation on the Preschool Podcast that I was having with somebody about global citizenship. And you mentioned earlier that it’s really helpful for children to sort of feel a sense of identity with characters and books and this type of thing. Can you tell the audience a little bit about what Scholastic is doing to ensure sort of the quality of content in the books that are coming out?
Sure. I mean, this is a hot, political topic, as I’m sure you know, in the United States. Scholastic’s mission – and I can speak for book clubs – but overall Scholastic publishes books for every child, every identity, every interest. And so that’s our mission, it’s always been our mission. And that’s the Scholastic publishing side of the company.
And then in the book clubs, we are committed, and particularly in the United States of Readers, we are committed to offering books for every child, every family, every caregiver so kids can see themselves reflected, as you know, from Rudine Sims Bishop’s work, [Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Glass Doors]. And so we want kids to see themselves reflected through mirrors. And we want [them] to see through windows, learn about other kids and other situations in the world around them. And then just open up their world through books. So, we want every child to be represented.
Yeah, that’s wonderful and great to hear. And as especially as coming from being a CEO of a company that’s a social enterprise, hearing from an executive like yourself, a company like Scholastic that has such a big reach, the fact that you’re all thinking about those things and care about those things I think is just so important and so great to hear.
Before we wrap up today here, Judy, just a couple other questions. First of all, for our audience, we want to continue to provide them with opportunities to continue their learning and growth, whether through reading or otherwise. Any professional development resources you might recommend to our audience – whether that be a podcast, blog, website, book, etc. – that they can check out?
Yeah, it’s a good question. If you go to www.Scholastic.com, there are resources for teachers and for families, also. So, we have a professional publishing division that does a lot of great publishing and you’ll see specific titles there. And we have a blog, it’s Scholastic Book Clubs, JudyNewman@Scholastic.com, very subtle.
And each week we choose a title and we create all kinds of support materials, videos, teacher tips, some activities for kids to use the books one book at a time. And they’re pretty fun. And really, anybody can use them. And you can also get the book for a dollar for a week, which is a nice opportunity, particularly for teachers. So, I urge people to check out that blog, JudyNewman@Scholastic.com. And yeah, I think you can explore in the www.Scholastic.com website, you’ll find a lot of options there.
Very cool. And if folks want to learn a little bit more about the United States of Readers program, where can they go to get more information about that?
Yeah, www.UnitedScholastic.com/UnitedStatesOfReaders. And there’ll be a spot to put down information about a school that people might want to nominate to join the program and just some background information.
Wonderful. What a great, great program. And thank you so much for coming on the Preschool Podcast with us, Judy, to share more about it and more about your background and what’s happening at Scholastic. Obviously reading and literacy is so important and great to see Scholastic taking a role there with the United States of Readers program.
Yeah. Thanks, Ron. I’ll just end by quoting Catherine Snow, who is a professor here. And everybody is going to be sick of hearing me quote Harvard. But she says, “Every other thing that leaders undertake is less important than making sure kids learn how to read.” And I second that; and I know you did, too; and I know your listeners do, too. Because if kids can’t read, they can’t do math, they can’t do science, they can’t do tech, they can’t do anything. So, we’ve got to get everybody reading. And loving reading is the place to start.
100%, that’s a great quote and a great way to end the Podcast today. Thanks so much, Judy!