As literacy lags nationwide, Purdue researcher highlights ways to enhance reading and writing in young children

Written By: Rebecca Hoffa,

A mother holds a book in front of her baby, who looks at it intently.

A text message from a friend. A product label at the grocery store. A street sign. Even in the most basic elements of day-to-day life, reading is everywhere.

Cammie McBride, professor in the Purdue University Department of Human Development and Family Science and associate dean for research in the College of Health and Human Sciences, has dedicated her career to taking a global approach toward understanding how children learn to read, exploring literacy across English and Chinese languages, among others.

“Children need to learn to read and write because it helps us navigate our environments,” McBride said. “If we can’t read, that’s more difficult. If you look worldwide, illiteracy is correlated with gross domestic product and the learning of a country’s people.”

Cammie McBride headshot

Cammie McBride

From contributing to a massive open online course (MOOC) titled “Teaching Struggling Readers Around the World” to developing new resources and screening capabilities, McBride’s developmental psychology approach toward literacy ranges from cognitive linguistics, or how the brain processes language, to the relationships among parents, children and teachers and how those influence reading and writing.

McBride also serves as a co-lead on a $1.5 million grant to strengthen literacy preparation for Indiana teachers using science-based methods.

“My whole career, I’ve tried to look at how children read in different aspects,” McBride said. “I’m really interested in: Does reading develop from birth or before birth even? There are lots of aspects that go into reading that start at the very beginning. I’ve always been interested in those developmental models.”

McBride noted that one of her most interesting research findings has been enhancing understanding of a new cognitive-linguistic skill that has a direct impact for reading in Chinese as well as vocabulary in English, Dutch and other languages. The task requires children to put together morphemes, or the smallest unit of meaning in language, in ways that make sense. For example, if a teacher or parent gave the example that the sun going down in the sky is called a sunset and then asked the child what the moon going down in the sky would be called, the expectation would be the child would answer “moonset.” They’re putting together smaller units in ways that make sense.

“I think this task is really useful because we can test vocabulary to improve vocabulary, but this is another way, which is a focus on morphemes and how they come together,” McBride said. “If you understand how to put these together to make new aspects of meaning, you tend to be a better reader in Chinese, but also, this is a really good way to test for kids’ vocabulary development over time in every language. It’s a fun task — kids love to do that.”

McBride uses cognitive-linguistic skills like the example above in her research to understand methods for assessing children’s literacy and training teachers and families in what children need to learn to read. In order to read, McBride explained children must develop both oral language, such as vocabulary and forming sentences, as well as an understanding of print, such as understanding letters and their sounds. She explained that assessing children’s literacy skills early is important to keep them on track in their reading and writing development.

“These cognitive-linguistic skills are things we use in assessment and training,” McBride said. “Most 3- and 4-year-olds cannot read, and it would be weird to try to test them with reading materials before they can read, but you need to catch them quickly so that they don’t have a sense of failure and are always trying to catch up. If you test them at 3, 4 or 5 on cognitive-linguistic skills, this often can be a good way to determine if they’re at risk for reading difficulties and then give them some tools to help them improve.”

McBride mentioned dialogic reading is an effective tool parents can use to build up their child’s language skills. Rather than simply reading a book and looking at the pictures or testing the child on knowledge presented in the book, dialogic reading turns the process of reading into a conversation. Parents can ask open-ended questions, such as what the child thinks will happen next or if they’ve ever had a similar situation happen to them. The goal is to encourage two-sided communication.

If the child is struggling with reading, McBride’s go-to piece of advice is giving them more practice. While the same learning methods still can be effective with students who have a learning disorder, such as dyslexia, they may need to put more time and energy into practicing the reading process. McBride suggested literacy-based video games as a great tool to help children master literacy skills they may be struggling with. The important thing to keep in mind is to avoid burning the child out on reading.

“Keep it light because the other part of reading besides oral language and print is motivation,” McBride said. “You don’t want to get kids to feel like they’re being tested early; you want them to get interested themselves.”

After various nationwide setbacks toward literacy resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, McBride is currently looking to take her research one step further by making literacy tests, which screen for children’s risks for reading problems and often are expensive and require a licensed educational psychologist to administer, more accessible. Her most recent work is focusing on the development of affordable online tests for children and families — a significant step in continuing to improve children’s reading preparation.

“If we want to understand if children are maybe at risk for reading and writing problems early, it’s good to have tests that can help us to determine that,” McBride said.