Reading for Our Lives: Interview with Literacy Advocate Maya Payne Smart

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Maya Payne Smart
“READING FOR OUR LIVES: A Literacy Action Plan from Birth to Six” is a new book by parent educator and literacy advocate Maya Payne Smart.



READING FOR OUR LIVES: A Literacy Action Plan from Birth to Six” is a new book by parent educator and literacy advocate Maya Payne Smart that sheds light on America’s current literacy crisis and ways to remedy it.

Approximately one in six US adults struggles with low literacy and those who are functionally illiterate have a harder time finding good jobs and securing a high quality of life. Considering that 36 million U.S. adults can’t compare and contrast written information, make low-level inferences, or locate information within a multipart document, parent educator and literacy advocate Maya Payne Smart decided to research the roots of such problems. Her book draws on the latest research into literacy and language development. Notably, the brain architecture for reading develops rapidly during infancy, and early language experiences are critical to building it. Hence, parents should read to children from day one and, as the grow, continue reading to them with nurturing, supportive, back-and-forth verbal engagement.  Actionable strategies and engaging reading activities for parents include:

  • The TALK Method to help even the quietest parents make nourishing conversation with babies and young children (pages 96-98)
  • Critical milestones along the path to literacy from birth through early elementary school so parents can monitor kids’ progress and help them get to their next level (pages 39-60)
  • The top six parent levers for literacy—conversation, book reading, teaching, connecting, budgeting, and advocacy—and how to use them (pages 17-38)
  • How to use physical objects and gestures to enhance lessons about sounds (pages 131-132)
  • How to talk about letters (pages 149-150) and spur key reading leaps, including boosting oral vocabulary, discerning sounds in words, grasping the form and function of print, mastering letters, mapping print to sound, and making meaning of it all

Maya also explores the role of technology, socioeconomic status, and race in reading development and the impact of the pandemic on learning. Her goal is to help parents learn how to nurture, teach, and advocate for their children on the road to reading. Her website, MayaSmart.com, publishes new book lists, literacy activities, and free family resources weekly. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from the Medill School at Northwestern University and a bachelor’s degree in social studies with honors from Harvard University. She serves as affiliated faculty in Educational Policy and Leadership in the College of Education at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Maya recently discussed her career and book via an exclusive interview.

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your love for literacy and why did you decide to enter into the academic field?

Maya Payne Smart (MPS): My mom was a big reader, I grew up surrounded by books, and I’m named after Maya Angelou, so reading and writing have been central to my life for as long as I can remember. It was only in adulthood, really, that I discovered that literacy is a gift. It came easily to me, so I wasn’t aware of how hard the skill is to attain for most and how many millions of people never get there. I decided to write Reading for Our Lives: A Literacy Action Plan from Birth to Six so that more parents could do their part to nurture literacy in the years before kids get to school. The earlier parents start talking with kids, reading with them, and attending to language and literacy milestones, the better. I began serving as affiliated faculty in educational policy and leadership at Marquette University to help connect teacher education and parent education. We’re all partners in kids’ development.

MM: When and why did you start focusing on low literacy?

MPS: When my daughter was young, I was disturbed by news reports I read that described vast disparities between students of different races and socioeconomic statuses. I wondered how it could be that performance gaps emerged so early and remained so persistent over time. In particular, the notion that kindergarteners could enter formal education and be labeled “behind” from the start didn’t sit well with me. I wanted to uncover the roots of those disparities and put a literacy action plan in place to dismantle them.

MM: What most surprised you about the state of functional illiteracy in America and its causes?

MPS: I’m continually amazed by how many millions of American adults don’t have the basic reading skills required to navigate everyday life, let alone thrive. In my book, I cite the statistic that 36 million U.S adults can’t compare and contrast written information, make low-level inferences from a text, or locate content within a multi-part document. It turns out that’s a conservative estimate. When I appeared on CBS Mornings, the anchors referenced more recent U.S. Department of Education data that says more than half of U.S. adults—about 130 million people—read below a sixth grade level. Those numbers are staggering. I believe there are two primary contributing reasons for this low literacy. One, we don’t equip parents to lay a strong language, literacy, and learning foundation in the years before school. Two, we don’t effectively train teachers and tutors to deliver high-quality reading instruction and interventions during the school years. It’s a double whammy, and I was shocked by the depths of our national inattention to both root causes.

MM: As a mother, what did you find most useful when you taught your own children to read?

MPS: I have one daughter and she learned to read with the support of a village, including us, her parents; grandmothers; caregivers; and teachers. As a mom, it was most useful to know that I didn’t have to have all of the answers or do all of the work alone. I benefited greatly from knowing that others could help by also reading with her, teaching her about letters and print, and conversing with her in ways that bolstered her vocabulary. Reading for Our Lives is filled with research, ideas, and activities that I wish I had known sooner so that I could have felt confident about teaching my daughter. Happily, she got what she needed, I learned “on the job,” and I was able to package the best findings to jumpstart other parents’ raise-a-reader journeys.

MM: How long did it take you to develop the concepts in your book that improve reading?

MPS: Years! I began thinking and learning about these issues when my daughter was a toddler, reading news articles and academic research, and documenting my ideas. When she was in early elementary school, I began interviewing experts across disciplines, from education and speech and language pathology to psychology and neuroscience, to better understand their research and drill down to practical applications for parents. The book launched the month before she began middle school, so it was at least seven years in the making.

MM: How long did it take you to write this book?

MPS: Although my research brewed longer, the focused work of writing the book in its current format took a solid two years. When Covid-19 shut the world down in March of 2020, I felt a great sense of urgency about sharing what I had learned with other parents. So many moms and dads were quarantining at home and feeling inadequate to meet their children’s educational needs. I wanted to share the good news that although the academic research underpinning my recommendations is complicated, the actual things parents need to do are simple and doable. Even parents with low literacy levels or confidence themselves can provide young children with critical vocabulary and background knowledge.

MM: What’s your favorite part of the book and why?

MPS: My favorite part of the book is the introduction, because it hammers home the urgency of taking literacy more seriously as a society and the primacy of parents in laying a strong foundation for it in children’s earliest years. It is also very personal for me, because it’s the place in the book where I share more of my own story of navigating early motherhood without a roadmap.

MM: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

MPS: I hope readers walk away from Reading for Our Lives with a sense of urgency and confidence to nurture reading from birth. With my step-by-step guide to early literacy in hand, they should feel equipped and inspired to do the work in the time they already spend with the children in their lives.

MM: What are your ultimate career goals?

MPS: My ultimate career goal is to help thousands of parents excel as children’s first teachers. As David Spangler says, “…the fate of our world rests in the laps of parents. The way we raise our children opens up or closes off possibilities that will shape our future.” I can think of nothing more important than helping parents understand how pivotal their love, care, and conversation is in the early years of life.

MM: What projects are coming up for you soon?

MPS: Beyond the book, I’m building up a bank of free family literacy resources on my website. Parents can also become a MayaSmart.com VIP—a Very Intentional Parent—and get access to a library of free downloads and printables that includes loads of ready-made activities, inspiration, and seasonal and holiday-themed crafts and games. As a VIP, they’ll also get my weekly email newsletter, which delivers book lists, games, and more to help parents foster literacy, love, and learning.

MM: Is there anything else that you would like to mention?

MPS: I really love building community around these important issues of literacy and parenting the next generation to thrive. I hope that parents, caregivers, and supporters will join me and let me know their thoughts.