Learn some book picks for children of all ages from Mary Elizabeth Shaw, a reading specialist and the founder of Busy Bee Literacy. She also shares the best way to promote literacy with young children and how to make reading fun! This local Mom grew up in Wilton, where she and her family currently live. They are moving to Darien soon, which happens to be her husband’s hometown.
How many kids do you have and what are their ages/grades?
We have a two-year-old daughter who is full of energy and keeps us on our toes!
What brought you to town?
My husband grew up in Darien and I grew up in Wilton. When we left New York City we knew we wanted to be back near family.
What’s your favorite family activity?
Our favorite family activity is definitely a trip to the beach. My husband loves to fish and our toddler likes to dig in the sand; it’s a win-win for everyone.
What led you to start Busy Bee Literacy and how long ago did you start the company?
I have been a reading specialist for the past eleven years. I received my masters in language and literacy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and initially worked with children with language-based learning disabilities at an independent school in Greenwich. Most recently, I coached teachers in best practices for teaching literacy at an independent school in Manhattan.
For the past four years I was working on my doctorate in educational leadership and between working on that degree and becoming a mom, I wanted to share my knowledge with others but also work for myself. With that, Busy Bee Literacy was born about two years ago! I offer educational consulting to parents curious about how to proceed with challenges their child may be facing in language and literacy development, and see students of all ages for one-on-one tutoring in reading and writing. Right now my favorite part is sharing literacy tips and tricks on my Instagram @busybeeliteracy.
What’s the best thing parents can do to promote literacy with young children?
The single most effective thing parents can do to promote literacy in young children is to read aloud with them and show them that reading is a fun activity. This means using silly voices and showing your excitement around reading! Beyond this, phonemic awareness is a precursor to reading and ideally preschoolers get lots of practice with this. Phonemic awareness is the ability to hear and manipulate sounds in spoken words. This skill is fundamental to mapping speech to print and helping children to learn to read. There are so many fun ways to develop phonemic awareness such as word and syllable counting and word play. Finally, although all children progress at different rates, early intervention for language and literacy development is important if you suspect your child is struggling. I always suggest speaking to your pediatrician first if you are concerned with their language and literacy development.
Favorite part about your job?
Definitely the kids! I’ve maintained relationships with so many of my students and families over the years; it’s really special. I have two students who I saw during their four years of high school who I still keep in touch with while they’re away at college. It’s also a great feeling empowering families so that they feel confident advocating for their child’s educational needs, and I love providing hands-on activities that make learning exciting.
Do you have any suggestions for parents on how they can help with distance learning?
Distance learning is uncharted territory for teachers, parents and students. It is an extremely challenging situation that is unique for each family based on parent work schedules and student needs. This is not a normal ‘homeschool’ situation. The top priority is that our kids feel safe and secure at home, and whatever we need to do to make that happen is okay. More screen time than usual is going to happen and that’s okay!
For our littlest learners, keeping learning fun is so important. If online learning is too overwhelming for them (or you), I remind parents that there are so many language and literacy opportunities in reading aloud, getting outside for a walk, cooking, doing laundry and other hands-on daily activities. Children need to maintain their sense of curiosity and excitement around education and most of the time that happens through hands-on learning. Encourage play! I love this Fred Rogers quote “Play is often talked about as if it were a break from serious learning, but for children play is serious learning.” Children learn about cooperation, problem solving, asking questions and so much more through play. Next, having a routine is helpful for all ages because it lets everyone know what to expect, and for older kids it allows them some sense of control and independence over their learning.
For older students, a designated workspace, a daily agenda and a timer can all help them to feel more independent. An agenda does not need to be complicated, but it allows students to practice some important executive function skills where they make a list of the work they have to complete and put an estimate of how long they think each item will take. Next, they set the timer for each task. Some kids will suddenly realize that they need a lot more or less time for certain tasks and it helps them to prioritize work. This is an important life skill in general, and can help with their ability to organize.
Finally, as I mentioned, this is all new for teachers too. If you feel your child needs something different, I would kindly provide that feedback to the teacher. As a teacher I would like to know what is working and what isn’t during a time like this. Finally, this is a time for flexibility and grace with everyone we encounter including ourselves. If you’ve been crying over distance learning and need a laugh, Google Jim Gaffigan Lessons from “Distance Learning.”
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten from another mom?
The best advice was this: ‘You are the expert on your child, you know them best.’ This advice gave me some much-needed confidence as a new mom.
How do you unwind when you need some “me time?”
Right now, getting outside by myself for a walk and a phone call with a friend helps me to recharge.
Any words to live by?
‘Flexible routine, not a rigid schedule.’ This has helped me throughout years of teaching, and now parenting.
We love getting book ideas for children and for ourselves! Can you share some favorites?
Any tips to get kids reading during this time—and at different ages/levels?
Having a cozy reading space even if it’s just a special pillow to read on can make reading feel like more of a treat. Also, allowing your child to have a certain snack they enjoy or a hot chocolate can also make reading seem like a more ‘special’ activity.
I know this is a tough one right now, and I have a hard time suggesting it because I don’t do it at the moment, but modeling reading for your kids is important. If you can take a few minutes to sit down with a book (sounds like such a luxury!) it shows kids of any age that reading is important and can be an enjoyable relaxing activity and not just something we tell them to do. Lastly, don’t shy away from audiobooks. Audiobooks can help tremendously with reading comprehension because the reader uses the correct intonation and expression with characters that some developing readers may miss on their own. Many libraries are offering free audio downloads right now, and audiobooks are a great way to get reluctant readers interested.
Favorite books for pre-school children? Elementary school children?
It’s hard to narrow them down…
Pete the Cat I love My White Shoes by, Eric Litwin; Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by, Mo Willems; Land Shark by, Beth Ferry; Bear Says Thanks by, Karma Wilson; If you Give a Moose a Muffin and the rest in this series by Laura Numeroff; and finally all Todd Parr books!
Elementary Favorites: The Most Magnificent Thing by, Ashley Spires; the I Survived Series by, Laura Tarshis, the Clementine Series by, Sara Pennypacker. I also love graphic novels for reluctant readers as there are so many opportunities for comprehension skills such as making inferences: The Narwhal and Jelly Book series by, Ben Clanton; Anne of Green Gables: a Graphic Novel, and Nancy Drew Graphic Novels.
Do you have a good book series to recommend for tweens and teens?
For teens and tweens a lot depends on reading ability and also parent comfort with the content but some suggestions are: Percy Jackson by, Rick Riordan; Land of Stories by, Chris Colfer; City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau, Wings of Fire by Tui Sutherland, The Unwanteds by, Lisa McMann.
Any book suggestions for families to read aloud?
Yes! Family read alouds are great because it allows lower level readers to access more complicated text. If reading aloud sounds exhausting right now, you can also do a family ‘listen’ where you put on an audiobook for everyone to listen to together. Some of my favorites for this purpose are: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlotte’s Web, The Tale of Despereaux, Matilda and The Borrowers.
Can you share some learning apps that are useful?
Reading, Spelling, Phonics and Sight Words:
Homer is subscription based and has a step by step literacy learning program for children ages 2-8 years, Nessy Apps, Reading Egg and Starfall.
Spelling City, Rocket Spelling, Word Wizard
Yum Yum Letters, Ollie’s Handwriting
What are some must-reads for parents needing an escape right now?
I recently listened to Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen and that was one of my favorite books to listen to because the reader did an amazing job with different character voices. I wish I had other ‘fun’ reads to suggest right now, but some books I’ve recently read that I’ve enjoyed are, The Montessori Toddler, The Whole Brainchild, and Nurture Shock. I highly recommend all of them for some insight into child behavior and brain development!