But about 15 years ago, says McGinty, researchers like her started to look more closely at reading, trying to unpack exactly which behaviors helped children learn to read. In the process, she says, they discovered something surprising about the simple act of sitting down and reading a story through with a child. "It mattered a lot less than we thought it did," she says.
It's not that reading didn't help a child to learn. It helped to build a child's vocabulary, for example. But it didn't necessarily improve a child's ability to read, per se.
To figure out why, researchers embarked on a new round of studies — specifically, eye-tracking studies.
"What they would do is that they would put a child on their parent's lap, and then they would use some special equipment that allows them to pinpoint exactly where the children are looking at any given moment in time," says Shayne Piasta, a professor at Ohio State University.
They found that when you simply read a book to kids, they tend to ignore the print on the page. More than 90 percent of the time the children are focusing on the pictures, or they are looking up at the parent, she says.
Here, went the theory, was the answer: Learning to read is an incremental process; you become familiar with letters, then words; the practice of reading from left to right; and eventually you put all that together and begin to read. But if a child's attention isn't drawn to the printed word, then reading to a child won't necessarily make them more familiar with what it means to read.
And so new questions emerged. How could teachers change what children saw and thought about when a book was being read? And how much difference would that make? If disadvantaged children who often have reading troubles were made to think more about print at a very young age, would they become better readers later on?
It is hard to imagine that such a small adjustment would make any difference. It was a series of moments, questions and gestures.