Advancing Literacy

Professor Promotes Building Pre-Reading Skills in Young Children

Publication Date: 04/20/2020

Although literacy is an important part of a student’s success in school and throughout life, nearly 130 million youth across the world lack basic reading and writing skills, according to United Nations estimates.

Dr. Kouider Mokhtari, UT Tyler’s Anderson-Vukelja-Wright Endowed Professor of Literacy Education, has dedicated his career to advancing literacy through teaching, research and outreach, with a particular focus on building early language and literacy skills in preschool and elementary school children.

In his research dissemination efforts, Mokhtari most recently spoke to practitioners, researchers and policymakers from more than 70 countries about the importance of investing in early childhood learning and literacy, as a keynote speaker for the 33rd International Congress for School Effectiveness and Improvement (ICSEI 2020). Held in various international locations, the conference was in Marrakech, Morocco, this year.

Mokhtari finds that most reading problems can be prevented early in a child’s life, particularly during the formative years from birth to age 5. He points to studies showing that children most at-risk of reading difficulties in the primary grades are those who began school with diminished verbal skills, poor phonological awareness skills, inadequate knowledge of the alphabet and low familiarity with the basic purposes and mechanisms of reading.

“The roots of reading start at birth,’’ he said. “Research indicates that 80 percent of brain growth occurs during the first three years of life, so early childhood is the optimal time to begin building children’s language and literacy skills.’’


In 2017, Dr. Mokhtari was approached by Dr. Muthukrishnan Sathyamoorthy, UT Tyler professor of mechanical engineering, about forming a Born to Read program at the University to promote early childhood literacy in East Texas.

Sathyamoorthy, past president of the Tyler Sunrise Rotary Club, first learned about Born to Read when the club began sponsoring a version of the program. The club promoted literacy by purchasing books for small school districts.

Together, the professors formed UT Tyler’s Born to Read program to encourage families to raise their children as readers. Parents and guardians of children up to age 3 are provided free training, a reading “toolkit’’ and other resources. They are advised to read to their children at least 20 minutes daily. The average age of children participating is just 22 months.

Parents in the program read to their children and engage them in fun activities, telling stories using playful language exercises and listening to the children as they tell stories of their own. Parents also are encouraged to create an environment that exposes the children to books and helps them develop an awareness of the nature and uses of print.

“The Born to Read program has had a measurable impact on participating children and families,’’ Mokhtari said. “Findings so far show that the 21 families who participated in the program in 2018 read approximately 372 hours per year to their children. These parents reported significant improvements in children’s literacy behaviors such as awareness of print concepts, interest in reading and word recognition skills.’’

Mokhtari and his research team in UT Tyler’s K-16 Literacy Center are tracking the children’s progress and will continue to do so through preschool and elementary school to determine how they perform compared to peers with no early language and literacy skills experiences. The team includes Azalia Perez, Born to Read program coordinator and graduate teaching assistant, and Betty Rose, K-16 Literacy Center coordinator.

Sponsors of Born to Read at UT Tyler include the Tyler Sunrise Rotary Club, the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society and the K-16 Literacy Center.

Other outreach programs of the K-16 Literacy Center include:

  •  Smith County Champions for Children Early Language and Literacy Intervention – In a partnership between UT Tyler and Smith County Champions for Children, teachers at early childhood centers receive training to strengthen the early language and literacy skills of 3- and 4-year-olds.
  • First-Grade Literacy Intervention – Pre-service teachers in the School of Education provide supervised one-on-one tutoring to underachieving readers, with a focus on strengthening foundational literacy skills and competencies.
  • After-School Literacy Intervention – Graduate and undergraduate students provide small-group instruction in third through fifth grade to strengthen the vocabulary and reading comprehension skills of students.
  • K-3 Literacy Academy for Teachers and School Principals – An annual weeklong summer academy is held to strengthen literacy instruction in K-3 classrooms, with year-long follow-up coaching and mentoring.

For more information about Born to Read or other K-16 Literacy Center programs, email Mokhtari at Information also is available at