Category Archives: Education

Wonder How to Help Your Kids Withstand the Ever Shifting Landscape of Education in the U.S?

Recent NAEP Test Scores Point the Way

Our Nation’s Report Card for fourth graders dropped last week, and the 2022 reading score results were pretty much what we would have expected.

Remember the phrase ‘Covid Slide’? It’s probably tucked away somewhere with your banana bread recipe and cleaning wipes.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests a demographic cross section of fourth and eighth graders in the United States every two years to ascertain how we’re doing in reading and math. The test was due to be given in 2021, but postponed until recently due to the pandemic.

As it turns out, Covid Slide was real. Unsurprisingly, our fourth graders’ reading scores dropped 5 points compared to their 2019 scores, the largest decline since 1990.

Two Important Things the NAEP Data Tell Us

What can we learn from this?

The first, most obvious take away is that the lockdowns were harmful to children. Kids need to be in school. But we already knew that. We’ve seen it in the increase in mental health issues that have also accompanied their delay in academic skills.

The data points to another conclusion as well.

Children who love to read showed far less decline than children who don’t.

When I wrote “Worried About Your Child Falling Behind During the Pandemic? The Single Most Important Thing Parents Can Do to Mitigate Covid Slide” back in July of 2020 I predicted this correctly.

Students who scored at the 90th percentile or above dropped just 2 points compared to greater amounts for each percentile rank below, with a decline of a full 12 points for students scoring in the 10th percentile.

While this too may seem like an obvious result, it bears unpacking.

Issues with access to technology and varying degrees of quality in lesson delivery through distance learning are factors that unquestionably had an impact on student learning through lockdowns.

Students Who Read for Pleasure Experienced Less “Covid Slide”

The greatest factor, however, was one that I knew would most profoundly impact how my fifth grade students fared when we left school in March of 2020, and it was this:

Students who continued reading for pleasure would weather this calamity far better than their peers who did not.

The NAEP data certainly underscores this.

But, one might think, how can you know how much students read for pleasure just by looking at their test scores?

After 32 years teaching elementary school and observing students and the choices they make about reading, I can tell you. Quite a lot.

Each morning my fifth graders would enter the room to classical music and were expected to complete a short ‘get down to business’ activity. Once finished, they were to read a book of their choice quietly.

It was during this short silent reading interval that I learned much about my students and their relationship to reading for pleasure. Through observing how they behaved during this time I began to be able to fairly accurately predict where their standardized test scores would fall.

I knew that students who always had a book in hand and eagerly dove in after completing their work would score in the 90th percentile or above on standardized reading tests. These are the kids who choose to read even when no one is telling them they have to.

I also knew that the students who fought independent reading the most—“I don’t have a book,” “I need to clean out my desk,” “May I sharpen my pencils?” —did not read for pleasure when they had the opportunity, not in class, and probably not at home either, and their test results would show this. *

The take-away? Time spent reading improves a child’s reading skills, so student who read for pleasure do better on tests.

Inexplicably, this glaringly obvious truth is often overlooked when it comes to analyzing reading achievement.

Navigating the Rolling Seas in Education

The world of education has always been in flux when it comes to what and how to teach. Recent years have brought sea changes.

Students are spending more time on screens, both in and out of school.

The culture wars have found their way into schools and profoundly impacted curriculum.

The decades old reading wars rage on as the battle of whole language vs. phonics is fought under the current banners of ‘balanced literacy’ vs. ‘the science of reading.’

Changes in education are perpetual and more consequential than ever right now.

As a teacher with decades of experience teaching reading and observing how much habits formed outside the classroom affect the learning inside, I can assure you that the most important thing you can do as a parent to navigate these waters is to teach your child to love reading. Start as early as you can. Read to them daily. Take them to the library regularly. If you can, buy them books.

Loving reading will enable them to ride out these shifting waters, stay afloat, and learn anyway.

For more on why this is the case, check out The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence.

[Also, find more on this topic in the September 2020 issue of L.A. Parent: “Why Reading to Your Child Matters Now More Than Ever”.]

* Reasons for reading avoidance should always be explored. Often, children who avoid reading have arrived in kindergarten already behind. See “Hope for the Struggling Reader” for more on this. But, there could be additional impediments that cause reading to be a struggle. If you suspect that a visual or auditory processing issue could be interfering, speak to your child’s teacher. Check out author and dyslexia expert Don Winn for more on dyslexia and how and when to screen for it. His book, Raising a Child With Dyslexia: What Every Parent Needs to Know is informative, comprehensive, and helpful for educators as well as parents.

“Screen Schooled: Two Veteran Teachers Expose How Technology Overuse is Making Our Kids Dumber”

Thoughts on One of the Most Important Education/Parenting Books You Really Need to Read

They haven’t used it. We limit how much technology our kids use at home.”

—Steve Jobs on How His Kids Liked the iPad

Distracted. Disengaged. Unable to follow simple directions. Poor executive functioning (the ability to plan, organize, and carry out tasks). Inattentive.

These are just a few of the adjectives that I’ve heard from teachers and substitute teachers who worked in various schools last year when asked to describe how they were finding students who returned to the classroom post-pandemic.

One high school English teacher instructed her long-term substitute to not assign chapters of the novel students were reading for homework. One might think, but don’t they need to do that so that they can engage in follow up activities about the readings together in class?

“They won’t bother to do it,” she said. “You’ll be listening to the book together in class via Audible. Then they’ll complete the follow up material about each chapter on their Chromebooks.”

Do students still pull out a book they’re reading for pleasure when they finish their work? Rarely. Most don’t bring one to class. Some high school and junior school high teachers even allow students free time on their phones when they finish their work.

The culture in schools is changing. The deleterious effects of school closures through COVID have certainly accelerated this, but the transition was already in place before.

After reading Screen Schooled by Joe Clement and Matt Miles (Chicago Review Press) in 2018 I brought my copy to the school where I was teaching and actually carried it around on campus for a few days, eager for an opportunity to share it with my admin staff. It articulated so clearly and thoroughly what I believed!

I never did that. Chickened out.

I must have sensed that the push toward putting every child on a laptop in the classroom was already in full force and that my concerns might not necessarily be welcome. The book’s message challenges the direction we were heading as a school.

What Do Kids Really Need?

As it turns out, the message of Screen Schooled runs increasingly counter to the mainstream in educational America in both the public and private spheres today. If in pre-COVID days the water was rising, we’re now in full flood mode as any considerations about the negative effects of the proliferation of technology in the classroom appear to be swept away. In our post-COVID world back in school, kids are on personal laptops and iPads even more than they were before the pandemic.

And as Screen Schooled explains so effectively, there is a cost.

The authors, two high school teachers, are no Luddites and actually quite techie themselves. Clement was employed in the tech industry before becoming a teacher, and Miles was an IT major in college before switching to education. He serves as his department’s “technology representative.”

The authors, then, are not anti-technology, nor am I. It can be extremely useful in furthering learning goals in the classroom if used purposefully, and its use was essential in keeping teachers connected to students and able to deliver lessons during COVID lockdown.

Yet, Clement and Miles have witnessed the damage that screen “overuse and misuse” has wreaked on our kids— even before schools shut down—and they are alarmed about it. Their concerns have to do with this fundamental question:

What do kids really need?

“Make a list of ten things that kids today need. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Thanks for doing that. Now look at that list. Does it include “more screen time”? I didn’t think so. Mine doesn’t either. If I had asked you to make a list of twenty things kids today need, would “more screen time” have been on that one? How about if it were a list of a hundred or a thousand things kids need? The point is that while there is nearly universal agreement that kids today do not need more time on screens, schools are doing what they can to make sure kids spend more time on screens.”

From the Introduction

Their conclusion, based not only on their experience as teachers, but also on their deep dive into research and data, is that our children’s current screen saturation is damaging their healthy development both socially and cognitively.

If “More Screen Time” Isn’t What Kids Really Need, Why the Push into Classrooms?

If this is the case, and I believe most thinking adults would agree it is so, then questions must be asked. One of the things I most appreciated about the book is that it addresses, head-on, this elephant in the room:

If more time on screens is not what kids really need, then what is driving the push to integrate technology into nearly every discipline of K-12 education?

One reason is the misguided claim that children who experience low-tech education will lag behind their technology saturated peers and be unprepared for the future world of work.

The authors address this fallacy by pointing to the educational choices parents who work in high-tech industries are making for their own children. Like Steve Jobs (see quote above), these are the people who deeply understand the extraordinary products they create. They know the wonders of technology and they also know what the repercussions can be for misuse in the hands of a child whose brain is still developing.

The Waldorf School’s philosophy emphasizing hands-on education, in-person social interaction, and creative problem solving is increasingly popular with the tech community in Silicon Valley. Technology use is rejected both in and outside of school, and some schools even require parents to sign contracts promising to limit their child’s use at home.

“Back-to-school nights at Waldorf schools are a who’s who of the technology world, with executives from eBay, Google, Yahoo, Apple, and Hewlett-Packard…Seventy-five percent of Waldorf students in Silicon Valley have ties to the tech industry.” p. 175

But don’t these tech titans worry that their screen limited children will fall behind their peers, unprepared for their tech-dominated futures? Apparently not. They understand that the purpose of early education is to develop foundational, developmentally appropriate skillsets that will always be useful, regardless of future trends.

“As Alan Eagle, an executive at Google who is a Waldorf parent and has a computer science degree from Dartmouth explains, “At Google and all these places, we make technology as brain-dead easy to use as possible. There’s no reason why kids can’t figure it out when they get older.” p. 175

The second reason for the push for technology-centered education is explained in a chapter titled “The Education-Industrial Complex.” The reality is that, inasmuch as teachers don’t typically see it this way, education is a business, and a great deal of money is at stake.

Millions of dollars have changed hands as schools have spent to upgrade their hard and software, and technology and publishing companies both large and small have scrambled to create and market their products.

Industries, government entities, and decision makers in education work hand-in-glove to make decisions and shape curriculum. The story of how Common Core Standards came into being through the involvement of Bill Gates and Microsoft, former U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, and several D.C. based organizations is just one example of the inbred decision-making that drives educational practice and affords lucrative benefits for the prime movers.

What Kids Really Do Need

Neither of these two reasons for technology’s push into the classroom actually address the question of what kids really need.

The authors do, however. Their final chapter, “Ideal Education in a Modern World” outlines the key principles that should shape educational decisions: Keep it Simple, Focus Instruction on Skills (real, not virtual), and Foster Face to Face Social Interaction. If the use of technology supports or enhances these principles, great. If not, teachers should not feel pressured to impose it into their instruction.

The goal is that students will develop real-world skills, learn to think deeply and critically, and learn how to collaborate. In other words, the things kids really need that will carry them into an unknown future.

Screens vs. Laps? Neuroscience Has the Answer

Dear Parents Part 2: Building the Invisible Toolbox with Love

In Dear Parents Part 1 we explored the research proving that the years before a child enters school are critical in predicting outcomes. Here’s what we know. Every child enters kindergarten with a lunchbox in one hand and an Invisible Toolbox in the other. If a child has been read to daily throughout the preschool years, that toolbox will overflow with all the pre-literacy tools they need in order to thrive. For those who have not been read to, their toolboxes will be empty and school will be a struggle.

Busy, overwhelmed parents of infants and preschoolers may wonder if technology can assist in building their child’s Invisible Toolbox.

Many parents are indeed availing themselves of this option as evidenced in the popularity of Netflix’s most highly rated show of 2020, CoComelon. An animated streaming show of nursery rhymes and children’s songs, CoComelon is aimed at the preschool set. In 2021, it was the most-watched YouTube channel in the United States and second most streamed show in the world.

So, the question parents need to ask is this. Does it matter whether my child learns their nursery rhymes watching CoComelon on a screen…or on my lap having a cuddle?

It’s an important question and, fortunately, neuroscience has the answer for us. Have a watch:

Subscribe to my YouTube channel for future videos in the “Dear Parents” series to learn about the tools you’ll build in your child’s Invisible Toolbox when you read to them. Or, you can read about them in The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence, available at these sellers.

Dear Parents…

What teachers wish the parents of their future students knew.

“Any kindergarten teacher can tell you: students do not start school with the same language and literacy skills.” The Children’s Reading Foundation

Did you know that 75% of students who begin school with skills below grade level will never catch up?

As an elementary school teacher, I often wished that I could roll back time and meet the parents of my future students at the door of the maternity ward with a stack of books…

Here’s how parents can ensure their child is ready for kindergarten with the language and literacy skills they need in order to be successful…

Your Baby and Nursery Rhymes

Why You Should Ignore Their Sometimes Dark Origins and Read Them Aloud Anyway

“Hickory hickory dock, the mouse ran up the clock…”

I recited these words to my fifth grade literature class one day and paused expectantly, waiting for them to finish the sentence.

Blank stares all around.

Then a lone voice piped up: “The clock struck one, the mouse ran down…hickory hickory dock.”

Three cheers for that child’s parent!

The subject of nursery rhymes had come up, and I wanted to see if my hunch was true. I’ve known for years that many parents were no longer reading nursery rhymes to their little ones, but it still shocks me a bit to realize most children don’t have these classic jingles stored in their memory banks.

You might be thinking…

Does it really matter?

Aren’t these archaic ditties Eurocentric? (Sorry, worse. They’re British.*)

Aren’t they historic in nature and sometimes deal with awful, grown-up things like adultery (“Jack and Jill”), military armaments (“Humpty Dumpty”), and the plague (“Ring-Around-The-Rosy”)?

Yes, they are. And yes, they do. Many have been around since the 14th century. Some of their histories are traceable, some not.

The point is, none of that matters. Not to your little one anyway.

What does matter is that when you take them onto your lap and read or sing to them, they won’t be wondering about the symbolic meanings of these verses or their historic origins.

What your child will experience, though, is the joy and beauty of rich language.

The rhythm and rhyme of catchy lyrics that will be theirs forever.

The fascination of a gigantic clothed egg perched on a wall and the strangeness of live blackbirds baked in a pie.

I highly recommend Scott Gustafson’s collection, gorgeously illustrated
with depictions of children of all colors and ethnicities.

Of all the picture book choices that you have as a parent, reading Mother Goose is one of the best because you’ll give your child the following:

  • Joy. As dark as some of their origins may be, these verses exude an underlying energy, resilience, and sense of fun.
  • Vocabulary, the number one predictor of school success. Your child will be exposed to rich language that would not typically come across their radar.
  • The ability to rhyme. Did you know that some older children simply cannot recognize rhyming words? They have little experience hearing lyrical oral language so struggle to identify or produce words that rhyme. The ability to do so is an essential component of learning to sound out and identify words.
  • Cultural literacy. Familiarity with the traditional stories of a society’s culture is an important aspect of a child’s education. Children today know “Shrek,” but few are familiar with the classic fairy tales and legends that “Shrek’s” characters are based upon. They’ve seen “Tangled,” but have never heard or read Rapunzel. I believe that the nursery rhymes that have entertained children for centuries fall into the category of things an educated person should know.
  • Connection. As always, with any shared reading you do, you will nurture feelings of warmth and love between you and your child that will enable them to thrive.

Your child’s future teachers will bless you if you share nursery rhymes with your little one because they will arrive at school with their toolbox overflowing, primed and ready to be taught to read.

Be warned, however. Once you begin reading them, you will repeat. Again. And again. And again. And that, my friends, is exactly what your child needs.

(*Full disclosure: That was totally tongue-in-cheek. I am an unabashed Anglophile.)

Note: Because you may need some relief from the multiple rereadings you’ll do, check out Ricky Gervais’s take on nursery rhymes. Just for fun. (Language warning.)

If you’re the intellectually curious type and want to know more about their dark origins, you’ll find some excellent articles here and here.

Finally, if you’re wondering whether CoComelon (Netflix’s #1 show and the animated means through which many children are exposed to some of these classics now) is a reliable substitute that ticks the box, check out my recent article on just that question here.

What Preschool Parents Need to Know About Netflix’s #1 Show

CoComelon is No Substitute for Reading to a Child on Your Lap

Last month Forbes reported that CoComelon, the animated nursery rhyme-themed channel aimed at children under 4, was the #1 show on Netflix in 2020.

According to the article, “There hasn’t ever been a hit like CoComelon on the world’s most popular streaming service…”

Think of that—CoComelon beat out The Queen’s Gambit, Bridgerton, and Cobra Kai, among other titles that helped the world survive a year of lockdown.

Apparently, CoComelon provided a breather for parents of preschoolers during the pandemic too. Common Sense Media describes the series as “music videos that are appropriate for the very youngest of viewers, and touch on typical preschool themes.” I’ll leave it to you to explore the reviews that add up to just 3 out of 5 stars.

What I can do, though, is sympathize with parents who reach out to distractions like this. I can well understand how tempting it must be for a harried parent to park an infant or toddler in front of a screen for this ‘age-appropriate’ entertainment.

We all know that some days parenting young children are simply about survival—but relying on screen entertainment like CoComelon has consequences that parents need to be aware of.

Watching animated nursery rhymes on a screen is no substitute for reading to a child on your lap.

What Brain Research Tells Us About Screens vs. Reading

Dr. John Hutton, pediatrician and director of the Reading and Literacy Discovery Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, and his team have studied the neurological effects of screens and reading on preschoolers. Findings show that the brains of children with less screen time had better-developed white matter tracts, the pathways involving language and executive functions, hence these children also had “higher language, executive and composite early literacy skills.”

According to Hutton, children placed in front of screens lose out on nurturing experiences, and this deficit explains the lag in brain development.

Human beings are wired to connect. From the cradle to the grave, the evidence is in that the deepest human desire, after life itself, is the longing to connect…The blueprint for connection is written in our cells from the very beginning, and our understanding of this has enormous implications for the way we parent.

Kim Jocelyn Dickson: “Build it With Love,” The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence

The toolbox of pre-literacy skills that we build for our child when we sit down and read with them is grounded in this connection. Love and nurturing is what builds the critical brain framework that every child needs in order to thrive. Screens simply cannot provide this.

Sharing nursery rhymes is important—and highly recommended for developing essential pre-literacy skills. But the way we do so matters.

Practical Take-aways for Parents

  • Begin reading to your infant as soon as you bring them home, and do so daily. Cuddle, read expressively, engage interactively as your child is able, and have fun!
  • Introduce screens only once you’ve established this lovely connection through daily reading. Limit the time. Ideally, watch with them.
  • Continue reading to your child daily as long as you can. You’ll nurture your connection, create precious memories, and fill their ‘invisible toolbox’ with all the pre-literacy tools they need to be ready for school.

So, the next time you’re exhausted and tempted to park your little one in front of a screen, grab a book instead, sink into a comfortable chair with them, and enjoy the wordplay and silliness of those ancient nursery rhymes together—on the page.

Hope for the Struggling Reader

Parents, you are more powerful than you know…

Did you know that according to the latest NAEP—our nation’s report card that tests students in fourth and eighth grade every two years—65% of fourth graders and 66% of eighth graders in the United States did not perform as proficient readers? (NAEP 2019)

Equally as concerning, research tells us that 75% of students who do not read on grade level by third grade will never catch up. (Children’s Reading Foundation)

Why is it that 3 out of 4 students will remain behind? And what is happening with students in the 25% who do manage to make gains and become proficient readers?

Observations I’ve made in over three decades teaching elementary school children convince me that there is one variable that’s most powerful and effective in moving children into reading success.

In our latest conversation, author and dyslexia expert Don Winn and I discuss these issues: why children struggle and how they can be helped.

Escape through Reading

As the stressors of 2020 continue to increase—COVID-19, distance learning, an election, and a brutal fire season—filling our children’s and our own need for a daily space of respite is vital…

It’s more important than ever for (our children) to spend a part of their day lost in the pages of a good book.

LA Parent Magazine, November 2020

I had no idea, when I wrote “Escape through Reading” for the current issue of LA Parent Magazine last month, how deeply the truth of it would resonate this past week.

As my homeroom checked in via Zoom during morning meeting last week, fires were raging nearby and the tension and anxiety my fifth graders were feeling was palpable. One student and her family had evacuated their home at dawn, and so she joined our class from a hotel. Other students’ families were packing essentials and awaiting possible evacuation orders.

Fortunately, this is a group that feels safe with one another, so they could talk about what was happening and express their feelings fairly openly.

I don’t think I ever felt so grateful for the subject I teach as I did that day. The plan that morning was to finish reading a chapter together from the John D. Fitzgerald novel The Great Brain in which Tom, the novel’s title bearer, hatches a plot to get the harsh new teacher fired by framing him as a secret drinker. Talk about a great escape.

It was a relief for all of us, I think, to disappear into small town Utah of the 1890s to find out whether Tom could pull off his outrageous caper. He always seems to show the adults what’s what, which, of course, the kids love.

Diving into the story we learned that life wasn’t necessarily easy for kids back in the 19th century either. You’d have attended a one-room schoolhouse with kids of all ages and, if you got into trouble the teacher would paddle you—right in front of everybody! And so we rooted for this audacious and brilliant ten-year old hero who never fails to entertain and astonish us.

For a brief time we were transported far from our own troubling reality and enjoyed a respite from the fires, the virus, and even the distance that separates us.

What I’ve been reminded of again and again during this season of remote learning is that shared literature has the power to bring comfort and bridge the gap. It not only provides a welcome oasis from our current difficulties, but it also makes possible a sense of connection among us, even through Zoom.

Check out the November issue of LAParent Magazine on page 12 for my article “Escape through Reading”…5 tips for creating a shared reading experience in your family that will provide a powerful buffer through these challenging days.

Words Alive! Authors Auction

Book talk on THE INVISIBLE TOOLBOX is up for auction!

“Bid on once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to bring acclaimed and engaging authors on virtual visits to all the places that readers gather in your life!

Look for opportunities for facilitated discussions, readings, workshops, and demonstrations by a remarkable collection of authors to enrich your next book club, family gathering, or loved one’s classroom!”

Words Alive, a San Diego literacy nonprofit, connects children, teens, and families to the power of reading.

In support of their important work promoting literacy, I’m thrilled to offer a book talk on The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence. Find out why reading to your child is one of the greatest gifts a parent can give.

Because my talk will take place over Zoom, anyone can bid via silent auction.

Bid now and throughout the month of October and enrich your book club, classroom, or parenting group with a book talk on The Invisible Toolbox. Learn why reading to your child is one of the greatest gifts a parent can give!

Over 40 authors and their work are represented this year in Words Alive’s annual fundraiser. I have to admit I’m fangeeking out a bit to be in such awesome company. Check them all out at the link below.

http://www.wordsalive.org/authors2020

Thank you for supporting literacy!