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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ParentMagazine, 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 LAParentMagazine 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.
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.
Originally printed in L.A. Parent Magazine, September 2020
In this highly digitized climate of remote learning, reading to your child matters now more than ever. Check out my article in the September issue of L.A. Parent to find out why. Follow the link below.
…”these kids learn younger than their peers that life means doing hard things.“
Some people become experts because they study their subjects, while others do so because of their lived experience. Don Winn comes by his expertise in dyslexia for both reasons.
I met Don when he contacted me for an interview about The Invisible Toolbox. Around this time he gifted me with a copy of his own book Raising a Child with Dyslexia. This clearly written, well researched parenting guide actually includes wonderful advice for all parents. But stories about his own struggles with dyslexia as a child piqued my curiosity as a teacher and made me want to understand more. How does someone whose needs were so painfully overlooked as a child—both emotionally and academically—manage to overcome them?
Don personifies the idea that it’s never too late to parent yourself. With the help of a few mentors along the way, he has not only faced the reality of his own learning and functioning differences, but has also become an inspiration and source of extraordinary knowledge, through his writing and speaking, for parents and children who deal with dyslexia.
In our conversation, you’ll learn about one of Don’s earliest mentors who he believes was the reason he was able to persevere through his dark days in elementary school. His grandmother who read to him filled his invisible toolbox with the understanding that reading and the wonderful closeness that comes from sharing books is worth the struggle. And so, Don Winn never gave up and gained what he believes is the superpower every dyslexic child has the potential to learn.
About Don Winn:
Don M. Winn is the award-winning children’s fiction author of the Sir Kaye the Boy Knight series of children’s chapter books and the Cardboard Box Adventures collection of thirteen picture books as well as the nonfiction book for parents and educators Raising a Child with Dyslexia: What Every Parent Needs to Know. As a dyslexia advocate and a dyslexic himself, he is fully committed to helping reluctant and struggling readers learn to love to read. Don frequently addresses parents and educators on how to maximize the value of shared reading time and how to help dyslexic and other struggling readers to learn to love to read. He’s published articles about dyslexia and reading in MD Monthly, the Costco Connection Magazine, TODAY Parenting, Fostering Families Today, and many others.
Can you explain what dyslexia is? Most of us think it has something to do with the reversal of letters that makes reading difficult. Is there more to it than that?
Oh, there’s so much more to it than that! Although first medically documented about 130 years ago, there are still a lot of misconceptions about dyslexia.
Dyslexia occurs when the brain develops and functions differently. It’s a neurological difficulty with decoding the written word, not an intelligence issue. The written word is a code that requires the brain to match seemingly meaningless marks on a page with the sounds we’ve heard from birth, and not all brains are structured or wired to do this effortlessly. Dyslexia is often hereditary, and rarely gets noticed until a child enters school and begins to struggle with literacy.
Experts estimate that approximately ten percent of the population is dyslexic. Most of these people never get diagnosed. Dyslexia can sometimes be difficult to diagnose because it varies so widely from person to person and can affect a broad spectrum of abilities. To complicate matters, dyslexia is actually a family of sibling conditions, and a person may experience any or all of the following conditions:
Dyscalculia: Trouble with math, numbers, sequencing, sense of direction, and time management.
Dysgraphia: Illegible handwriting or printing, incompletely written words or letters, poor planning of space when writing (running out of room on the page), strange contortions of body or hand position while writing, difficulty or inability to take notes (which requires thinking, listening, and writing simultaneously).
Dyspraxia of speech: Misspeaking words and/or halting speech. This aspect of dyslexia happens because the brain has problems planning to move the body parts (e.g., lips, jaw, tongue) needed for speech. The child knows what he or she wants to say, but his/her brain has difficulty coordinating the muscle movements necessary to say those words.
Dyspraxia: An issue that involves the whole brain, affecting movement. This can include gross (large) muscle movements and coordination as well as fine motor skills (pen grip, unclear hand dominance, trouble fastening clothes and tying shoes, difficulty writing on the line on paper). Dyspraxia can cause clumsy, accident-prone behavior due to proprioceptive challenges (ability to tell where the body is in space), trouble telling right from left, and erratic, impulsive, or distracted behavior.
All these difficulties are caused by structural brain differences that mean reading, writing, math, spelling, and more will never be automatic. A dyslexic person will never read or perform other affected tasks quickly. No matter how brilliant a dyslexic student may be, these tasks will always be laborious and will generally require extra time to complete.
You’re dyslexic yourself. When were you diagnosed? What was school like for you, and did your experience change after your diagnosis?
First of all, I am severely dyslexic and have three of its sibling conditions—dysgraphia, dyscalculia, and dyspraxia. I went to school in the sixties, when very little was known about dyslexia or how to help dyslexic students. I felt like a normal, happy kid until I entered first grade. But on the first day of first grade, my whole world collapsed into itself, and in the space of a seven-hour school day, everything changed for me. I simply could not figure out how to do the things the teacher asked me to do.
Memorizing the alphabet, that long sequence of 26 unrelated letters, plus their sounds; reading and writing my numbers; holding a pencil the way the teacher wanted me to hold it; following instructions that had multiple steps or those that involved telling my left from my right; and so much more felt impossible even though I was trying my very hardest. My brain struggled to make sense of the fact that everyone else in my class could do these things easily. I didn’t understand why I could not. I felt like a duck out of water—I didn’t belong, and I became very anxious. It was like everyone was moving at a fast-forward speed, and I couldn’t raise my hand and say, “Stop! Slow down! I don’t get this! I can’t keep up!” Deep inside, I knew that day that there was something very wrong with the way my brain worked and things went downhill from there.
Though I didn’t have the words to describe it at the time, I now realize that neither the speed with which information was presented nor the manner in which it was taught were good matches for my processing abilities. I flunked first grade. Partway through first grade (for the second time), a special ed teacher who had taken an extension course on dyslexia recognized my symptoms and suggested that I might be dyslexic.
Once I had the label, the only thing that changed was that I now spent an hour a day with the special ed teacher to work on reading. Unbeknownst to me, my parents, or the teachers in my life, I also had dysgraphia (trouble writing), dyscalculia (trouble with math, numbers, and learning/doing things in sequence), and some dyspraxia (trouble with coordination of muscle movements needed for multiple tasks). None of those issues were ever addressed, and they caused me a lot of stress.
That all sounds incredibly difficult. I imagine that coming to terms with a diagnosis of dyslexia both for oneself and one’s child—and also realizing you didn’t get the support you really needed— had to be quite an emotional journey. Can you tell us about that?
Over the years, the one thing that created the most difficulty for me was the lack of information leading to understanding, accepting, and coping with my dyslexia. My teachers never explained things to me, my parents never had a single discussion with me about what was going on or what we could do about it, and most importantly, there was no one I could talk to about my fears, feelings, and frustrations. About ten years ago, my wife and I made a project to understand dyslexia, learning all we could about current science, teaching methods, genetic involvement, and emotional and educational techniques that can help dyslexics cope with the fallout of their condition.
We took a huge leap forward in our quest at an early screening of the 2012 documentary The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia. I had never before seen such a comprehensive and relatable depiction of all the things I had been struggling with since first grade. Viewing this documentary had a profound impact on both myself and my wife. I finally understood myself in a way I never had before, and now realized that I had a tribe. And although my wife has a background in biochemistry, psychology, and genetics, before viewing the documentary, she was completely unaware of the breadth and scope of the effects of dyslexia.
That must have been hugely comforting. And now you’ve become a powerful advocate for dyslexic children and their parents.
As I started to better understand my own dyslexia and the reasons why I struggled throughout my school years and early adult life, I realized that most of my struggles could have been minimized with a proper understanding of dyslexia, ongoing support, and accommodation.
Just having the label is not enough. It’s a start, but children with dyslexia and their parents need to understand what that label means in terms of life impact. And most importantly, kids need social and emotional support to be able to show up for the hard work of learning and performing academically. Warm, loving, open communication is key. A child must have hope.
Much like the show, What Not To Wear, my life is a version of “How Not To Do Dyslexia.” I don’t want any child to struggle unnecessarily like I did.
When you consider your own and your son’s school experience, what kinds of support have teachers provided that were most helpful?
Really, the only support I ever received was from the special ed teacher in helping me to read. After that, I was basically on my own. I didn’t understand my dyslexia and I didn’t have any social and emotional support or accommodation. My parents’ divorce compounded this situation and then from 5th grade on, it seemed like I was constantly moving and starting at new schools, so my entire early education was anything but positive.
Our son got much better accommodation and help in school. The elementary school he attended was particularly good. It’s amazing what a difference a good counselor makes, and our son’s counselor took a personal interest. He would take the students who were struggling out of class when they were particularly stressed, and they all went outside and built birdhouses. It was a great way to defuse an escalating stress response, get centered, and recharge their batteries for the next educational task.
Does dealing with dyslexia get easier as an adult? How does it continue to affect you?
Accommodation and social and emotional support for dyslexia are just as important for an adult. Every task takes more time and that’s something that never changes. So planning my day, trying to minimize unexpected demands whenever possible, and good communication with my wife are so important. In fact, one of the most popular articles on my blog is one I co-wrote with my wife, called, “Living With an Adult With Dyslexia.” In that blog, my wife shares what she has learned about what works well for us.
Dyslexia continues to affect me with mental and even physical fatigue. I get lost easily, I struggle to keep track of things, and I face a constant demand for brain bandwidth that sometimes isn’t there when I need it for reading and writing.
In your book you mentioned several famous dyslexic people—Walt Disney, Albert Einstein, Richard Branson, Leonardo da Vinci. How often does giftedness occur with dyslexia? Do dyslexics have any special inherent advantages or creative powers because of their learning differences?
Dyslexics have definite strengths, like seeing the big picture and outside-the-box thinking. They may also be very good at pattern recognition and spatial reasoning. However, every child is different and not all dyslexics have the same abilities. Some dyslexics may be gifted in special ways, but all dyslexics have the ability to develop great tenacity and grit. In fact, they have to. Because every required task demands exponentially more effort for a person with dyslexia than for a non-dyslexic, these kids learn younger than their peers that life means doing hard things. To me, this is the real superpower of dyslexia.
For example, my dyslexic grandniece wanted to enroll in a high school program that would allow her to graduate with an associate’s degree. In order to do this, she had to pass a test. It required several hours to take this test. But she really wanted to get into that program, and so she worked hard and took the test 9 times before she qualified. That’s the kind of grit I’m talking about. I’m so proud of her!
I just finished reading your book and so appreciated the way you slipped in stories from your own journey with dyslexia along with so much helpful information and advice on parenting dyslexic children. Your grandmother had a positive impact on you. Can you tell us about that?
Thank you! My paternal grandmother was the only person in my family who read to me. While we didn’t get to spend time together often, when I did get to sit in her lap and share books with her, I felt safe and loved. She read slowly and asked me lots of questions to help me think about what we were reading together. I didn’t feel stupid with her like I did at other times when faced with reading. There was never any pressure, only fun. And she was actually interested in hearing what I thought! As a result of those interactions, there was a tiny place in my brain that linked reading with pleasure, and most importantly, with meaningful human connection. That little ray of hope helped sustain me as I persevered year after year with my difficult reading tasks. To this day, the time I spent with my grandmother is one of my fondest memories.
Your grandmother gave you a powerful gift. What does your story about your grandmother have to say to us about what every child needs from a loving adult in their lives?
It’s not just about learning to read. Children need to feel loved and safe, and shared reading is the perfect format for creating that bond. During shared reading, a child feels loved, feels the benefits of enjoying a parent’s (or other person’s) complete attention, and feels seen and heard. An adult who chooses to spend time reading to a child says by their actions, “You matter to me. You are valuable. I want to spend time with you. I’m interested in your feelings and thoughts.” Nothing is more deeply nourishing to the soul of a young child, and a parent cannot go wrong by focusing on this important pursuit.
What’s your best piece of advice for any parent who is concerned that their child may have a learning issue?
Thankfully, there are early warning signs that savvy parents can watch for, starting in infancy. Some tests can provide diagnostically accurate results for children as young as eighteen months of age. I provide a comprehensive list of current testing methods, broken down by age group and diagnostic focus in my book, Raising a Child with Dyslexia: What Every Parent Needs to Know.
Additionally, all my dyslexia articles I’ve blogged about are available here: https://donwinn.blog/dyslexia-articles/. Educating yourself about dyslexia and the many ways it can show up is important. Discovering ways to provide ongoing social and emotional support and accommodation will optimize your child’s potential.
My biggest recommendation to all parents: read to your child from infancy on. Start now. Start where you are. You’ll be glad you did.
Where can parents and educators learn more about dyslexia and how can they connect with you?
My book, Raising a Child with Dyslexia: What Every Parent Needs to Know, offers a comprehensive approach to dealing with the challenges of dyslexia in the family and at school. Understanding the importance of early detection, testing, working with a child’s school, investigating possible behavioral issues, appreciating the role of social and emotional learning, recognizing the strengths of dyslexia, embracing advocacy, and much more is covered in this user-friendly guidebook. While the writing took me many months to complete, this book has been in the works for over 53 years—ever since I became aware of my own dyslexia and the needs it presents.
I’ve often wondered how my life and the lives of other dyslexics who did not receive adequate accommodation, support, and understanding would be different had we all gotten the help we needed during our most formative years. With the knowledge that’s available now, there is no reason why any child with dyslexia needs to experience this level of hardship ever again.
My website/blog is https://donwinn.com/, and you’ll find lots of information about my books and resources for teachers and parents there.
All of my children’s chapter books are available in softcover, hardcover, eBook, and audio and my picture books are available in softcover, hardcover, and eBook formats. Visit my Amazon author page for more information.