One of the Greatest Gifts Resonates Across Cultures
When I wrote The Invisible Toolbox after thirty years in the classroom, I never dreamed my little book, translated and repackaged, would find its way into the hands of a group of mothers halfway across the world in Turkey.
But as I learned last week, its message, that explains why reading aloud is one of the greatest gifts a parent can give, connects across cultures.
Mr. Nabi Avci, a teacher in Konya, Turkey, offered the mothers of his students a gift of his own. He recently led a book discussion group so they could learn how to support their children’s literacy development and love of learning.
Last week he reached out to me via Twitter/X and asked me to drop in on their afternoon meeting to say ‘hello’ via Zoom. That proved to be impossible as when I attempted to join, error code 1142 informed me that this meeting was ‘not accessible in the United States at this time.’
Since I was unable to join the group, I sent a video instead, and Mr. Nabi Avci emailed this report:
We learned much from your book. It was really helpful. Mothers in our group started reading aloud to their children.
He sent these wonderful photos too.
In the midst of the current turmoil in the world, I find it heartening to be reminded that people of good will, no matter their culture, love their children and want what is best for them.
Thank you, Mr. Nabi Avci, for celebrating literacy and for reaching out to me…from one teacher to another.
That American children are struggling with reading has worked its way into the media conversation at last. It’s about time.
First came the “news” that the 2021 post-Covid NAEP (our nation’s report card) reading scores for 4th and 8th graders dropped for the first time in decades:
Nearly two thirds of our students don’t read proficiently!
What wasn’t reported is the fact that nearly this same percentage has been the case for some time.
Then in the fall of 2022, Emily Hanford’s “Sold a Story” podcast recast the eternal Reading Wars. This time, the opposing camps are Lucy Calkins’ Balanced Literacy vs. the Science of Reading. Lucy Calkins’ curriculum did not come out well in this. The media blew up over it, and various states have banned Balanced Literacy’s 3-cueing strategy for figuring out unknown words and poured money into retraining teachers in the Science of Reading, aka Structured Reading, with its heavy emphasis on systematic phonics instruction.
I couldn’t help wondering. Are there really primary teachers who—no matter what curriculum they use—don’t teach phonics? How in the world can you not in the teaching of beginning reading?
The next big thing that made news and drew the attention of the world beyond education insiders was the release of the film “The Right to Read” on Juneteenth of 2023. Promoted by LeVar Burton of Reading Rainbow fame, its aim is to shine a light on the literacy crisis as a symptom of societal injustice and to promote the Science of Reading as the solution and path to equity.
Two things about all of this are especially important.
First is the acknowledgment that we actually have a literacy crisis. When 65% of our 4th and 8th graders don’t read proficiently, that’s a problem. Reading well is foundational for all learning and has lifelong implications for individuals as well as society.
According to the United States Department of Justice, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.” Over 70% of inmates in America’s prisons cannot read above a fourth grade level.
The second good thing is we’re taking a hard look at how reading is taught.
The reality is that college teacher training programs don’t actually teach prospective teachers how to teach reading. New teachers learn on the job, and what they learn is generally determined by what is gleaned from colleagues and the curriculum that the school adopts.
It can take several years of experience in the classroom for teachers to understand that effective reading instruction involves many essential threads. The wholistic approach and appreciation of literature that Balanced Literacy celebrates and the systematic direct instruction promoted by the Science of Reading are both necessary in good teaching.
Excellent teaching and fundamentally sound comprehensive reading curriculum are extremely important.
“Our bigger problem now is Johnny doesn’t read.”
But here’s the thing.
If a student is well taught and yet does not read outside of classroom instruction, it’s unlikely that student will become a proficient reader.
Like any skill, the practice of reading matters when it comes to mastery.
In many cases, it’s not that “Johnny can’t read.” Our bigger problem now is Johnny doesn’t read.
Yes, technology has a huge part to play in this, but we’ll leave that for another discussion.
What I will do is remind you how children become motivated to choose to read. Parents and teachers both have important roles to play here.
Let’s start with parents who, I would argue, have the most critical role. I’ve written about this inThe Invisible Toolbox, explaining in as concise and direct a way as possible, how reading from birth affects a child’s development and future readiness for school.
Repeated exposure to books is a bedrock foundation for future reading for pleasure and makes the road ahead much smoother for a child.
“While it’s ideal to begin reading to your child from the get-go, if you haven’t, it’s not too late.”
Up until adolescence, generally speaking, children—even if they don’t appear to—crave the time and attention of their parents, so it is possible to begin a nightly read aloud habit even with older children. They may balk a bit at first, but if you choose a great book to share, that should quickly dissipate.
While it’s ideal to begin reading to your child from the get-go, if you haven’t, it’s not too late.
Which brings me to the next thing parents can do. Visit the place where you can borrow books—for free! Your local library. Do this together and do it regularly. Help your child get their own library card and choose their own books.
While you’re at the library, pick out some books for yourself. Let your child see you reading. Talk about books, yours and theirs.
Set clear boundaries for technology and enforce them.
Encourage your child’s daily reading habit. Make sure there is space in their day or evening for it.
Once you’ve done this for a while, your child may begin to choose to read themselves. Eventually, they may find their homework goes more quickly, becomes easier for them. Their grades even improve! This is the time to gently make the connection for them.
“I’ve noticed that all this reading for fun you’ve been doing, seems to be making school more interesting for you…” Then take them to the nearest bookstore or second hand shop and let them buy a book to celebrate.
“Teachers have an important role here too in supporting reading for pleasure.”
Teachers have an important role here too in supporting reading for pleasure.
Make sure that you teach great books that you love as much as they will. Your genuine enthusiasm and interest matter if you wantthem to engage.
Also, be sure to provide opportunities for students to choose their own books.
When I taught fifth grade literature, I required students to choose a book a month within a particular genre and create a project after reading it. This assignment provided for both accountability and choice. It also ensured their exposure to various genres they might not choose on their own. For instance, a student who reads nothing but fantasy books might discover they enjoy historical fiction too.
At the end of the school year, students often reported this monthly book report activity as one of their favorite things. Kids love hands on projects. They often discovered an interest in genres they’d never explored before.
Another thing teachers can do is to actually talk to kids about the importance of reading, explaining why and how it makes a difference in their schooling and lives.
A teacher can also help students make the connection between their choices and the outcomes.
At the end of each trimester, my literature students took an Accelerated Reader standardized achievement test. The results showed their growth throughout the year, their independent reading levels, and also indicated how they performed compared to students that the test was normed on in their age group.
With my fifth graders, I always shared these scores with them–privately, of course. I explained how standardized tests work and how the choices they make, even outside of the classroom, affect their scores.
As their awareness grew as the year progressed, it was interesting to see how students who previously hadn’t paid attention began to care. Once they understood how the tests actually functioned and how the choices they made—and believe me, they knew what they were—actually showed up in an objective way, it was empowering for them.
This student report indicates a leap from the 27th percentile to the 73rd, quite a jump even when factoring in possible summer slide to account for the low beginning of the year score. The intervention included a chat with a parent who didn’t realize two hours of gaming each school night was an issue. Video games were moved to weekends only, homework began to be turned in, and the student reported to me that “Now, when I’m bored, I read.”
For teachers, facilitating students’ awareness and encouraging their agency in making good choices about choosing to read go hand in hand with teaching the skills and helping students find pleasure in reading.
The last thing I’ll mention that I recommend teachers do is something I would do at the beginning of each school year when parents came to meet me at Back to School Night.
I talked to parents about the importance of their child reading for pleasure outside of the classroom.
I encouraged parents—even my fifth graders’ parents whose children were already independent readers—to read aloud to them and enjoy books together. I reminded them that adolescence was around the corner and that reading aloud together during this time in their child’s life was a wonderful way to connect and nurture their bond in preparation for the days ahead when peers become ever more important.
At the end of one school year, one of the mothers sought me out to tell me that she’d taken my suggestion with her two sons, one a fifth grader, the other a seventh grader. She created a family read aloud ritual that school year and the boys loved it.
Her sons were already voracious readers for pleasure, so her aim wasn’t about helping them find their way down that road. It was about connection through creating space for family time together and sharing the pleasure of a good book.
When it comes right down to it, isn’t that what reading for pleasure is all about?
A child who reads for pleasure will not only have the tools and skills they need for school and beyond, they’ll have a habit that the English novelist Anthony Trollope once said “…lasts when all other recreations are gone. It will last until your death. It will make your hours pleasant to you as long as you live.”
This spring I’ll be crossing the pond to be one of the presenters at The World Literacy Summit 2023. People from 85 countries who care about improving literacy around the world will gather in Oxford to share experiences and ideas.
If you can’t get to England, but are interested in attending, there’s good news. There’s also a virtual option for registration. You can check out all the details here.
In the meantime, if you’re curious about my talk, have a look at the overview that I submitted to the selection committee below:
“The Invisible Toolbox: How the First Five Years Frames Future Literacy”
“Neuroscience confirms that children who have been read to regularly from birth arrive at school on day one with “invisible toolboxes” full of all the pre-literacy tools that they need in order to be successful in school and beyond.
While it’s generally understood that reading aloud to a child is a good idea, many new and expectant parents don’t fully understand why doing so in the early years is critical for a child’s academic and social-emotional development.
What are these tools? Why do they make such a difference? How can we educate parents, in this age of distraction, to understand that reading aloud to their child is one of the greatest gifts they can give and support them in doing so?
We will explore these questions through the lens of the research of Dr. John Hutton (Pediatrician and Director of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Reading and Literacy Discovery Center), the data of various literacy and government organizations, and my own experience as a teacher of reading and writing for decades in the elementary school classroom.
We’ll also discuss organizations in the U.S. and beyond that are reaching into communities with limited access to books that may also have language and cultural obstacles that prevent them from filling their children’s “invisible toolboxes.”
As I’ve begun piloting my own program to gift The Invisible Toolbox and related resources, I’ve been heartened and amazed to see what tremendous work is going on in the nonprofit sector. But there is still much to do.
Reaching people in the earliest stages of their parenting and helping them develop their own tools so that they can pass them along is one of the greatest gifts that those of us who care deeply about literacy and children can give.”
The Battle Between Whole Language and Phonics in Reading Instruction Rages On
One of my most vivid memories–and there aren’t many—from long ago college education methods classes was my reading professor’s vehement proclamation:
“Phonics isn’t reading!”
She was allied with the whole language school of thought (currently known as balanced literacy) that emphasizes reading programs composed of rich literature experiences and critical thinking (think big picture) over and against the analysis and study of words and their component parts (small picture) that is the focus of phonics instruction.
I didn’t understand then why these two important elements were philosophically pitted against each other as it seemed to me that both were necessary aspects of good teaching.
I do understand why now. Like so much in this world that appears inexplicable, it all comes down to money and politics. And, perhaps, decisions that don’t necessarily have the best interests of children at heart.
I finally made time to listen to journalist Emily Hanford’s podcast, “Sold a Story.” It’s a fascinating investigative piece that aims to explain the pandemic of reading failure in this country.
According to Hanford, the culprit is an inadequate curriculum that, despite its ineffectiveness, has been widely adopted and taught for decades.
Lucy Calkins’ program, aka Columbia Teachers College Readers and Writers Project, is the villain. Hanford and those she interviewed for the podcast claim that it fails because it teaches children a superficial cueing system to sound out words, and neglects phonics instruction.*
Is there an answer to this dilemma? Another curriculum to take its place? Why, yes, there is.
The antidote is The Science of Reading, an updated moniker for a school of thought that is not really new at all. Proponents of this method point to years of data collection that indicate the systematic teaching of phonics is the key to reading success. If you currently follow the world of education and reading curriculum, the Science of Reading is everywhere.
“Sold a Story” has been getting widespread media coverage since it first aired in the fall of 2022. Google Lucy Calkins or the Science of Reading and articles will come up from multiple sources including a New Yorker piece entitled “The Rise and Fall of Vibes-Based Literacy.” As one might guess, it’s highly critical of Calkins.
“…we now know that the first five years are critical in preparing students for learning to read once they begin school.”
I found the podcast fascinating as it tells the history of the evolution of reading instruction and curriculum from the 1990s to the present. Because I taught during these years and had first hand experience with the programs Hanford covers, including Reading Recovery and Readers and Writers Workshop, it was satisfying to hear their shortcomings addressed.
However, while Hanford has an important story to tell, it doesn’t explain the entire truth about the reason for our literacy crisis.
My own experience teaching elementary school reading for 32 years confirmed to me that good instruction includes multiple elements, all of which are essential. Rich literature experiences, explicit phonics instruction, sight words, vocabulary, comprehension strategies, background experiences…all of these threads are necessary for an effective reading program.
Comprehensive reading instruction in elementary school that includes all of the components named above is important. Yet, we now know that the first five years of life are critical in preparing students for learning to read once they begin school. When parents read daily to their children they gain all the pre-literacy tools that they need to be successful. Children who do not have this experience enter school already behind.
Unfortunately, Hanford not only doesn’t mention this critical factor, she is dismissive of and seems to be unaware of its importance. But then, the focus of her podcast is on what happens once children enter school.
Hanford’s purpose is to expose the story behind why and how a particular reading curriculum in the United States gained the prominence and ubiquitousness that it did and made an awful lot of money along the way.
I look forward to learning more about the Science of Reading curriculum when I attend the World Literacy Summit in April. One can only hope that it includes all of the rich elements that good reading instruction requires and puts to rest the Reading Wars once and for all.
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.
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.
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.
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.