Category Archives: Family Read-Alouds

Studies on “Reading Aloud to Children, Social Inequalities, and Vocabulary Development”

The Evidence is Mounting…

Recent studies on the effects of speaking and reading to children in the preschool years confirm an important truth about where future literacy success begins.

A highly significant take-away is that poverty, lack of parental education, and even under-resourced schools, while they may be correlated statistically, are not necessarily the cause of poor literacy outcomes nor are they necessarily determinative.

This is very good news.

The more we learn about brain development in the first five years, the more obvious it is that those who care about children and literacy must focus our efforts on this period of life.

Last spring I titled my talk at the World Literacy Summit in Oxford “How the First Five Years Frame Future Literacy.”

Two studies published recently corroborated this claim.

Having spent decades teaching, I had reached this conclusion long ago. Most teachers understand that a child’s exposure to language and books before they ever set foot in kindergarten makes all the difference when they are eventually taught to read.

But research and studies are important too and difficult to ignore. So here they are.

How Do Infants and Toddlers Learn Language?

One study reported in Neuroscience News sampled over 1000 infants and toddlers from 12 countries speaking 43 languages to understand how language is learned.

They discovered that the amount of speech children hear is the “primary driver of language development.”

Not socioeconomics, or gender, or multilingualism.

In a nutshell, children who hear more speech, understand and produce more speech.

The take-away for parents? Talk to your babies.

Who Benefits from Information About Shared Reading and Access to Books?

Another study came from the IZA Institute of Labor Economics. Based in Bonn, Germany, IZA’s research mission is to “focus on understanding economic inequality, particularly the central role of labor markets and the psychological underpinnings of human behavior.”

We know that literacy outcomes have everything to do with a future skilled and employable labor force. This study aimed to discover how we can foster that.

The research team wanted to understand the impact of setting up a ‘randomized controlled trial’ of a shared book reading intervention targeting 4 year old children in socially mixed neighborhoods in Paris.

We selected a large, random sample of families and provided parents with free books, information on the benefits of SBR (shared book reading) and tips for effective reading practices.

The vocabulary of children in both treated and control groups were assessed both before and after the intervention.

Here is what they discovered:

Children from all families in the intervention group greatly increased their shared book reading frequency and improved their vocabulary.

The ‘low-educated and immigrant’ families improved their vocabulary as much as those from ‘high-educated, native families’.

Also significantly, continuous positive vocabulary growth occurred in disadvantaged families, despite the fact that these children often attended poorly resourced schools.

What Do These Studies Reveal About Where Literacy Begins?

Speaking and reading to young children before they begin school—regardless of their socioeconomic status, immigrant status, gender, level of parental education, or multilingualism—results in language and vocabulary development.

Since a child’s vocabulary is the number one predictor of school success, this is critically important to understand.

What these studies show is that if we want to have a real and lasting impact on literacy outcomes, we need to focus our attention and resources on parents and caregivers of children from infancy through the preschool years.

This is what will set all children up for success.

Holiday Book Magic!

Inspire Your Child’s Love of Reading with an Advent Book Calendar

Colored lights, candy canes, Santa’s sleigh on the rooftop, and frosted window panes…

The magical holiday season is the perfect time to create lasting memories and nurture your little one’s—or not-so-little-one’s—warm feelings about and love of reading.

Seven month old Emma’s (pictured above) and 6 year old Aurora’s amazingly creative mom, Candace @ cknp0204, shared this great idea on Instagram recently.

Here’s how you can create a meaningful holiday tradition, foster your child’s sense of joy and anticipation through the season, AND inspire their love of stories with an Advent Book Calendar.

How to Create an Advent Book Calendar

Wrap 25 books, one for each day of Advent through the month of December, and display them under the Christmas tree.

Each day of the month, let your child choose one book out of the pile to unwrap and read with you.

You can add to the fun of this daily ritual by bringing out the cocoa or popping some popcorn and making it a family reading time.

Holiday themed books add to the excitement and provide the perfect opportunity to teach about your own family’s faith or traditions. Buying 25 new books in one sweep can get pricey, so feel free to wrap library books and just add a few of your own each year.

At the end of the season, put the books away or return them to the library.

When you wrap the same books for your Advent Book ritual the next year, your child will be surprised and delighted to discover these old friends that may feel new, yet familiar, all over again.

Special holiday books that reappear under the Christmas tree each year? That sounds pretty magical to me!

Our Grown Children’s Read-Aloud Memories

They May Be Longer Lasting Than You Think

My grown son is a reader.

He doesn’t use the library much from what I can tell because he likes owning the books he reads.

Buying lots of books is an expensive proposition, so he has long been an avid used bookstore fan. He managed to find and read through Stephen King’s entire oeuvre—all 65—at a discount.

Not long ago, he gifted me with one of his finds: Mrs. Piggle Wiggle’s Farm.

It puzzled me. Why this book?

Was it a pristine first edition? Signed by the author perhaps? Or maybe an out of print, next to impossible to find treasure?

Nope.

Yellowed, stained, dog-eared, it’s obviously been pawed over by dozens of little chocolatey hands. In fact, you might feel the urge to wash yours after touching it.

In other words, it’s been read a lot and loved.

Still I wondered why he thought to give it to me.

The original Mrs. Piggle Wiggle was on my regular read aloud rotation each year when I taught third grade. Of all the books my son and I read together, though, I didn’t remember reading this one to him.

As it turns out, he did and thought I might enjoy a sequel.

The knowledge that he carries this memory warms my heart and makes me deeply happy.

It may not be pretty, but this shabby old much pored over volume is a treasure to me.

It sits on my bookshelf, a reminder that none of the moments we spend as parents snuggled up with our little one and a story are truly lost.

My own recall of what all we read together may have faded into the fog of long-ago days juggling work, carpools, homework, household chores, and the rest.

But I love the fact that his have not.

*****

Note: I did read Mrs. Piggle Wiggle’s Farm before I shelved it, and enjoyed it almost as much as the original. Wise and loving Mrs. Piggle Wiggle may have moved from her upside down house in town to the farm, but she’s still called upon by desperate parents who have no clue how to help break their offspring of their naughty habits.

If you don’t know these books, I would begin with the original Mrs. Piggle Wiggle. The Selfishness Cure, the Answer-Backer Cure, the Slow-Eater-Tiny-Bite-Taker-Cure, et al…all the “childhood maladies” are resolved so cleverly by Mrs. PW. Funny and oh so appealing to kids, this classic is still a must-read.

St. Louis’s KMOV-TV’s ‘My Mom Club’ Loves The Invisible Toolbox!

An Interview With a Very Special New Mom and Baby Leo

I had a wonderful time recently chatting about reading and The Invisible Toolbox with the lovely and talented anchor and new mom Laura Hettiger on St. Louis’s CBS affiliate KMOV-TV’s new afternoon show My St. Louis LIVE!

Even though I’ve lived in far-away California for many years, I love staying connected with my lifelong hometown friends and happenings in this great historic city.

When I couldn’t go home to visit during COVID, I began watching KMOV’s Great Day Extra Live morning segment online.

Last year Laura announced on the show that she was pregnant, and I knew she needed a copy of The Invisible Toolbox. Every new mom or dad does, you know.

I was thrilled when she got in touch after Leo’s birth to let me know that she’d read it twice (the second time aloud to him) and invited me to come on My St. Louis LIVE! to discuss why every parent needs this information.

Practically newborn baby Leo (and furry pal Charlie) may not understand the words yet, but they do feel the love and attention from Mom when she reads aloud to them. This connection will become the foundation for Leo’s invisible toolbox, or, “the emerging internal infrastructure that will carry (him) into future learning and life.”

Thank you, Laura, for doing such an awesome job helping to get the word out about this important thing that parents need to know—-that reading aloud to your little one from the beginning is essential for their development, well-being, and readiness for school.

And thank you, baby Leo, for hanging with us even though you had to postpone your nap a little!

Laura posted this on Facebook after our interview:

What a treat getting to know St. Louis’s own Kim Jocelyn Dickson, the author of The Invisible Toolbox, on yesterday’s My St. Louis LIVE!

When I was pregnant with Baby Leo, Kim sent me a copy of her book. I read it while I was pregnant, then I read it out loud to Leo during my maternity leave. As I told Kim, things just “clicked” so much more when I was looking at Leo and reading to him.

And that’s the thing: reading to kids is so important!

During yesterday’s segment, Kim discussed why kids who have been read to already have so many tools in their toolbox once they start school.

I hope as my little Illini grows, our time reading together turns into a special time he looks forward to each day.

Thank you, Kim, for being part of My Mom Club! And to all the fellow new parents out there, grab a book, get comfy and enjoy that special time with your little one!

You can watch our interview right here.

My St. Louis LIVE! airs daily on CBS affiliate KMOV-TV Channel 4 at 3 pm CST and online at kmov.com.

The Seldom Discussed and Oh-So-Simple Solution to the Literacy Crisis

In many cases, it’s not that Johnny can’t read…

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 in The 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 want them 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.”

Potential Obstacles to Reading Aloud? Help is on the Way!

Dear Parents Part 5: Building the Invisible Toolbox with Love

When it comes to parents who may struggle to establish a read aloud ritual with their child, the same issues tend to come up. They are:

  • What can I do when my child won’t sit still for a story?
  • What if English isn’t my first language and I’m unable to read it?
  • What if this read aloud thing just feels way outside my comfort zone?

Remember André, the voracious little page-turning 7 month old reader, from previous episodes? (See picture above.) At 18 months now he’s walking and beginning to talk. He still loves reading, but he’s also on the move. Watch to see what happens when both a toy and a read aloud with dad vie for his attention!

These potential roadblocks may seem insurmountable, but they’re not. The solutions are actually quite simple. Have a look!

Subscribe to my YouTube channel for previous and 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:

The Essential Ingredients for a Great Read Aloud…

And Is There a Correct Way to Do It?

I don’t believe that there’s just one right way to read aloud to your child. I do believe, however, that our motivations for doing so matter enormously.

In Dear Parents: Part 4 I discuss the two most important reasons to read. We’ll revisit André and his mom Michelle to witness those things in action. I’ll also point out strategies that André’s mom uses so naturally to engage him and create a fun experience for them both.

Have a look!

Where the Love of Reading Begins

Dear Parents Part 3: Building the Invisible Toolbox with Love

Meet André! He may be just seven months old, but already he is an active and involved “reader.”

I could not be more excited to share the latest “Dear Parents” video with you. If you’ve ever wondered whether reading to your baby from the start really does cultivate their attitude and aptitude for learning to love reading, this little guy will convince you.

You may be amazed that a baby is capable of the intensity of engagement you’ll see here. André’s ability to maintain interest, pay close attention, and even turn the pages himself is remarkable. But it’s also what is absolutely possible when a child is read to from the very beginning.

The picture book here is Bear’s Scare by Jacob Grant, and the recommended age and interest range is years 3-6. I’m guessing that the book is recommended for older preschoolers because the story has a definite plot—something you don’t necessarily find in baby books.

But at seven months André has already had quite a lot of exposure to books, so he has the stamina for engaging even with a plot-driven book.

André’s invisible toolbox is already beginning to fill. Have a look and see for yourself!

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…

Thanks, Read Aloud Nebraska!

A widespread internet outage last Friday at Read Aloud Nebraska‘s annual conference threatened to derail my virtual keynote presentation. Yikes! This is the type of unforeseen event that every conference planner and speaker dreads. But Megan, the expert IT specialist on site, cooly and calmly found a work-around. She used her iPhone as a mobile hotspot to share my talk and enable me to call in for a discussion with our in-person audience. Great save, Megan!

I love sharing about The Invisible Toolbox and why reading to our children is one of the greatest gifts a parent can give. Here’s an excerpt that explains how the building of every child’s invisible toolbox begins with love and connection…