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.
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!
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?
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.
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.”
United Through Reading Keeps Military Families Connected
One month later, and I’m still reflecting on the amazing World Literacy Summit in Oxford.
The main take-away, for me, is that there is a staggering amount and variety of work going on around the world in support of literacy.
While it was thrilling to be one of the presenters, the highlight of my experience had to be meeting the people who are doing this wonderful work.
One of these was Tim Farrell, the CEO of United Through Reading. I happened to meet him one evening as we waited outside the Bodleian Library to enter for the awards dinner.
As we chatted, Tim explained that United Through Reading’s goal is to connect military personnel separated from their families through the bonding experience of reading aloud.
The San Diego based organization sets up Story Stations where soldiers can “record and save storytime moments for their families to enjoy, no matter the distance.” A free copy of the book is also sent home so that the family can read along.
According to their website,
…every year, more than 100,000 military parents deploy leaving nearly 250,000 children at home. That’s millions of bedtime stories missed each year by military children.
I thought about how it might feel for a parent to step into a recording booth, missing their family, yet knowing that their child will not only see them, but hear them, and be able to enjoy the experience again and again.
And I thought too about the child on the other end, receiving a video recording of their far away parent along with the very book they’re reading so that they can read along.
What a powerful way to support families in bridging the distance and in nurturing the joy of reading at the same time!
The service is available to all military personnel in all branches, regardless of duty status. Veterans can take advantage of it too.
As of 2022, United Through Reading had connected over 3 million military family members through shared storytime.
Pretty awesome, I’d say. If you want to learn more or donate to support the program and the courageous people who serve, please visit unitedthroughreading.org.
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.
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.