Category Archives: Literacy

“Sold a Story:” The Reading Wars, Redux?

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.

But I won’t be holding my breath.

You can listen to “Sold a Story” here.

* In response to recent controversy, Calkins has updated her curriculum to include a phonics component.

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

Recent NAEP Test Scores Point the Way

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

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

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

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

Two Important Things the NAEP Data Tell Us

What can we learn from this?

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

The data points to another conclusion as well.

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

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

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

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

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

Students Who Read for Pleasure Experienced Less “Covid Slide”

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

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

The NAEP data certainly underscores this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Navigating the Rolling Seas in Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Screens vs. Laps? Neuroscience Has the Answer

Dear Parents Part 2: Building the Invisible Toolbox with Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Parents…

What teachers wish the parents of their future students knew.

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

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

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

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

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…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Brain Research Tells Us About Screens vs. Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

Practical Take-aways for Parents

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

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

The Gift of Reading and Wellness

May was a busy blur of book talks and presentations. While they’re still happening virtually, life does seem to be opening up. Hopefully, soon more of these will happen in person!

One of my favorite audiences to speak to are the parents of young children. Earlier this month I had a great time visiting and sharing with my friend and former colleague Ji Wang’s Saturday morning PTA Wellness group at the elementary school where she is principal. The sign above hangs on the fence right next to their parent drop off/pick-up circle. How clever is that?

Here’s a quick excerpt from my presentation:

If you’re interested in setting up a presentation, book talk, or class for your school or parenting group, I’d love to hear from you! Soon-to-be and new parents, it’s never too early to learn about one of the greatest gifts you’ll ever give your child.

Too Cool for School No More

Tweaks Parents Can Make to Help Their Struggling Readers

My fifth grade students were just settling into our literature and writing class one day when Sammy slipped out of his seat, walked up to my standing desk, stuck this post-it onto the surface right next to my computer, and without a word, turned and sat down again.

Nothing could have surprised me more. Or warmed my heart more. Sammy had begun the year doing everything he could to remain invisible and detached. Lack of engagement, almost zero class participation, little homework completion. I knew he felt vulnerable as his skills were poor.

But somewhere along the way, he experienced a turn-around. Had my class suddenly become more engaging? My teaching more inspiring? It would have been gratifying to think I’d made such a difference, but I knew that wasn’t it.

Something else had made a difference though. Here’s the story of what happened.

Many thanks to Don Winn, leading dyslexia expert and award-winning author, for inviting me to share this story.