Category Archives: Parenting resources

“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.

“Screen Schooled: Two Veteran Teachers Expose How Technology Overuse is Making Our Kids Dumber”

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.

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:

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!

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…

Homecoming 2021!

A Virtual Vist to Pigeon Forge

Imagine this: a high quality picture book arrives in your mailbox each month with your child’s name on it, from the time you bring them home from the hospital until they begin kindergarten—absolutely free.

That’s exactly what Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library is in the business of doing with the help of the Dollywood Foundation and countless affiliates around the world. To date, Dolly’s Library reaches several continents and has given away over 160 million books.

Reaching children with books during those critical 0-5 years when 90% of brain growth occurs has a lasting impact on a child’s ability to thrive.

This fact and the subsequent outcomes of doing so—or not—that I’ve observed in children over a long teaching career are what motivated me to write The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence.

An Exciting Invitation

So it was my absolute pleasure and honor to be invited to present at the Imagination Library’s recent Homecoming. My topic: what happens on the other side of kindergarten when a child has been read to consistently.

This biennial event usually gathers hundreds of Imagination Library affiliates from around the world in Dolly’s hometown of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. This year it took place virtually due to Covid-19.

An excerpt from “Why Reading to Your Child is One of the Greatest Gifts a Parent Can Give”

The Imagination Library is an organization for which I could not have greater respect and admiration.

Its mission is simple. Give parents an essential tool they need—books—so that they can share the joy of reading, fill their child’s invisible toolbox, and enable them to be kindergarten-ready.

Dolly Parton’s Dream

The genius of the program is that the book comes directly to the child. Their name is on the gift, and it arrives without fail in their mailbox each month. By the time a child begins kindergarten they’ve accumulated their own personal library.

If you haven’t seen it yet, check out The Library That Dolly Built: Celebrating the People Who Made Dolly’s Dream Come True, now available on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, and Cable on Demand.

You will be amazed and inspired by the story of how the Imagination Library grew from Dolly’s dream of helping the Appalachian children in her hometown of Tennessee into a worldwide enterprise for all children.

It’s a wholly uplifting story that will fill you with hope and remind you of what’s possible when people of good faith collaborate on a mission as important as this one.

Just be sure to bring your kleenex. You may need it.

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.

Hope for the Struggling Reader

Parents, you are more powerful than you know…

Did you know that according to the latest NAEP—our nation’s report card that tests students in fourth and eighth grade every two years—65% of fourth graders and 66% of eighth graders in the United States did not perform as proficient readers? (NAEP 2019)

Equally as concerning, research tells us that 75% of students who do not read on grade level by third grade will never catch up. (Children’s Reading Foundation)

Why is it that 3 out of 4 students will remain behind? And what is happening with students in the 25% who do manage to make gains and become proficient readers?

Observations I’ve made in over three decades teaching elementary school children convince me that there is one variable that’s most powerful and effective in moving children into reading success.

In our latest conversation, author and dyslexia expert Don Winn and I discuss these issues: why children struggle and how they can be helped.