Category Archives: Parenting

“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.

“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.

“The Invisible Toolbox” Goes to Turkey…

Translated and with a New Cover Design

When I learned recently that my publisher was working on selling foreign rights to The Invisible Toolbox, I did a quick Google search and came across this image along with various links to sellers in a language I didn’t understand. Every now and then I’ll do that to see where the book is turning up or being sold. But this was a big surprise.

It was a thrill to see my book clothed in a new cover and translated into Turkish—like a grown child who’s moved out into the world and created a life of their own!

It’s also a lovely reminder that the message of The Invisible Toolbox is universal. A child’s need for a nurturing connection with their parent and a strong foundation in language and love of story is shared by all cultures.

Mutlu okumalar, to our new Turkish friends!

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!

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…