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.”
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:
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.
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.
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…
Why You Should Ignore Their Sometimes Dark Origins and Read Them Aloud Anyway
“Hickory hickory dock, the mouse ran up the clock…”
I recited these words to my fifth grade literature class one day and paused expectantly, waiting for them to finish the sentence.
Blank stares all around.
Then a lone voice piped up: “The clock struck one, the mouse ran down…hickory hickory dock.”
Three cheers for that child’s parent!
The subject of nursery rhymes had come up, and I wanted to see if my hunch was true. I’ve known for years that many parents were no longer reading nursery rhymes to their little ones, but it still shocks me a bit to realize most children don’t have these classic jingles stored in their memory banks.
You might be thinking…
Does it really matter?
Aren’t these archaic ditties Eurocentric? (Sorry, worse. They’re British.*)
Aren’t they historic in nature and sometimes deal with awful, grown-up things like adultery (“Jack and Jill”), military armaments (“Humpty Dumpty”), and the plague (“Ring-Around-The-Rosy”)?
Yes, they are. And yes, they do. Many have been around since the 14th century. Some of their histories are traceable, some not.
The point is, none of that matters. Not to your little one anyway.
What does matter is that when you take them onto your lap and read or sing to them, they won’t be wondering about the symbolic meanings of these verses or their historic origins.
What your child will experience, though, is the joy and beauty of rich language.
The rhythm and rhyme of catchy lyrics that will be theirs forever.
The fascination of a gigantic clothed egg perched on a wall and the strangeness of live blackbirds baked in a pie.
Of all the picture book choices that you have as a parent, reading Mother Goose is one of the best because you’ll give your child the following:
Joy. As dark as some of their origins may be, these verses exude an underlying energy, resilience, and sense of fun.
Vocabulary, the number one predictor of school success. Your child will be exposed to rich language that would not typically come across their radar.
The ability to rhyme. Did you know that some older children simply cannot recognize rhyming words? They have little experience hearing lyrical oral language so struggle to identify or produce words that rhyme. The ability to do so is an essential component of learning to sound out and identify words.
Cultural literacy. Familiarity with the traditional stories of a society’s culture is an important aspect of a child’s education. Children today know “Shrek,” but few are familiar with the classic fairy tales and legends that “Shrek’s” characters are based upon. They’ve seen “Tangled,” but have never heard or read Rapunzel. I believe that the nursery rhymes that have entertained children for centuries fall into the category of things an educated person should know.
Connection. As always, with any shared reading you do, you will nurture feelings of warmth and love between you and your child that will enable them to thrive.
Your child’s future teachers will bless you if you share nursery rhymes with your little one because they will arrive at school with their toolbox overflowing, primed and ready to be taught to read.
Be warned, however. Once you begin reading them, you will repeat. Again. And again. And again. And that, my friends, is exactly what your child needs.
(*Full disclosure: That was totally tongue-in-cheek. I am an unabashed Anglophile.)
If you’re the intellectually curious type and want to know more about their dark origins, you’ll find some excellent articles here and here.
Finally, if you’re wondering whether CoComelon (Netflix’s #1 show and the animated means through which many children are exposed to some of these classics now) is a reliable substitute that ticks the box, check out my recent article on just that question here.
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.
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.