Tag Archives: education

How the Love of Reading Saved Oprah’s Life and Unlocked Her Potential

Why Oprah’s early life of poverty, neglect, and abuse wasn’t the final word…

She’s one of the wealthiest, most powerful women in the world. She has excelled in every form of media. Her stamp of approval on anything in almost any sphere influences thousands. Maybe millions.

But when you consider her early years, the trajectory of Oprah’s extraordinary life is not one anyone would ever have predicted. Here are the facts:

  • She was born a black child to an impoverished unmarried teenage mother in the deep south in 1954
  • Oprah’s spent her earliest year living with her maternal grandmother Hattie Mae who taught her to read by age three, took her to church, and believed in ‘spare the rod and spoil the child.’ “Oprah was beaten almost daily.” (Krohn, Katherine E, “Oprah Winfrey: Global Media Leader,” USA Today)
  • Because they were so poor, she wore potato sacks for dresses and was made fun of
  • At age six Oprah went to live with her mother whose work as a maid left little time for her
  • An uncle molested her when she was nine years old.
  • At 14, Oprah ran away from home, became pregnant, and had a son who died shortly after birth

There’s scant reason to believe that a person with a background such as Oprah’s could overcome it and become not only functional, but an extraordinary success story.

So, what happened?

Although she had stayed with him intermittently in her younger years, as a teen Oprah went to live permanently with her father Vernon who was instrumental in helping her turn her life around. For the first time, she had consistent structure and encouragement. According to Oprah,

“…every single week of my life I lived with them I had to read library books and that was the beginning of my book club. Who knew? I was reading books and had to do book reports in my own house. Now, at 9 years old, nobody wants to have to do book reports in addition to what the school is asking you to do, but my father’s insistence that education was the open door to freedom is what allows me to stand here today a free woman.”

Unquestionably, Oprah exhibited innate intelligence and verbal gifts as a child—she learned to read by age three and her grandmother recalled her playing at interviewing her corncob doll. But the combination of loving discipline and bi-monthly trips to the library was the catalyst that changed her world. “We would go to the library and would draw books every two weeks. I would take out five books, and I would have a little reading time every day.” In high school, Oprah became an honors student and was voted Most Popular Girl. Her transformation had begun.

Poverty, neglect, and abuse are part of Oprah’s story, but they don’t define her now. Falling in love with books became the key that unlocked her intelligence, her innate verbal and empathetic gifts, and her ability to imagine a different life for herself. Reading opened new worlds for her and empowered Oprah to move out, little by little, into a life beyond the limitations and suffering of her childhood.

Source material:

Reading for Life: Oprah Winfrey,” American Libraries Magazine, May 25, 2011

“A Childhood Biography of Oprah Winfrey,” Blackfacts.com

Thank you, Jeff Conyers, President of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library and Dollywood!

Dolly Parton’s organization is doing amazing work promoting literacy. Her foundation has donated over a million books to children from birth to age five throughout the U.S., Canada, Australia, and the U.K. I couldn’t be prouder that THE INVISIBLE TOOLBOX has the endorsement of Jeff Conyers, the president of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library.

Available for pre-order now!

The Critical First Five Years

As much as we’d like to believe that children arrive at school on the first day of kindergarten with comparable reservoirs of potential, the sad reality is this simply isn’t true. From the very beginning of their school lives, the playing field is not even. Children arrive in wide-ranging states of readiness to learn, predetermined by their early language experiences.

Watch this powerful graphic illustration of the impact of the first five years on a child’s future learning trajectory from The Children’s Reading Foundation:

The fact is, children who have been read to regularly come equipped with the critical tools they need for the world of school. Children who lack this experience enter school already behind and, as the video reveals, they rarely catch up.

By reading to our children from birth on, we can build a foundation of literacy skills that will not only enable them to enter kindergarten on day one with joy and confidence, but carry them successfully far into the future.

What’s Missing from our National Conversation on Education

lightbulb pendulumAs the chasm between rich and poor continues to grow and the middle class shrinks in the United States, we look to education as the primary tool for rectifying inequity across the socio-economic classes and leveling the economic playing field. Politicians stump for education reform and pass legislation. Head Start. No Child Left Behind. Common Core. Teachers are held responsible for student achievement and often vilified and scapegoated by the media when test scores don’t improve. Cyclically, educational reform swings like a pendulum between the poles of ‘meeting children where they are’ and ‘raising the bar’. The conversation is ongoing and shifts nearly every decade but there is one constant, and that is the absence of discussion about what happens before a child arrives at school.

New research in brain development validates what some educators and parents have long suspected to be true. The first years of life are critical in the formation and receptivity of the primary predictor of success in school: language skills. The answer to what parents can do to enable their child to have the best possible start in school and in life is simple. Speak and read to your child. Continually. Begin at birth, or even before.

That the essential role of parents in their child’s learning is not in the forefront of our national conversation on education is a glaring omission. One might assume the reason for this void is that it’s politically inexpedient to put it there. Parents might take offense and feel blamed, and the economically strapped who live in survival mode may feel they can’t afford the time and don’t have the money to acquire and read books to their children. While fear of appearing insensitive no doubt contributes to the silence, after thirty years in education I’ve come to believe something even more fundamental is involved.

Many well-intentioned people—from politicians to parents from all walks of life and even some in education—simply do not fully understand the phenomenal and far-reaching impact of spending a few minutes each day reading aloud to their child. Having taught children from a wide variety of economic and educational backgrounds, I’ve observed that this lack of awareness on the part of parents cuts across all socio-economic groups and seems to have accelerated in proportion to the proliferation of technology in our daily lives. While it’s surprising that educational experts have only recently begun to look at the importance of the early years and their impact on learning in a new field called “emerging literacy,” it is also heartening. Research in the fields of psychology, neuroscience, and language acquisition are also demonstrating that infants are far more receptive than we may ever have realized.

For our children’s sake–their future and our own–it is time to put aside our reluctance to consider this phase of children’s lives and look at the facts. As responsible parents we quickly learn what we need to do to care for our baby’s physical health. Regular visits to the pediatrician, proper nutrition and hygiene, bathing, and, eventually, a sleep schedule. We practice all these things so that our children will be healthy and thrive. What we also must understand is that the choices we as parents make during these early years have a tremendous impact on our child’s emotional, intellectual, and spiritual growth as well. Because of its ability to cultivate all of these things, it’s time to bring reading from birth into the conversation.