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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 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!
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.