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.
The Single Most Important Thing Parents Can Do to Mitigate Covid Slide
If you’re a parent worried about Covid-19’s long-term effects on not only your child’s academic growth, but their social-emotional well being too, you are not alone. “Covid Slide” is the new buzzphrase for the worry that students who miss out on regular school will have long-term gaps in their learning and struggle to catch up.
It’s an understandable concern. The Distance Learning programs that schools and school districts delivered during the final third of the school year varied widely. Some schools pivoted quickly into a fairly robust program, while others faltered and even petered out toward the end of the year.
Children have been out of physical school since March and, with the number of COVID cases spiking this summer, schools across the country are facing agonizing decisions about how school will take place in the fall.
The uncertainty of it all is bound to cause anxiety in parents. Sending their child back to some semblance of normalcy if their school does open under physically distanced circumstances, participating in their school’s distance learning program, or keeping them home and figuring it out for themselves are possibilities every parent will have to grapple with soon.
In the meantime, what can a parent do to help their child continue to grow academically and feel safe and healthy emotionally?
The single most important thing a parent can do during this time of school upheaval is to support their child’s love of reading. Finding pleasure in reading is so critically fundamental to all learning that fostering it is the best possible insurance a parent can employ in preventing not only academic decline, but also emotional distress.
Two Critical Tools Every Child Needs
In The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence, I explain the tools a parent bestows on their child through reading to them from the beginning that will affect their future school success. Here, I’ll explain just two as these are two of the most critical ones a child needs during this time.
Tool #1: Intellectual Curiosity
The child who reads will want to know more
One of the most important tools that a child who finds pleasure in reading gains is intellectual curiosity. It may sound lofty, but intellectual curiosity is simply the quality of wanting to know more about the world. Young children are innately curious, but I’ve learned through over thirty years in the classroom that this quality is easily lost if it isn’t nurtured. Children who read learn more than those who don’t, and, they are more curious than their non-reading peers.
Why is the cultivation of intellectual curiosity important during this time of interrupted school? A child who reads for pleasure during this time continues to want to know more and will read more in order to learn. They are intrinsically motivated to do this, regardless of whether they are in school or not. These students want to learn for learning’s sake. They are much less likely to fall behind and will be primed to resume regular instruction because they have not stopped learning.
Tool #2: The Ability to Find Joy Anytime, Anywhere
A child who reads for pleasure can find joy through being transported beyond their circumstances
Parents and all who care about children are not only concerned about academic slippage. Earlier this summer, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that schools re-open in the fall, despite spiking cases of COVID-19, for the sake of children’s social-emotional health.
Children need to be with other children, and face-to-face learning with a caring adult is ideal. But what if public health circumstances prevent this from happening in the fall? How then can a parent best support the social-emotional needs of their child?
Encouraging a love of reading is helpful here too. There are two ways a parent can promote their child’s emotional well-being through reading.
A daily family read-aloud time is a comforting oasis for both parent and child during a difficult time. Sharing a picture book or a novel together is an opportunity not only to escape into another world, but also to connect with each other through the experience. Having a parent’s full attention at some point each day has an enormously positive impact on a child’s well-being. Enjoying a story together offers an opportunity for conversations not only about the story, but also about a child’s feelings around it. This may even lead to other conversations that wouldn’t occur without the prompting of the story. A daily family read-aloud time is an excellent opportunity for bonding.
Having books to jump into independently can be a soothing haven for a child during a difficult time as well. Neuroscience has taught us much in recent years about the impact that reading for pleasure has on the brain.
What we now know that we didn’t understand before is that when we read fiction it impacts not just the language-processing portion of the brain, but all parts of the brain. Studies show that when we read, we experience the story as if it’s actually happening to us. (Murphy Paul, 2012.) What this means for a child immersed in a book is that they are truly transported when they read; they experience the story as if they are actually participating in it. Studies also indicate that reading puts our brains into a state similar to meditation and that it brings the same health benefits: deeper relaxation, inner calm, lower stress levels, and lower rates of depression.
Reading provides a healthy escape from the monotony of being stuck at home.
Lest a parent worry that their child could grow into a reading recluse unable to relate to others, studies also show that reading fiction develops a person’s capacity for empathy. Entering into a story necessitates that a reader put themselves into a character’s shoes. With fiction we come to understand that others have viewpoints different from our own. These important ingredients for social-emotional wellness cultivated through reading can make a lasting impact on a child’s ability to understand others. (Mar, 103-134)
Finding pleasure in reading is so critically fundamental to all learning that fostering it is the best possible insurance a parent can employ in preventing not only academic decline, but also emotional distress.
Come fall, whether or not schools reopen, no child will experience school in the way they’ve known it in the past. Regardless of your child’s school circumstances, encouraging their love of reading remains the one of the most important things you can do.
Last spring, as soon as my school announced that we were going into Distance Learning, one of my fifth grade students made a beeline for the school library and checked out 17 books. His ability to think ahead and plan for lost access to the library was impressive. The parents of another student of mine did a very smart thing too. They ordered every single Rick Riordan title from Amazon so that their son would have a complete library of his beloved series to read during the quarantine. By June this boy had read over 19 novels.
As a teacher I felt good about the language arts program I was able to deliver remotely to my students on such short notice. It wasn’t nearly as expansive as what I would have been able to offer in person, but except for a very few, most of my students remained active and engaged until the end of the year. The boys who were reading continually for fun were two I knew I didn’t need to worry about.
Parents can let go of some of their anxiety, too, through supporting their child’s love of reading. While not every parent can afford to buy an entire library of their child’s favorite author’s books, the public library, their child’s school’s library, or free books available online can provide a child with what they need to carry them through this time of disruption and build a strong foundation for their future.
Dickson, Kim Jocelyn. (2020). The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence. Coral Gables, FL/USA: Mango Publishing Group.
Mar, Raymond. (2011). Annual Review of Psychology. Vol. 62: 103-134.
Murphy Paul, Annie. (2012). Your Brain on Fiction. New York Times.
Did you know that The Invisible Toolbox is available on audio too? It’s not only a quick read, it’s a fast listen, too, at just two hours. Here’s what Adrian, the youth services librarian at the Westmont Public Library, has to say about it:
“You may have heard that it’s important to read aloud to your child from birth, but you may not have heard why…”
The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence is available on audio as well as paperback through these links:
“Every child begins school with a lunchbox in one hand and an Invisible Toolbox in the other…”
Check out longtime elementary school teacher and author Kim Jocelyn Dickson’s overview of what The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence is all about and why she wrote it.
“Recent research in neuroscience tells us that 80% of the brain develops in the first three years of life. This is the time when the infrastructure of the brain is laying down actual physical pathways that will enable a child to fully access all that the world of school has to offer.
Through reading to our children regularly, we not only build that infrastructure, filling their invisible toolboxes, we nurture the parent-child bond that is the foundation for a child’s motivation to learn.”
Excerpt from the Introduction to The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence…
“Dear New Parent,
Congratulations! Your precious little one is here. There is no feeling in the world more wonderful than holding your tiny newborn for the first time. Your heart expands with warmth and love and protection in a way you never could have imagined until now. As you begin a journey with this miraculous new life you have created that will take both of you far into the future, into places known and unknown, you will do everything in your power to ensure your baby’s path is as full of hope and promise as it can be.
As well-meaning parents, we all want our children to thrive. Regular pediatrician visits, vaccinations, sleep routines, proper nutrition, feeding, bathing, cuddling—we do all of these things because we want what is best for them. But there is one more thing that is essential, and it’s one that is as important to our growing child as all the things we do to take care of our baby’s physical needs. This necessary thing is one that you may already know—or perhaps may have forgotten or haven’t fully understood. As someone who has been in your shoes as a parent and taught children just like yours in elementary school for decades, I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned about this essential thing over the years.
Flash forward five years, and imagine with me what your child will look like on their first day of kindergarten. At this moment, that day may seem a long way off, but believe me, it will be here before you know it. Can you see your child in the brand-new school clothes that you’ve bought for this special day, down to the sneakers with laces so white because they too have never been worn? Under a fresh haircut there may be a big grin or perhaps a look of apprehension. Your child knows it’s a big day, just as you do. On their back is a crisp new backpack and in one hand a lunchbox filled with favorite things. All of this equipment is recently acquired, full of promise and expectation for the future–and probably decorated with a favorite superhero or three. Who will that be, you wonder? The picture is almost, but not quite, complete. There is more. And here is the secret.
In your little child’s other hand they carry something else. It’s a toolbox, but it’s invisible. Unseen though it is, it will be carried to school on the first day of kindergarten and every day after that all through your child’s academic career. Whether or not it contains the most essential tools will have an enormous impact on those years and far into the future…”