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.
The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence
What if a longtime classroom teacher were able to share with the brand-new parents of her potentially future students the single most important thing they can do to foster their parent-child bond and their child’s future learning potential? THE INVISIBLE TOOLBOX: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence is Kim Jocelyn Dickson’s answer to that question. Nearly thirty years teaching hundreds of elementary school-aged children has convinced her that the simple act of reading aloud from birth has a far-reaching impact on our children, as well as the culture at large, that few of us fully understand and that our recent, nearly universal saturation in technology has further clouded its importance.
What Every Parent Needs to Know
THE INVISIBLE TOOLBOX is the concise, accessible gift book that belongs in the hands of every new and expectant parent. In it, Kim explains that every child begins kindergarten with a lunchbox in one hand and an Invisible Toolbox in the other. Some children arrive with empty toolboxes and some arrive with toolboxes overflowing. For those with full toolboxes, the future is brighter; these children are much more likely to thrive in school and beyond. Children who enter school with empty toolboxes are destined to struggle. Their shortfall will be a herculean challenge to bridge, negatively affecting their motivation and ability to learn. According to The Children’s Reading Foundation, 75% of children who begin school behind never catch up.
Priceless Tools for Kids and Parents
In THE INVISIBLE TOOLBOX, parents will learn about the ten priceless tools that will fill their child’s toolbox when they read aloud to their child from birth; and they’ll also learn about the tools they can give themselves to foster these gifts in their children. Practical tips for how and what to read aloud to children through their developmental stages, along with Do’s and Don’ts and recommended resources, round out all the practical tools a parent will need to prepare their child for kindergarten and beyond.
Research and Experience-Based
With THE INVISIBLE TOOLBOX, Kim has done her homework, weaving her practical anecdotal experience as an educator and parent into the hard research of recent findings in neuroscience. She not only reminds us that the first years of life are critical in the formation and receptivity of the primary predictor of success in school—language skills—and that infants begin learning immediately at birth, or even before, but also teaches and inspires us to build our own toolboxes so that we can help our children build theirs.
The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence is due out April 2020 from Mango Media.
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.
Recipe for fostering community and connection through books: Gather 2 or more kids. Add their moms and a splash of wine. Stir with the classics. Yields: Comfort, belonging, and the joy of shared stories. (Caution: May inspire imaginative play.)
[The following is reprinted from the Los Angeles Times, January 2, 2017; by Tess Taylor and Edan Lepucki]
“When the world felt hard–as it has this fall and winter–turning to a children’s book was a singular opportunity to settle down, unplug the phone and the news, light the light and be together.”
The plan was simple: We would start a book club for our 5-year-old sons. Bennett and Bean had just started kindergarten and were crazy for stories. They couldn’t read chapter books on their own but they took pleasure in listening, imagining the story playing out. Besides, we, their mothers, had basically been waiting to read big books to our kids from the moment they were born.
And, like that, Bennett and Bean’s book club was born. We figured we could handle a book a month, and we dug out the ones we remembered loving as kids: “The Phantom Tollbooth,” “Pippi Longstocking” and “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” Our meetings would be whatever the boys made them, but the book club would be for us too.
All fall, we read to the boys. That wasn’t unusual, but it felt different because we were doing it with another family across town — picking up the same book, laughing at the same jokes, falling in love with the same characters.
Bean and Bennett had never read on deadline before, and we all became more disciplined about the reading hour. Sometimes it was the best part of the day. When the world felt hard — as it has this fall and winter — turning to a children’s book was a singular opportunity to settle down, unplug the phone and the news, light the light and be together.
“What could be a greater gift to pass on to our children? Sharing stories, weaving a small community together.”
The boys loved it. After all, who doesn’t want to belong to a club? We didn’t hold our kids to teacherly standards. The meetings often consisted of talking about books for all of 10 minutes before we poured ourselves glasses of wine and let the kids run in circles around the redwood tree in Tess’ backyard.
Our picks weren’t perfect. “The Phantom Tollbooth” was too complex for 5-year-olds. Its puns and math sailed over their heads. Bean thought it a bit dull; Bennett wished for whales. “Pippi Longstocking” was full of adventure, but we moms found the way she described her travels around the world imperialist and dated. Bennett said that, like Pippi, he wanted to live alone. Bean wondered if he could get his own pet monkey. Each meeting ended with both boys asking why the party had to end.
And us mothers? From the beginning, we assumed we would enjoy ourselves, but even we were surprised by how nourished we felt. The book club reminded us of the deep pleasure of losing oneself in a rich story. The reading hour was an antidote and balm for adult distractions, fears and responsibilities. However chaotic and cruel the world seemed, setting aside time to read classic books with our children, letting our imaginations take flight, made the universe seem legible again.
What could be a greater gift to pass on to our children? Sharing stories, weaving a small community together. The days got shorter and we curled into the reading light.
Ultimately, it was “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” that offered what we all wanted most: magic. The sentences were clear, easy to read aloud, spellbinding. There were the children escaping the air raids of World War II, brought to a house in the country. And like a house within the house, there was the wardrobe, and inside it a land where long winter had fallen, and people and animals were being kidnapped.
Yet C.S. Lewis’ book also contained bravery, camaraderie, light. And the assurance that even in the most ominous times, it is possible to fight the darkness. The White Witch might seem all powerful, but the children were working to set the long winter right. How lovely the writing was, we exclaimed. How urgent the book felt, to us, in 2016.
That afternoon, Tess hung extra coats in a closet and Bennett and Bean went in and came out ready to fight the witch. They waged a great battle in the backyard, armed with wrapping-paper tubes. Bean wore a lion mask and roared and roared. Bennett put on a cardboard crown. Everyone ate Turkish delight. Everyone got powdered sugar on their noses. We ducked together into the magic wardrobe and emerged as new avengers, ready to battle for the light.
[Tess Taylor’s collection “Work & Days” was named one of 2016’s best books of poetry by the New York Times. Novelist Edan Lepucki’s latest book, “Woman No. 17,” will be published in May.]
The benefits a child gains from being read aloud to are many, and they contribute directly to success in school.
A child who has been read to regularly from birth arrives on day one of kindergarten with an invisible toolbox overflowing with the pre-literacy skills that are the foundation for all learning. They include not only the number one predictor of school success— a rich vocabulary—but many other essential understandings. Check out Parts I and II and then add these to the list:
They gain the ‘background of experiences’ necessary for understanding what they read in school.
Stories expand the boundaries of a child’s world in the best possible way. The greater the exposure to stories and ideas from outside their immediate experience, the better children are able to understand what they read in school. The reading a child eventually does in school is filled with countless references that will fall outside her natural orbit, and her degree of familiarity with them will determine her ability to understand what she reads.
They absorb how stories work on an unconscious level.
Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. There is a protagonist, a problem, a struggle, and a resolution. These are understandings that a young child will generally not consciously express, but they will understand intuitively that this is what constitutes a story. This unconscious familiarity will become very apparent as a child moves into writing in school.
They possess the tools to become effective writers.
Children who have been read to not only gain a greater vocabulary for expressing themselves in writing, they develop an innate grasp of how sentences are formed and have an easier time constructing them. Just as they have greater expressive fluency orally, their writing is also more fluent than that of their non-reading peers. Through hearing many stories read aloud from a young age, they have absorbed the structural rhythm that stories possess. They will draw on this to write their own more easily than their peers who have not been immersed in stories.
The simple act of sharing a daily read-aloud with a child will fill his invisible toolbox to overflowing with a rich vocabulary, an inherent understanding of the pleasure of books, knowledge of the way books and stories function, an ability to attend to what is important, and familiarity with expressive reading and the rhythm of language. These are the essential tools of literacy that are the foundation for all learning in school.
If you think a nightly read aloud ritual between parent and child is a luxury only for those who are well off with smoothly running lives, think again. Alice Ozma’s best-selling memoir, The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared doesn’t just dispel that notion; it illustrates that this simple, daily communion between a book, a child, and a parent can shine a light that soothes the pain of the present and points the way to a hopeful future.
Alice’s father, an elementary school librarian, was fortunate to have a mother who read to him as a young boy. When his daughter Alice was nine, they made a pact to read aloud together for one hundred nights straight. The pact eventually became known as The Streak, stretching out into 3,200 nights and nearly nine years. They marked the final night of The Streak on the steps of Alice’s college dorm, reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, symbolically, because it was the book with which they started.
One suspects that their commitment to The Streak was intensified by the family’s rupture. The Thanksgiving Alice was nine her mother, who we later learn suffered from mental illness, abruptly moved out, leaving Alice’s father to parent two daughters alone. As a man not prone to talking about his feelings, he wasn’t able to help his youngest directly process her own. What he was able to do though, was give her the gift of himself, his time, and his love of books. Through sharing fiction together daily, he not only strengthened his connection with his daughter, he opened worlds of possibility to her.
Recent studies in neuroscience show that we experience fiction as if it’s actually happening to us. Beyond the language-processing parts of the brain that are triggered when we read, the sensory regions are as well. So when we talk about entering into the world of the story, this is in fact what our brains do. Despite the obvious pain that is far below the surface in Alice’s retelling of her story, she is carried along and buoyed by her father’s love and the worlds they share. The loss of her mother, a father who is not comfortable talking about feelings, and her family’s limited financial resources are not determinative for her.
Throughout her school career Alice scored at the top of her class in reading and won awards in writing. Then her graduate school admissions essay on The Streak became a New York Times article which led to publishers taking notice. And so she found herself writing a memoir at the age of twenty-three. Hers is a story that will make you laugh out loud and maybe tear up too, but never is it sentimental or cloying. It is deeply moving, though. If you’re a parent of young children, it may inspire you to make your own reading promise. For this parent of a young adult, I found myself wishing for a do-over—wistful that I didn’t continue read aloud time with my son beyond elementary school.
Originally published by Kim Jocelyn Dickson at fractuslearning.com.
The work of the brain at birth is to begin laying down an internal infrastructure of language that enables the child to make sense of the outside world, preparing her for her ultimate purpose—which is to connect.
Watch the drive to connect in action in three month old Piper’s focused alertness and vocalization as her daddy reads The Hungry Caterpillar to her.
According to Susan Brink, author of The Fourth Trimester: Understanding, Nurturing, and Protecting an Infant Through the First Three Months, hearing develops long before birth. The newborn, already accustomed to the sounds of the muffled maternal voice, recognizes and responds to a mother’s voice first. Beyond a mother’s voice, the sounds in a baby’s world are a meaningless din. But here is where the real learning begins.
“…lest anyone think these undifferentiated noises are useless, think again. With an innate skill that would be the envy of a statistics student, newborns are keeping track of probabilities; setting up neural connections in response to the patterns of the words they hear. They are learning where one word ends and another begins before they utter their first da-da.”[i]
Patricia Kuhl, a neuroscientist and leading expert on speech development at the University of Washington, has discovered that babies are born with the ability to hear the sound distinctions of every language that exists, but by ten months of age—maybe sooner—that ability is lost, “pruned away by a brain eager to cultivate what will be needed and get rid of what won’t.” [ii]
Human babies arrive in this world poised to learn.
At birth, Brink claims, babies possess “…billions of brain cells, or neurons, but little in the way of an internal communication network. Immediately, every interaction with the world–each touch, word, smell, look—helps the baby lay down an infrastructure of dendrites, the branched projections that receive and send signals between neurons.”[iii] The science that enables us to understand that infants begin learning immediately at birth, or even before, is clear and its implications are profound.
But perhaps even more profound than the fact of how soon learning begins is the beautiful metaphor that the brain cell reveals to us, for it organically demonstrates a truth about what it means to be human.
The work of the brain at birth is to begin making connections that enable the child to make sense of the outside world, preparing her for her ultimate purpose, to love. As parents it is important for us to understand that learning is a drive organically rooted in a child’s physical being, and its ultimate aim is to create a meaningful life. When we speak, sing, and read to our child from birth, this loving way of engaging builds neural pathways in the brain that become the physical infrastructure for all future learning and loving.
Learning, therefore, is connection, rooted in relationship.
Major religions throughout history have proclaimed a life of love as the highest human calling, and the observations of those who work in hospice care are equally compelling. Paradoxically, death often illuminates what is most important in life, and those who accompany the dying in life’s final stage are privileged to bear witness to their reflections as they look back over their lives. Social worker Grace Bluerock wrote,
“For six years, I had the amazing gift of being able to experience with people their final days and weeks. For most, these last days and weeks were spent looking back over their lives in deep contemplation. Many regrets were expressed, and many tears were shed. As a hospice social worker, I got a front row seat into the lives of those precious souls as they attempted to come to terms with how they spent their time on this earth. Everyone’s story was different, but each held common threads and similar regrets.” [iv]
The number one regret Bluerock observed in the dying during her years of service is that people wished they had loved more deeply. No one dies wishing they had made more money or worked harder. Ironically, at the moment of our departure from life we are perhaps most conscious of the instinct that existed as an unconscious urge from the very beginning—the longing to connect.
Our very purpose is imbedded in the work of our brain cells as we enter the world, and its function is a metaphor for what we as humans are destined to do.
A child’s drive to connect with his parents is important to understand, as it is the foundation for all learning. From birth on, babies are at work making connections and building the mental and emotional infrastructure that will make sense of the world and carry them into life. As parents of a newborn, we are that world, and the primary responsibility to nurture this process is ours. Speaking, singing, and reading aloud honor our infant’s drive to bond with us and nurtures the emerging internal infrastructure that will carry him into future learning and life.
[i] Susan Brink. “Through a Newborn’s Senses.” Los Angeles Times, May 11. 2013.
As 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.