Tag Archives: parenting

“Sold a Story:” The Reading Wars, Redux?

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.

But I won’t be holding my breath.

You can listen to “Sold a Story” here.

* In response to recent controversy, Calkins has updated her curriculum to include a phonics component.

Potential Obstacles to Reading Aloud? Help is on the Way!

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:

The Essential Ingredients for a Great Read Aloud…

And Is There a Correct Way to Do It?

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.

Have a look!

Where the Love of Reading Begins

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!

Dear Parents…

What teachers wish the parents of their future students knew.

“Any kindergarten teacher can tell you: students do not start school with the same language and literacy skills.” The Children’s Reading Foundation

Did you know that 75% of students who begin school with skills below grade level will never catch up?

As an elementary school teacher, I often wished that I could roll back time and meet the parents of my future students at the door of the maternity ward with a stack of books…

Here’s how parents can ensure their child is ready for kindergarten with the language and literacy skills they need in order to be successful…

Thanks, Read Aloud Nebraska!

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…

Your Baby and Nursery Rhymes

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.

I highly recommend Scott Gustafson’s collection, gorgeously illustrated
with depictions of children of all colors and ethnicities.

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.)

Note: Because you may need some relief from the multiple rereadings you’ll do, check out Ricky Gervais’s take on nursery rhymes. Just for fun. (Language warning.)

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.

The Gift of Reading and Wellness

May was a busy blur of book talks and presentations. While they’re still happening virtually, life does seem to be opening up. Hopefully, soon more of these will happen in person!

One of my favorite audiences to speak to are the parents of young children. Earlier this month I had a great time visiting and sharing with my friend and former colleague Ji Wang’s Saturday morning PTA Wellness group at the elementary school where she is principal. The sign above hangs on the fence right next to their parent drop off/pick-up circle. How clever is that?

Here’s a quick excerpt from my presentation:

If you’re interested in setting up a presentation, book talk, or class for your school or parenting group, I’d love to hear from you! Soon-to-be and new parents, it’s never too early to learn about one of the greatest gifts you’ll ever give your child.

Raising Readers from Birth: An Interview with Kim Jocelyn Dickson

“I couldn’t actually meet the parents of my future students at the exit door of the maternity ward, so I wrote The Invisible Toolbox instead.”

I interviewed recently with dyslexia expert Don Winn. Don is an award-winning author of picture books and Raising a Child with Dyslexia: What Every Parent Needs to Know.

Thanks so much, Don, for this opportunity! A great conversation about what really matters in the early years for EVERY child.

How Reading Inspired Jane Goodall’s Life Path

The Power of a Story to Ignite Imagination

Ground-breaking primatologist. Anthropologist. Conservationist. Speaker. Author.

Jane Goodall’s list of accomplishments is well known, but what may not be as widely recognized is how she came to be the remarkable woman she is today.

From early on British born Jane loved animals. In 1935, on the occasion of King George V’s silver jubilee celebrating 25 years on the throne, her father gave one year old Jane a stuffed chimpanzee in honor of the birth of Jubilee, a baby chimp born at the London Zoo the very same year.

Jane traces her early fascination with animals all the way back to her own little Jubilee who resides with her still in her childhood home in England. But it wasn’t until she was a little older that this affection expanded into a passion that would ultimately draw her into a career that changed the way the world understands animals.

She became an avid reader who found her way to the books that were right for her and, because of those books, she found her life’s passion.

As a young girl Jane grew into a voracious reader and spent hours at the public library or perched on stacks of books at her local second hand book shop. When she could save a little money, she was occasionally able to buy one. In a lovely letter to children published in A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, Jane explains how these books inspired her future:

“…in the summer I would take my special books up in my favorite tree in the garden. My Beech Tree. Up there I read stories of faraway places. I especially loved reading about Doctor Dolittle and how he learned to talk to the animals. And I read about Tarzan and the Apes. And the more I read, the more I wanted to read.”

At the age of ten Jane decided that when she grew up she would go to Africa to live with the animals and write books about them. And that is just what she did.

Jane’s story beautifully illustrates the power books have to inspire the human imagination.

One can’t help but wonder…what if Jane had grown up in a different time? Consider the present for instance. What if she’d had access to screens and the internet and never fell in love with reading as she did? Would Jane Goodall have become the person she is today?

I wonder.

By reading to our children from the beginning and supporting their love of reading throughout their childhood, every child’s imagination can be sparked and ignited.

Books have a unique capacity to fire the imagination. Neurologists now know that we humans experience reading fiction as if it’s actually happening to us. All parts of the brain are engaged when we read, not just the region that processes language—which is what we used to think. The deep and organic engagement that comes with written text doesn’t happen with fiction depicted through images on a screen. A book that a child becomes immersed in, however, literally becomes a part of them.

Jane read and reread the Tarzan books, developed a crush on the noble savage himself, and was quite put out at his choice of a partner. “He married the wrong Jane.”

Fortunately for Jane and for the world, she grew up in the time that she did. She became an avid reader who found her way to the books that were right for her and, because of those books, she found her life’s passion.

What does Jane’s story have to say to us today? Simply this. As parents it is our responsibility to nourish our children’s inner worlds.

Jane was fortunate in having parents who encouraged her to believe she could do whatever she set out to do. They also supported her love of reading.With the myriad distractions parents and children face today, helping children find their way to the books that inspire them is a taller order than it was in Jane’s time. But, it is definitely doable. By reading to our children from the beginning and supporting their love of reading throughout their childhood, every child’s imagination can be sparked and ignited.

And who knows where that might lead to?