One of the Greatest Gifts Resonates Across Cultures
When I wrote The Invisible Toolbox after thirty years in the classroom, I never dreamed my little book, translated and repackaged, would find its way into the hands of a group of mothers halfway across the world in Turkey.
But as I learned last week, its message, that explains why reading aloud is one of the greatest gifts a parent can give, connects across cultures.
Mr. Nabi Avci, a teacher in Konya, Turkey, offered the mothers of his students a gift of his own. He recently led a book discussion group so they could learn how to support their children’s literacy development and love of learning.
Last week he reached out to me via Twitter/X and asked me to drop in on their afternoon meeting to say ‘hello’ via Zoom. That proved to be impossible as when I attempted to join, error code 1142 informed me that this meeting was ‘not accessible in the United States at this time.’
Since I was unable to join the group, I sent a video instead, and Mr. Nabi Avci emailed this report:
We learned much from your book. It was really helpful. Mothers in our group started reading aloud to their children.
He sent these wonderful photos too.
In the midst of the current turmoil in the world, I find it heartening to be reminded that people of good will, no matter their culture, love their children and want what is best for them.
Thank you, Mr. Nabi Avci, for celebrating literacy and for reaching out to me…from one teacher to another.
An Interview With a Very Special New Mom and Baby Leo
I had a wonderful time recently chatting about reading andThe Invisible Toolbox with the lovely and talented anchor and new mom Laura Hettiger on St. Louis’s CBS affiliate KMOV-TV’s new afternoon show My St. Louis LIVE!
Even though I’ve lived in far-away California for many years, I love staying connected with my lifelong hometown friends and happenings in this great historic city.
When I couldn’t go home to visit during COVID, I began watching KMOV’sGreat Day ExtraLivemorning segment online.
Last year Laura announced on the show that she was pregnant, and I knew she needed a copy of The Invisible Toolbox. Every new mom or dad does, you know.
I was thrilled when she got in touch after Leo’s birth to let me know that she’d read it twice (the second time aloud to him) and invited me to come onMy St. Louis LIVE! to discuss why every parent needs this information.
Practically newborn baby Leo (and furry pal Charlie) may not understand the words yet, but they do feel the love and attention from Mom when she reads aloud to them. This connection will become the foundation for Leo’s invisible toolbox, or, “the emerging internal infrastructure that will carry (him) into future learning and life.”
Thank you, Laura, for doing such an awesome job helping to get the word out about this important thing that parents need to know—-that reading aloud to your little one from the beginning is essential for their development, well-being, and readiness for school.
And thank you, baby Leo, for hanging with us even though you had to postpone your nap a little!
Laura posted this on Facebook after our interview:
What a treat getting to know St. Louis’s own Kim Jocelyn Dickson, the author of The Invisible Toolbox, on yesterday’s My St. Louis LIVE!
When I was pregnant with Baby Leo, Kim sent me a copy of her book. I read it while I was pregnant, then I read it out loud to Leo during my maternity leave. As I told Kim, things just “clicked” so much more when I was looking at Leo and reading to him.
And that’s the thing: reading to kids is so important!
During yesterday’s segment, Kim discussed why kids who have been read to already have so many tools in their toolbox once they start school.
I hope as my little Illini grows, our time reading together turns into a special time he looks forward to each day.
Thank you, Kim, for being part of My Mom Club! And to all the fellow new parents out there, grab a book, get comfy and enjoy that special time with your little one!
That American children are struggling with reading has worked its way into the media conversation at last. It’s about time.
First came the “news” that the 2021 post-Covid NAEP (our nation’s report card) reading scores for 4th and 8th graders dropped for the first time in decades:
Nearly two thirds of our students don’t read proficiently!
What wasn’t reported is the fact that nearly this same percentage has been the case for some time.
Then in the fall of 2022, Emily Hanford’s “Sold a Story” podcast recast the eternal Reading Wars. This time, the opposing camps are Lucy Calkins’ Balanced Literacy vs. the Science of Reading. Lucy Calkins’ curriculum did not come out well in this. The media blew up over it, and various states have banned Balanced Literacy’s 3-cueing strategy for figuring out unknown words and poured money into retraining teachers in the Science of Reading, aka Structured Reading, with its heavy emphasis on systematic phonics instruction.
I couldn’t help wondering. Are there really primary teachers who—no matter what curriculum they use—don’t teach phonics? How in the world can you not in the teaching of beginning reading?
The next big thing that made news and drew the attention of the world beyond education insiders was the release of the film “The Right to Read” on Juneteenth of 2023. Promoted by LeVar Burton of Reading Rainbow fame, its aim is to shine a light on the literacy crisis as a symptom of societal injustice and to promote the Science of Reading as the solution and path to equity.
Two things about all of this are especially important.
First is the acknowledgment that we actually have a literacy crisis. When 65% of our 4th and 8th graders don’t read proficiently, that’s a problem. Reading well is foundational for all learning and has lifelong implications for individuals as well as society.
According to the United States Department of Justice, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.” Over 70% of inmates in America’s prisons cannot read above a fourth grade level.
The second good thing is we’re taking a hard look at how reading is taught.
The reality is that college teacher training programs don’t actually teach prospective teachers how to teach reading. New teachers learn on the job, and what they learn is generally determined by what is gleaned from colleagues and the curriculum that the school adopts.
It can take several years of experience in the classroom for teachers to understand that effective reading instruction involves many essential threads. The wholistic approach and appreciation of literature that Balanced Literacy celebrates and the systematic direct instruction promoted by the Science of Reading are both necessary in good teaching.
Excellent teaching and fundamentally sound comprehensive reading curriculum are extremely important.
“Our bigger problem now is Johnny doesn’t read.”
But here’s the thing.
If a student is well taught and yet does not read outside of classroom instruction, it’s unlikely that student will become a proficient reader.
Like any skill, the practice of reading matters when it comes to mastery.
In many cases, it’s not that “Johnny can’t read.” Our bigger problem now is Johnny doesn’t read.
Yes, technology has a huge part to play in this, but we’ll leave that for another discussion.
What I will do is remind you how children become motivated to choose to read. Parents and teachers both have important roles to play here.
Let’s start with parents who, I would argue, have the most critical role. I’ve written about this inThe Invisible Toolbox, explaining in as concise and direct a way as possible, how reading from birth affects a child’s development and future readiness for school.
Repeated exposure to books is a bedrock foundation for future reading for pleasure and makes the road ahead much smoother for a child.
“While it’s ideal to begin reading to your child from the get-go, if you haven’t, it’s not too late.”
Up until adolescence, generally speaking, children—even if they don’t appear to—crave the time and attention of their parents, so it is possible to begin a nightly read aloud habit even with older children. They may balk a bit at first, but if you choose a great book to share, that should quickly dissipate.
While it’s ideal to begin reading to your child from the get-go, if you haven’t, it’s not too late.
Which brings me to the next thing parents can do. Visit the place where you can borrow books—for free! Your local library. Do this together and do it regularly. Help your child get their own library card and choose their own books.
While you’re at the library, pick out some books for yourself. Let your child see you reading. Talk about books, yours and theirs.
Set clear boundaries for technology and enforce them.
Encourage your child’s daily reading habit. Make sure there is space in their day or evening for it.
Once you’ve done this for a while, your child may begin to choose to read themselves. Eventually, they may find their homework goes more quickly, becomes easier for them. Their grades even improve! This is the time to gently make the connection for them.
“I’ve noticed that all this reading for fun you’ve been doing, seems to be making school more interesting for you…” Then take them to the nearest bookstore or second hand shop and let them buy a book to celebrate.
“Teachers have an important role here too in supporting reading for pleasure.”
Teachers have an important role here too in supporting reading for pleasure.
Make sure that you teach great books that you love as much as they will. Your genuine enthusiasm and interest matter if you wantthem to engage.
Also, be sure to provide opportunities for students to choose their own books.
When I taught fifth grade literature, I required students to choose a book a month within a particular genre and create a project after reading it. This assignment provided for both accountability and choice. It also ensured their exposure to various genres they might not choose on their own. For instance, a student who reads nothing but fantasy books might discover they enjoy historical fiction too.
At the end of the school year, students often reported this monthly book report activity as one of their favorite things. Kids love hands on projects. They often discovered an interest in genres they’d never explored before.
Another thing teachers can do is to actually talk to kids about the importance of reading, explaining why and how it makes a difference in their schooling and lives.
A teacher can also help students make the connection between their choices and the outcomes.
At the end of each trimester, my literature students took an Accelerated Reader standardized achievement test. The results showed their growth throughout the year, their independent reading levels, and also indicated how they performed compared to students that the test was normed on in their age group.
With my fifth graders, I always shared these scores with them–privately, of course. I explained how standardized tests work and how the choices they make, even outside of the classroom, affect their scores.
As their awareness grew as the year progressed, it was interesting to see how students who previously hadn’t paid attention began to care. Once they understood how the tests actually functioned and how the choices they made—and believe me, they knew what they were—actually showed up in an objective way, it was empowering for them.
This student report indicates a leap from the 27th percentile to the 73rd, quite a jump even when factoring in possible summer slide to account for the low beginning of the year score. The intervention included a chat with a parent who didn’t realize two hours of gaming each school night was an issue. Video games were moved to weekends only, homework began to be turned in, and the student reported to me that “Now, when I’m bored, I read.”
For teachers, facilitating students’ awareness and encouraging their agency in making good choices about choosing to read go hand in hand with teaching the skills and helping students find pleasure in reading.
The last thing I’ll mention that I recommend teachers do is something I would do at the beginning of each school year when parents came to meet me at Back to School Night.
I talked to parents about the importance of their child reading for pleasure outside of the classroom.
I encouraged parents—even my fifth graders’ parents whose children were already independent readers—to read aloud to them and enjoy books together. I reminded them that adolescence was around the corner and that reading aloud together during this time in their child’s life was a wonderful way to connect and nurture their bond in preparation for the days ahead when peers become ever more important.
At the end of one school year, one of the mothers sought me out to tell me that she’d taken my suggestion with her two sons, one a fifth grader, the other a seventh grader. She created a family read aloud ritual that school year and the boys loved it.
Her sons were already voracious readers for pleasure, so her aim wasn’t about helping them find their way down that road. It was about connection through creating space for family time together and sharing the pleasure of a good book.
When it comes right down to it, isn’t that what reading for pleasure is all about?
A child who reads for pleasure will not only have the tools and skills they need for school and beyond, they’ll have a habit that the English novelist Anthony Trollope once said “…lasts when all other recreations are gone. It will last until your death. It will make your hours pleasant to you as long as you live.”
When I learned recently that my publisher was working on selling foreign rights to The Invisible Toolbox, I did a quick Google search and came across this image along with various links to sellers in a language I didn’t understand. Every now and then I’ll do that to see where the book is turning up or being sold. But this was a big surprise.
It was a thrill to see my book clothed in a new cover and translated into Turkish—like a grown child who’s moved out into the world and created a life of their own!
It’s also a lovely reminder that the message of The Invisible Toolbox is universal. A child’s need for a nurturing connection with their parent and a strong foundation in language and love of story is shared by all cultures.
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:
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 Part 2: Building the Invisible Toolbox with Love
In Dear Parents Part 1 we explored the research proving that the years before a child enters school are critical in predicting outcomes. Here’s what we know. Every child enters kindergarten with a lunchbox in one hand and an Invisible Toolbox in the other. If a child has been read to daily throughout the preschool years, that toolbox will overflow with all the pre-literacy tools they need in order to thrive. For those who have not been read to, their toolboxes will be empty and school will be a struggle.
Busy, overwhelmed parents of infants and preschoolers may wonder if technology can assist in building their child’s Invisible Toolbox.
Many parents are indeed availing themselves of this option as evidenced in the popularity of Netflix’s most highly rated show of 2020, CoComelon. An animated streaming show of nursery rhymes and children’s songs, CoComelon is aimed at the preschool set. In 2021, it was the most-watched YouTube channel in the United States and second most streamed show in the world.
So, the question parents need to ask is this. Does it matter whether my child learns their nursery rhymes watching CoComelon on a screen…or on my lap having a cuddle?
It’s an important question and, fortunately, neuroscience has the answer for us. Have a watch:
Subscribe to my YouTube channel for 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.
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…