The Problem With Our Early Reading Obsession

When I write about how my daughter is succeeding as a reader even though (or because?) I did not force sight word flashcards or memorizing the alphabet on her as a preschooler, my thinking inevitably returns to readers we would term “at-risk” because of their sorely limited book access.

I wonder if my talk of autonomy and following the child’s lead and student choice & voice are another facet of our privilege, overlooking the needs of kids that need to “catch up” with their peers? Is my priority to cultivate the reader over the reading level potentially damaging for these children?

But this question, and all initiatives out there that insist every child must read by a certain level by age fill-in-the-blank (usually implemented in areas with higher number of at-risk kids), leads to a rather slippery slope with regards to development & choice. We must be wary of practices that suggest that honoring developmental readiness is only reserved for children of a certain class.

This wariness should become sharper when we are faced with programs that overshadow books themselves. When programs > books, we run into equity issues every time because only the kids that quickly finish up their program assignment get time to simply read books of their choosing (Matthew Effect, anyone?)

So, how do we…

…work to eliminate the reading ability gap our low-income students face while still honoring developmental readiness and choice?

…seek out accountability that all students are receiving high quality reading instruction while also avoiding silver bullet programs that promise guarantees?

…ensure that in our zeal to help them find words, we do not allow our anxious agendas to swallow up their voices & choices?

Even as we work to identify diverse literary needs and developmental readiness, we can find a more joyful, inviting reading community for all as we focus more on nurturing readers & cultures than on pushing reading levels.

“For too long we have focused on the development of reading for skills, not for the love of reading.  Yet, we need both types of experiences in order to fully develop as readers.” ~Pernille Ripp

(so many practical ideas from Pernille on establishing that culture in her post).

For our early readers, we seem to have been especially caught up in the skills side of reading. We need to stop packing in skills so tightly that they crowd out reading itself.

As Donalyn Miller recently summed up,

Each and every one of our early readers deserve librarians just as much as they deserve high-quality reading specialists. They deserve books in their hands just as much as they deserve guided reading groups. And they deserve teachers who share their authentic love of reading just as much as they deserve teachers who effectively build decoding skills.

It’s understandable to feel overwhelmed by fear of kids falling behind. But when we start from a place of love of the reading instead of fear, we ultimately lay a literary foundation that is much more lasting and meaningful for all our readers.

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Ever-Evolving Book Environment #TeacherMom

Our books have seen a lot of different kinds of arrangements. And most of what I’ve shared here has been of the pretty kind:

Bedside reading:

Display for our books from the library:

Spring cleaning sorting by author, size, and collection:

Variety is key, and it’s not always super pretty. It’s all about access. Which means it should be ever-evolving, based on our observations of our kids’ shifting needs. And access wins over pretty every time.

This might look like…

…pulling out books from our tightly-packed shelf onto the display area with the library books to remind our kids of gems they’ve forgotten.

…giving them their own shelf to organize favorite books (and to keep them safe from book-shredding little brothers for now).

…letting them go to town arranging their own personal “library.”

What are ways you help encourage book access with your kids at home? How does that shift over time?

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She Just Asked Google To Remind Her to “Read All the Books On the Bottom Shelf” #TeacherMom

A few days ago, I overheard my 8 year-old adding her day plans to our shared daily to-do list (more on that here). Using the speech-to-text feature, amid other typical tasks, I suddenly heard her say, “Read all the books on the bottom shelf.”

Teacher mom that I am, of course I was delighted. 

But then I turned to reflect once more on our journey of her literacy:

The pressures I felt to ensure she memorized the ABC’s before kindergarten.

The way I felt like a failure as a teacher when she would not cooperate with my beautifully laid-out magnetic letter play.

The constant tension I felt between whether I should let her choose her own books or drill her on-level basal reader or sight-word flashcards to push her to the next reading level.

The nagging worry that I was denying her opportunities by turning down programs with the label, “proven to be successful in improving the reading skills of every student who participates.”

The way I wondered if I was wrong to yield to her book-making efforts over any worksheets that came home.

Yet amid all the angst, here we are to nearly the start of 3rd grade, and not only is she a fantastic reader and writer, but she’s adding items to her to-do list like “read all the books on the bottom shelf.”

It makes me wonder. Had I pushed all those academics and level advancement on her from my place of stress and worry, would she be making such choices for her summer? My suspicion is that had I pushed my agenda on my strong-willed child, she would want little to do with books today–especially on her “time off.”

It seems that those of us raising kids today are given every reason to believe that to trust our kids’ autonomy over their learning is tantamount to negligence. We are constantly bombarded with ads that offer promises of confidence in our children’s future success. We are so stressed by questions on whether we’re doing enough for our kids, that there is little room left for noticing the learning that quietly and naturally unfolds each day.

This is where I’ll share and re-share this quote from Brene Brown (see it also on Preschool, Kinder-Prep, & 3 Things Kids Need Most):

There is an abundance of learning and growing happening within our kids each day. Recognizing, embracing, and celebrating that from a place of love will always outperform operating from a place of not-enough stress and fear. Not because it will guarantee some future Harvard acceptance or a job on Wall Street, but because it will cultivate a lifetime of joyful learning.

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6 Gorgeous Picture Books Capturing Magical, Independent Childhoods #TeacherMom

One of my all-time favorite childhood books is Gyo Fujikawa’s “Oh, What A Busy Day!” What I found most magical about it as a child was observing all the ideas those kids pursued — without a single supervising adult.

As recently shared on the LetGrow site,

“Once upon a time, kids were part of the world. They were allowed to go places, do things, meet people. They were active.

For “active” now substitute “activities.” Kids participate in activities created for them, not by them. We take them, show them, teach them, protect them in a way that most of us — given the choice — would have rejected in favor of adventure.”

To me, this comes down to a major break-down of trust and community. Driven by our fears of all that might happen if we don’t do what is described above, we teach our kids that no one — not even our kids themselves — are worthy of trust.

That’s why I adore the following picture books. May they inspire you and your children to cultivate greater trust & recapture the magic of childhoods filled with healthy independence & adventure.

#1: Oh, What A Busy Day! by Gyo Fujikawa

Published in 1976, this picture book was ahead of its time with regards to diversity. It takes children through the possibilities of every facet of childhood, from make-believe, to fighting with friends, to enjoying the different seasons. I literally spent years trying to recall the author or title before I finally stumbled across our original beloved copy at my parents’ house — I immediately bought a reprint. Her own words describing how she felt about her audience sum up her beautiful work:

“In illustrating for children, what I relish most is trying to satisfy the constant question in the back of my mind–will this picture capture a child’s imagination? What can I do to enhance it further? Does it help to tell a story? I am far from being successful (whatever that means), but I am ever so grateful to small readers who find ‘something’ in any book of mine.”

#2: Everything You Need for a Treehouse by Carter Higgins & Emily Hughes

This lovely read came from Colby Sharp’s recommendation. I loved it so much that I bought it for my daughter’s birthday book as it reminded me of her sense of adventure & creativity. Kids are shown the many dreamy ways they can enjoy treehouse goodness — even if they are still waiting on a tree.

#3: Windows by Julia Denos & E.B. Goodale

Go for an evening walk with a young boy as he learns about his neighborhood through his own quiet observations. I love the way this captures how much kids can notice about their communities when given the chance.

#4: Bertolt  by Jacques Goldstyn

A book that will speak to the introvert’s soul. A child loves spending time with his tree, Bertolt, more than anything else in the world. His quiet observations and problem-solving will win over the hearts of all that love to get some alone-time.

#5: Roxaboxen by Alice McLerran & Barbara Cooney

My friend Faige Meller first introduced me to Roxaboxen, and it has been a family favorite ever since! The Goodreads reviews are packed with nostalgia, but I think it’s important to note that kids haven’t stopped being capable of creating such a retreat. We as adults need to just get out of their way more often to let them make it happen. “Roxaboxen is always waiting. Roxaboxen is always there.”

#6: Raft by Jim LaMarche

A story filled with appreciation and self-discovery. Kids will love following Nicky through the woods as he comes to love a summer of solitude at his grandmother’s house.

What about you? What are your favorite reads that promote the independent and magical childhoods we are all nostalgic for (and that we can again support)!

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What Happens When Programs > Books

When classroom literacy instruction starts to become completely overtaken by that literacy programs, do actual books start to get in the way? After all, reading a book takes more time. Selecting passages from actual books to share with students takes time. Talking about our favorite books (and building the culture that makes us want to) takes time.

And time is what we lack most as teachers!

Plus, when that program has mapped out tasks and “personalized” progress for every day of the school year, it seems our literary expertise starts to take a back seat to that very expensive program.

So what starts happening when programs > books?

Books seem like luxurious “extras” (you can get to your book when you finish the worksheet or level).

Books seem less efficient than the programs (we all know books have value, but if they’re not carefully scaffolding the reading development with every word, are they as valuable during class time?) 

Read aloud time starts to disappear (after all, the programs seem to encompass all the literary needs, not to mention time).

Programs are deemed more adept at identifying skills (at least, the skills most easily recognizable/test-able).

Kids talk less about the books they’re reading and more about the levels they’re on (it makes sense since all that time on programs suggests we’re more interested in getting them to the next level than we are about their reading interests).

No matter how appealing and adept a program might seem, we must be careful to seek balance and to protect our students’ love of books. As authors by Antero Garcia and Cindy O’Donnell-Allen write, “To see themselves as readers, students must also have opportunities to make decisions about what they will read.” p. 98, Pose, Wobbble, Flow. Pernille Ripp also writes eloquently on programs like Accelerated Reader & selecting literacy programs. Also this:

If books have started to be relegated to a sideline role in our classrooms, it’s time to ask ourselves how we can bring them back into our reading instruction in meaningful ways.

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“Memory Is Magic:” Islandborn Book Tour

For some, the idea of family history conjures images of dusty microfiche and ancient film readers. But for me, it’s been a vibrant, fascinating part of my life for the past decade.

Epic mysteries of a Jewish great-great-grandmother fleeing Russia.

Father vs. son in the American Civil War.

Adoption via The Orphan Train.

family history shadowbox I’ve compiled

It’s one of the reasons I love “Islandborn” by Junot Diaz, illustrated by Leo Espinosa. It is simply bursting with all that makes heritage so rich and beautiful–even if we can’t remember it ourselves.

Lola feels worried that she can’t remember her country of origin like her classmates can. Her teacher says, “No problema. Are there people around you who do remember?”

I love this theme of using other people’s memories, even slipped onto the back cover:

Lola spends the rest of the book drawing pictures based on her family and neighbors’ descriptions of the Island. Even the uglier parts of their memories still play an important role in capturing what the Islanders have lived through and overcome. Her journey to paint a past she can’t quite remember herself brings new meaning to the time I’ve spent scanning photos, transcribing interviews, and curating documents. When it comes to remembering our heritage, truly, “Memory is magic;” it is worth taking measures to connect with family and friends that do remember.

“Islandborn” hits the bookshelves on March 13, and I’m honored to have been asked to be part of its book tour with Penguin Young Readers. Other books that illustrate the magic of memory for you to check out include:

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Review: Marabel & the Book of Fate (aka, my first ARC book review!)

I’ve known about ARC’s for many years. I even own several that a professor gave to us during my children’s lit class back in college. But despite the fact that I’ve been writing about children’s books for years on this blog, it didn’t occur to me to ask publishers for advance copies to review here until last week.

I went ahead and sent emails to several different publishers, and held my breath. To my surprise, I opened my front door a few days later to not just an advance copy, but a finished copy of Marabel and the Book of Fate by Tracy Barrett, which celebrated its #bookbirthday yesterday! Thank you, Little, Brown and Company!

What drew me in to request a copy of this title was the comparison with Ella Enchanted, which was a beloved favorite growing up. When it comes to providing a magical world with every fantasy-based creature imaginable, Tracy Barrett does not disappoint.

Marabel is an almost-13 year old on a mission to save her twin brother, the Chosen One of Magikos who has been kidnapped by the ruler of the Barrens, but she’s also on a mission to find herself — her voice, her courage, and her determination. Crossing the wall into the realm of “Evils,” she leads her friend Ellie and the talking unicorn Floriano into an adventure that challenges bravery and friendship, as well as everything she has ever been taught about magical beings.

I loved watching Marabel’s story unfold, especially in the second half of the book when she really begins to question what she has always known and come into her own as she owns her power and contributions. I was surprised at times at how easily certain plot points resolved, especially with regards to more rigid elements like her father’s stubbornness and the Book of Fate itself, but perhaps that’s something that will be revisited in future books in the series. 4 stars.

A perfect read to recommend to ages 8-10, and perhaps a contender for a classroom read-aloud!

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