Thursday, September 23, 2010

Books About Fire Safety, Fire Fighters and Fire!

Don't you love that there are books on every subject?  And that stories and books and reading and text all relate to things in real life?

A new friend of mine, Stephanie Goodman of Safety Mom Enterprises, is part of the nationwide effort to draw attention to Fire Safety Month (October).  Any of you with children should be especially interested since, during the coming month, in most schools, children will be hearing about what to do in case of a fire.

I thought it might be fun to share a few book titles with you on the subject of fire, firefighters (and, in a few cases, fire safety) and then provide some important information from Stephanie to help you make sure you know what to do in your home if a fire breaks out.

Big Frank's Fire Truck by Leslie McGuire (ages 4-8)
Firefighters A to Z by Chris Demesest (ages 3-6)
I Want to Be A Firefighter by Dan Liebman (ages 4-7)
Fire Drill by Paul DuBois Jacobs (ages 4-8)
Fire Fighters to the Rescue by  Bobbie Kalman (ages 4-8)
Even Firefighters Hug Their Moms by Christine McClain (ages 4-8)
The Buddy Files: The Case of the Fire Alarm by Dori Butler and Jeremy Tugeau  (ages 8-10)
Fire Horses by Margaret Fetty (ages 9-12)
Wildfire Run by Dee Garrettson (ages 9-12)
Forgotten Fire by Adam Baqdasian (ages 14+)
Fahrenheit 541 by Ray Bradbury (ages teen to adult)
Playing with Fire by Melody Carlson (young adult)
The Big Burn:  Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire That Saved America by Timothy Egan (young adult to adult)


October is fire safety month, and most schools will be talking to our kids about what to do in case of a fire.  But how many of us really practice this at home?   How many of us have taken a few moments to read the instructions on our fire extinguisher?  Would you know how to use it in a fire?  

Take some time in the coming weeks and put together an emergency evacuation plan and practice it! Here are some additional tips to keep in mind: 
  • Having properly installed smoke alarms cut the chances of dying in a reported fire by half.  Install smoke alarms in every bedroom, outside every sleeping area and on every level of the home.  Consider purchasing one with an escape light built in as well.  Put a note on the calendar to test the smoke alarm on the first of every month.
  • Be sure to place specially designed stickers from the fire department on the window of each child’s bedroom which will alert fire fighters that a child could be present in that room.
  • Keep fire extinguishers in various places around your home including the kitchen, garage, near the furnace and near any fireplace.
  • If you use a portable space heater, be sure it has built-in safety features, such as automatic shutoffs, anti-tipping devices and heat guards.
  • When you have small children in the home, install a baby gate around the fireplace to prevent access.
  •  Purchase a 2-Story Emergency Fire Escape Ladder and keep it somewhere in or near your bedroom.
  •  Teach your children never to try and put out a fire themselves but to leave the house immediately and call 911 from a neighbor’s home.  Have a fire drill once every few months so that everyone can practice.
You can learn more safety tips and give your kids a chance to ride a fire truck during Safety Saturday at your local Lowe’s store on Saturday, September 25th from 10AM – 2PM.  And, your kids can even build a fire truck for themselves!  Visit  and be one of the first 50 to sign up and reserve your spot. All Build & Grow attendees will receive a free apron and goggles.  

To support this important effort and my new friend, Stephanie, I'm donating my Fire Truck Building Kit to a child in my community.   Send me an email and you could win a free book (be sure to put "FIRE BOOK" in the subject line and indicate what age child you have.


And don't forget . . .

Wednesday, September 1, 2010



For 6 months now I've been working on a project with the Region IV Head Start Association's Executive Director, Myra Ingram.  Talk about inspiring!  I've visited Head Start classrooms, talked with parents and teachers and children and today we have a chance to make a bigger dream real.

My company, TLA, Inc., and Region IV Head Start Association are teaming up now for the Pepsi Refresh Project,  

Parents everywhere can relate to the idea that moms and dads want the very best for their child.  And in Head Starts across the SE, we have a chance to build upon what is already happening with family engagement to bring a new level of partnership between home and school.Learn more by visiting the Pepsi Refresh Pages for this project, watching the video and then voting.  Take a few minutes to then help us spread the word as broadly as possible (I'm telling EVERYONE on the earth that I know!)

There are several ways you can participate and make this dream possible:

to vote personally for the project (a quick registration is all you need).  Then bookmark the site and put a reminder on your phone or calendar to vote daily (30 votes are possible for this one project per person - one a day.  

2) Share this blog or the link through social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin and others.  Your connections plus ours make for great numbers.  Encourage as many of your friends as possible to vote daily as well. When you see someone else Tweeting this voting, retweet them too!

3) Offer voting by texting  (all regular texting fees apply):  Text* 102675 to Pepsi (73774).
 Again, daily votes prompted by a calendar reminder are great.  If you'd like an email remainder, request same by emailing TLA

4)  Reach your best friends, collagues and the nonprofit agencies (including Head Starts) throughout the SE states of AL, FL, GA, KY, MS, NC, SC, TN - they'll be learning about this opportunity to impacts them directly soon if they haven't already gotten the word.  Let's get everyone on the bandwagon to vote daily.  

Together we can do this but we need EVERY vote! Thank you all!   Stay tuned for updates.  As of this afternoon, we've moved up approximately 40 points in the running but we are still far from our goal of being #1 or #2.  I know we can do it with the help from each of you!

Support Region IV! 

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Preventing the Summer Reading Slump


Most of you reading this blog have probably heard of the "summer reading slump".  It's simply the idea that when children are away from reading, especially during the years in which their reading skills are developed, they lose ground in their abilities.  They read less and their skills grow weaker.  This is true for children just finishing kindergarten and first grade but it is equally true for older kids, even those who have been reading for years.

Think about bodybuilders or people who exercise.  Once they stop exercising, their muscles quickly deteriorates or weakens because they aren't using them.  It's the same with reading.  Use it or lose it (I'm realizing that on the physical level more and more with each passing year --- I can barely hold up this stack of books)!

The counterargument I hear from parents and caregivers most often, in response to this idea of children reading in the summer, is, "don't the children deserve a break?"

That's why I advocate summer reading be on a different channel.  Reading doesn't have to look or feel like school work.  In the summer more than any other time, it should be fun with lots of free choice and lots of opportunities rather than a structured "you've got to read now" approach.  Don't confuse academic activities -- something your child only does in a classroom -- with the many purposes for reading and writing.   And every book they read during the summer vaccinates them again losing ground they have gained during the year.


Think about how we as adults use reading and writing as tools every day.  We read menus, grocery lists and advertisements, articles and emails on the Internet; we do some reading when we are selecting vacation destinations or planning trips.  Reading and writing is all around us.  And the reality is that often those who are most successful, who deal with the complexities of the modern world more easily, are those who have strong skills in this area.  They can quickly scan through a complex advertisement or document and understand what it's about.  On the other hand, if someone isn't a very good reader or writer, it can keep him or her from a job he or she would like to have.  Minimal skills can prevent anyone from making informed, quick decisions that could impact one's very life or livelihood.

Again, let's go back to other areas in real life:  if a child wants to be a star basketball player like Koby Bryant (or if we have dreams of him doing so), practice is part of the equation.  I can't think of a skill that's more important to practice than reading.


This very topic was the subject of a recent radio interview I did with host Pat Montgomery of the Parents Rule show on July 8th entitled Are We There Yet?  Preventing the Summer Reading Slump.  If you weren't able to join us live, you can listen to a podcast of the show (I'll post a permanent link on iTunes as soon as it is available). In that delightful show, we talked about three secrets to preventing the summer slump without turning our homes into academic hothouses and creating a negative feeling about reading:

1.  Choice (autonomy).  Number one, kids won't want to read something "required".  Your child's school may have a summer reading list and he or she certainly needs to complete the assigned reading but sprinkle in between lots of juicy books, magazines, online articles, ebooks, etc. on subjects that are intriguing to your child -- what really turns him on?  Save the school reading for the last month of the summer and concentrate on fun, entertaining and engaging reading in the meantime. Or get it out of the way first thing so you can concentrate on what your child wants to read.

What's "the thing" among your child's peers (vampire movies, Hanna Montana, Silly Bandz)?  Connect reading to popular fads.  And remember that choice happens when reading materials are available (so regular trips to the library, bookmobile or bookstore are in order).

Choice alone may not be enough, especially if your child isn't interested at all with reading.  Engage her in reading to see when that summer concert she's been dying to go to will be in town.  Give him the chance to research the destination of a trip and choose a few activities do while there.  Prompt him that online resources, travel books from the library or even writing a letter to a local chamber of commerce for brochures is a way to make sure he doesn't miss the "best things around".   If you are traveling to a national park, where your children will see animals, find books or articles on those critters and read about them together before you go.  Don't think "academic"; think "interest".

2.  Opportunity (and authentic purposes).  If our kids' days are packed full of scheduled activities that, in and of themselves might be terrific (swimming, camp, bike riding, computer games, texting friends, etc.), then there is often no time for reading.  There may be too many choices.

Here's where your example and leadership iare so important.  Set aside a little time each day or two (before bedtime, in the heat of the day with a cool fan or dish of ice cream, on a quilt under a tree, even family reading time where everyone is reading or being read to as the sun sets).

Consistently offer reading as an option and make it enticing.  If you don't know how to do that because perhaps you're not a good reader yourself, talk with friends who are teachers or the neighbor that you always see coming out of the library with a armload of books.  Visit my website and, on the home page, scroll down to "Hear the Literacy Ambassador".  Click on the second item in the red screen and you'll hear a radio show with Ready to Learn Mom Stacey Kannenberg in which I model just how to read Goodnight Moon with a child.

And remember that great reading isn't restricted to novels - how to articles, three-wheeler magazines, any nonfiction is just as much reading as fiction (made up stories).  Reading on the Internet is still reading (that's what you're doing here, right?)

Moms and dads: do a little planning but 
NEVER let it look like something planned to your kids.

3.  Access (and a chance to journey to mastery through regular practice).  If there are no books or reading materials in your home, your child isn't likely to search them out but you don't have to do this on your own:.  
     Set up a neighborhood book swap or book drive (if you choose the latter, get the kids involved in previewing all the donated books and writing personal recommendations on post-its taped inside the front cover of each book). 

      Have a contest among the children in your extended family to find the coolest website on ________ (whatever topic is a guaranteed "hook" for the kids).

      Even Walmart has a book section.  Most public libraries have terrific summer reading programs that go beyond books to include many related activities.

      Include some sort of game in which the kids have to read directions or cards at pool parties, picnics and pajama sleepovers.

Ask if the summer programs your child is scheduled for have 

          book stashes that can be loaned, 

          RIF/Reading is Fundamental programs (giving away books to those least likely to own them), or 

          visiting storytellers, authors, or readers.

Each of these three ideas -- choice, opportunity, and access -- are core to motivating our children to read during the summer.  


Check out these suggested websites for additional information followed by The Literacy Ambassador's list of new HOT SUMMER READS:

A blog from IVillage:  9 Sure Fire Ways to Fight the Summer Reading Slump 
An always trusted voice,  
An article for teachers, packed full of ideas for parents
Casey Study on Current Situation with Readers up to 3rd Grade

Preschool through first grade:   

Slow Down for Manatees by Jim Arnosky
Bad Frogs by Thatcher Hurd
A Beach Tail by Karen Lynn Williams

2nd through 5th grade

The Last Polar Bear by Jean Craighead George
Where Should the Turtle Be? by Susan Ring
The Bag of Bones by Vivian French
Spacehead by Jon Scieszka

Middle School

Hurricane Song by Paul Volponi
Countdown by Deborah Wiles
Scat by Carl Hiaason

High School

The Enemy by Charles Higson 
Stormchasers by Jenna Blum
Deadline by Chris Crutcher

Teen INK., a magazine with work from teen authors

Adult recommended reading

Summer is the perfect time to dive into Anytime Reading Readiness, a quick pick up and read resource for parents packed full of ideas for helping your 3-6 year old get ready to read.  

For a more meaty read, learn more about the surprising truth about what motivates us in Drive by Daniel H. Pink. You can even get a free bookplate for your own copy at Dan's website for a limited period of time.   

The best novel I've read this summer:  Stormchasers by Jenna Blum. 

All of you who are on Facebook, visit The Literacy Ambassador's Summer Challenge.  This puts a call to action in front of all of us, whether we are focusing on our own child (or children) or someone else's.  Find the book that gets them hooked!  

I close this blog with a quote that Pat Montgomery shared during the course of her show today that I believe is a terrific message for families everywhere. 

Children who are not spoken to by…responsive adults will not learn to speak properly.  Children who are not answered will stop asking questions.  They will become incurious.  
And children who are not told stories and who are not read to will have few reasons for wanting to learn to read. . . . Gail Haley

As always, I invite you to share your own "outside the box" ideas about what you are doing with reading this summer and forward this blog to someone who has a child.  Together, we can make a difference.


Thursday, July 1, 2010

Meet Ellen Richard - Teacher, Mom and Creative Resource

Meet Ellen Richard and her family!  Via the Internet, I recently met this amazing teacher and innovative entrepreneur and she's doing something incredible to encourage young children in writing and spelling.  I was so impressed that I asked her to post a guest blog for me here so you could gain from some of her ideas.  I'm also posting her ideas and comments on my sister blog for educators. The topic is spelling and handwriting.  Take it away, Ellen!

Spelling is tough.  But,as a teacher from down in the trenches, I can tell parents that demanding kids write the same words over and over again is not the most productive use of your (or your child's) time. Educators, as a whole, have shifted away from rote memorization and endless tracing of inconsequential spelling lists and instead are spending their time figuring out ways to engage kids.  It's my experience that kids who truly are excited about the subject matter learn more and learn it faster.

Kids who have issues memorizing (there are many of them out there, not even counting those with identified learning disorders), are in a real pickle.  There is not context for the words, and there is not connection made.  Now, in all fairness, sometimes the words rhyme but more often than not they are just a group of words that the publishers of the textbook happened to think were appropriate for all the kids in a class.  One size doesn't fit all.  There are so many kids whose brains just work a little differently and, for those kids, spelling can be a huge problem.

I know, I know -- we have computers who do all our thinking, right?  Wrong!   Even in the age of SpellCheck and T-9 Alpha, kids need to know how to spell.  Why?  Because we still need to use a standardized, easily understandable common spelling for ease of communication.  That will never change and it applies whether your child is just learning to spell or whether they are an older student.

So what can you do to make spelling easier?
Three words:  authentic learning experiences.

Kids need to be engaged in what they are doing.  They need to see how and why spelling is so important.  Tracing or copying a list of words does not help the kids make essential connections that they need to learn how to spell words, or retain that information.  Whether you are thinking young children with growing small motor abilities or older students who've had some experiences with spelling, engagement is key.

I believe it is just fine to have young kids trace words to help them learn how to spell and/or print but here's the catch:  the words have to be meaningful to them.  A list of random words is not meaningful.  A letter to a friend is.  A story written by the child himself is also meaningful.  An article about the child's favorite sport or musician is too.  It's our jobs as educators (and yes, parents are the most important educators in a child's life) to find out what interests our kids and connect writing to it.

Ask questions; dig a little.  What is it that makes your child tick?  Use that to help her spell (and read and form letters and practice handwriting).  Here's the greatest part -- you can do all of this easily at home.  With your older students, let them do the writing while you write something together (a story, a book review or editorial, a fan letter, whatever).

If you are working with young children, you don't need fancy fonts on the computer to be able to have kids trace the words and become better spellers.  Simply make the dotted font yourself using good old paper and pencil.  Ask your child to tell you about his favorite character in his favorite book and jot down what he says in that dotted format.  Then, while he's still excited about the story, have him trace over what you just wrote and he just dictated to you.  Let him use blue marker if he wants.  He'll probably want to read it over and over and over again.  Why?  Because that story is the most interesting think in the world to him, at that moment in time.

Why Does This Work?

Just by talking to your child and writing down his story in a handmade dotted form, you are:

1.  bonding with your child and learning more about her likes and preferences

2.  giving her the opportunity to trace over her own story (that you jotted down)

3.  allowing her the chance to see the words that are important to her, her story and her vocabulary in the written form, and

4.  providing new reading material that is exciting, yet familiar, and fun for her to read.

Many of these ideas from Ellen can also be adapted with your older kids and the bonding is certainly as important as they grow older as it was when they were very young.

Thanks, Ellen!  What great ideas she has given you.  You're going to have a lot of fun.  I really like the way she balances a child writing over someone else's words and writing over her own.  Both are important.

Ellen has done more for us and young children.  She has taken these simple ideas and made them into a small business.  She started Letter Learning while on maternity leave from teaching this past January.  She missed teaching students, and had a million thank-you cards to write.  Because both of those things were on her mind, the idea for educational greeting cards was born!

She remembered how her own students sturggled often with spelling and handwriting and knew how much they love their family and friends.  She also knew that young kids love to "be like Mom" and since 80% of greeting cards are sent by women, it seems that greeting cards that help kids learn to write and spell are a long overdue instrument. Check out the birthday card above; it's an example of Ellen's cards.

Now It's Your Turn

Take time to sit down with your child and really talk with him.  Every child has at least one thing that really piques his interest.  It is your job to find out what that is.  Once you do that, the rest is easy!  So, now it's your turn.  Tell us what has helped you work with your child on spelling and writing at home.  Send a link to this blog to another mom or dad you know.  Share the complementary teacher blog with an educator you know who is enjoying a bit of R&R this summer.  It's when we take action from the words we read that we make a difference.

As always, I look forward to your comments.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Real World Issue: The Challenges of Education Across the US and in Our Back Yard

A Call to Action

This blog is always about celebrating the learner in our children, with a focus on literacy.  Now more than ever, that's important as budget cuts on the federal and state (down to the local level) loom everywhere.  In my hometown of Huntsville, AL school boards are cutting teacher jobs, limiting resources, at a time when education is more important than ever.  I don't often get on the "political channel", especially on the blog, but there are decisions being made in Washington that impact our children, our educational system from top to bottom, the future of this country's role in contributing to society.

As parents and family members, we have a role.  Please, while we have a time-sensitive opportunity, take time this week to do two things:

1) Read with your child or a child you know.  If we are to support classrooms and teachers, we must be involved in our children's learning.  Reading a book together (with little ones) or sharing some form of text (from the virtual or print worlds) with our older, more independent readers is critical.   If we all do a bit of that each day, our children receive nurturing layers of literacy.  They begin to believe that it is a good thing to be a reader and writer AND a thinker.

2) Let your federal representatives in Congress know that you believe education is a priority.  An education amendment has been added to the pending jobs bill which can be a part of the solution.  Taking action this week, as they are debating and deciding on this amendment and this bill can make a difference.  It's easy to do. 

Visit the education jobs bill link on the NEA website to let your voice be heard.  This will send a message to your representatives in Washington.  If you want to know more about the contents of this bill, visit NEA's Education Votes resource website.

Take it one step further and share this link or forward a link to this blog to friends, family and community members who share your concern and interest.  Only five minutes of your time can make a difference!

3) Elections will be here before you know it.  Find the resources in your community that will make you an informed voter so you can elect individuals who believe in the importance of education and are willing to stand for it.  A little reading ourselves from a variety of sources (so we get the real story, not one invented by a master marketing guru to win votes) is all it takes.  Talking with those who are campaigning in your community is another way to get to the truth and identify those who will promote this important agenda.  Whether it is individuals running for state superintendent, governor or a local position, vote for people that echo your voice, especially when it comes to children. 

Finally, let your children see you in this process.  Share books on the political process with your children.  Christopher Hitchens wrote an excellent biography of Thomas Jefferson that high school students and young adults will enjoy  and The Federalist Papers  was recently released on Kindle.  Online, there is an excellent short article from the National Academy of Public Administration on the importance of helping our children, especially as they themselves move toward voting age, to understand how the process works.

Thanks for taking time to read and share this blog.  I look forward to hearing from you about what you are doing in your own community to draw attention to this important, timely issue.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Grandparents and Kids Reading Together

Today's Web-Based Radio Show

Today I was privileged to visit with TalkShoe host, Kaye Fontana, on her Grandcoach Radio show.  The topics certainly relate to grandparents raising their grandchildren but the concepts are applicable for parents as well.  I even found myself saying "parents" instead of "grandparents" a few times in the show.

If you missed us live, you can visit The Grandcoach and hear the podcast.  You'll need to scroll down to episode 14.   If you joined us, listening live, you can skip right to reading this blog.  Otherwise, click on the link, listen in and then come back here to learn more, and add comments and questions (which you can post to this blog and we'll all learn together).  I always welcome questions as a way to start a dialogue in the virtual world.

Grandparents Stepping Into A "Familiar" Role

I am thrilled to be talking with people who have taken on what is perhaps the challenge of their life in raising children, long after their original "duty" was finished.  It can be a time of anxiety or of joy and reading certainly has a place in crafting a positive, nurturing growing up time for grandchildren being raised by their grandparents.

First, let me suggest a few books to read with young children that are perfect for encouraging word play:

Big and Little by Margaret Miller
Max's Dragon by Kate Banks
One Duck Stuck by Phyllis Root
Tanka, Tanka, Skunk by Steve Webb

These are excerpted from my book Anytime Reading Readiness, a perfect guide not only for parents raising 3-6 year olds but grandparents who find themselves in that same role with their grandchildren. You can find recommended books for others ages at a previous blog on this blogspot. 

There's Help Out There For You

If you have a limited budget (and who doesn't these days), revive what might seem like an old fashioned idea: head for the public library.  It will look quite different than it did in "your day".  Now, in addition to books, most libraries have cool teen activities, storytimes for younger children, movies and DVDs for rental, book clubs, game nights and more.   Here are examples from Fairhope Public Library in Fairhope, AL and Witchita Public Library.  Check out what your local library has to offer to support you!

Helping Young Children Get Ready for School (it's bigger than literacy)

If you are one of those grandparents (or parents) that is confused by a lot of the "educationese" used by educators today, all the unfamiliar language can be intimidating.  One of the issues, as we gain more information about the research behind children learning to read, is that the "internal language" educators use can inadvertently turn "lay people"off (grandparents, parents, community helpers, etc.).

To help you understand some of these terms, check out Where The Radio Show Left Off

Also, if you are confused by information about DIBELS, a major assessment used in K-3rd grade, you can find a family-friendly pamphlet from my alma mater, Florida State University. 

You can also just be unsure of what is really required for your grandchild upon entering kindergarten and what they need to be ready for that first big step into school.  You can visit Getting Ready, Grandparents Getting Kids Ready for School from the University of Georgia, and a cool checklist from It's A Mom's World that can help you (and the child) stay on track with morning chores and activities in preparation for starting "big school" (I'd recommend you start the morning routine about a month or at least a couple of weeks before the first day of school).  Stacey Kannenberg's book Let's Get Ready for Kindergarten! is a good tool to review, first as an adult (because it's contents show at least 80% of what the typical child will learn  in kindergarten) and then as a play book with the child (to help you explore together what the child already knows, what he or she is interested in learning, and what he or she will learn once they begin attending school).

Final message: 

If you are raising a child OR a grandchild, know that your role in their literacy development is critical. Although you'll be privy to information on the research and best practices behind the science of teaching children the mechanics of reading through your interaction with teachers, know that your role as the nurturer of a reader and the inspiration for choosing to read for a variety of purposes is now more important than ever. 

Educators can teach children the best mechanics but, if we do not light the spark, they are not likely to choose reading as a priority.  And that responsibility, because of heavy skill-based curricula and tight schedules, may fall mainly to you.  Basic reading and writing mechanics won't cut it in the complex world our children will live in just a few years from now.  There will be even more challenges to figure out complex information, and to use that information as a tool to solve problems and to improve the world we live in.  There is likely to even be a need for escape, which reading certainly provides.

By supporting the child in your life, you are building for the future AND solidifying the relationship with someone who is more important to you than anyone else in the world.  My advice, in closing, is to relax.  At the same time, stay vigilant in your promotion of reading as a tool for life.  Call on me if I can be of assistance (free 15 minutes consultations are available or you can contract for a longer consultation tailored to your needs).


If you live in the Huntsville, AL or North AL area, let me offer you a personal invitation to join my celebration of early childhood through an Educator's Tea and a follow-up book signing and "meet the author" at Barnes and Nobles at Bridge Street in Huntsville, April 10 from noon until 3PM.  There will be door-prizes, a special introduction to Engaged Interactive Read Aloud for teachers of all sorts (and you are a teacher too), and special opportunities to meet and talk with me and other local Alabama authors.  Hope to see you there!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Secrets Parents Need to Know About Beginning Reading

Kathy Stemke, the Educationtipster on Blogspot, recently called for an interview which you'll find posted on her blog.  I always appreciate any opportunity to reach out and communicate to parents with children of all ages and certainly do this one.

One of the comments on the blog asked questions that would require too long an answer on the comment segment of Kathy's blog so I'm jumping over here to give it a go.  Her questions were:

What are your views on the various techniques for teaching reading?

How have they changed over the years?

What's most effective with children who have reading difficulties?

I certainly won't offer an entirely comprehensive answer here but enough to get you started and heighten understanding.


One of the wisest people in reading research today (Dr. Richard Allington) tells us that "there are many roads to reading".  One size does not fit all.  Different individuals come to reading through different mechanics.  And reading is a multi-level complex set of skills rather than just one so it takes years to reach true competency.  Part of the importance of partnerships between school and home is decyphering those needs and addressing them as needed with each individual youngster. 

Children need to understand the alphabetic principal early on (knowledge of letters and shapes, their understanding that print has unique meaning and that letters represent sounds in our spoken language).  As they gain the connection between letters and sounds, they now have the beginning tool to figure out the squiggles on the page.  There is an excellent explanation of this part of reading on Reading Rockets in their First Year Teacher segment and it's devoid enough of education lingo to be of value to non-educator parents.

It Starts Long Before . . .

The truth is that the strongest readers are created from day one in a cocoon of language and experience with print.  As I've often said, that doesn't mean creating a structured academic hothouse at home.  It doesn't mean buying workbooks and sitting your 4-7 year old down at the table to work.  It means experiencing literacy in all its forms in our world.  If we could just get that right at the beginning, are consistent (just as we are in giving our children good nutrition or adequate exercise), and combine it with strong phonics instruction, we would virtually eliminate reading difficulties by first or second grade. 

So my message to parents is always, "be the commercial for reading".  Show children how interesting, how much fun reading is and, as Bob Keeshan AKA Captain Kangaroo says (I'm showing my age), "They will follow as the night follows the day."  Read in front of them (not just novels, cereal boxes, street signs, bill boards).  Show them that reading and writing are tools for life and show them that every day.

Again, regardless of the method used to teach reading at the beginning, those with such experiences will have an easier time acquiring beginning skills if they have a strong foundation in oral language and exploration and interaction (not conventional reading) with print. 

Having said that, the best scientific research we have in education today says that most children respond most positively to the instructional "learn to read" components of kindergarten and first grade through an method known as phonics (learning the correlation between letter and letter combos and sounds, then applying those in blending those sounds into words that connect to our spoken vocabulary or become a new term we understand).  The good news is that virtually every school in the U.S. (public or private) teaches children to read that way.   

So phonics instruction is important.  With these numbers, that's the first approach to use.  But it is important for both parents and educators to look beyond phonics if a child isn't getting it after an adequate period of time.  Have a parent-teacher conference to discuss progress, alternatives, and come up with a plan together, teacher and family.

In such occasional instances where phonics truly isn't the best way for your child to learn to read, it's better to encourage alternative approaches (sight word reading or memorizing the "shapes" and "patterns", going back to the foundations needed for phonics, phonological awareness - how the patterns in our oral language work without the connection to print).  For a lot of children, those are not as efficient a means so make sure, along with your child's teacher, that phonics really isn't for your child before moving on to alternatives. 

That could be a whole other topic and, in fact, I give definitions of some of these terms in an earlier posting on my blog.  Listen to the child and find ways that they can be successful at reading, not forcing them into a mold if they are the minority who don't learn to read with phonics.  Some children even develop an "organic" sense of how the patterns and sounds in our language work with no formal instruction in phonics, combine it with other strategies (figuring out words from picture clues, recognizing some words on sight, etc.).


Now for perhaps the most important message in this blog: 

phonics or any other beginning reading strategy for "figuring out words" is only a tool.  
It is not reading.  

And phonics is something that, once learned, should then serve as a tool to successfully decode words enough times that those words then become automatic, almost a sight word - one we recognize on sight rather than having to dissect it each time it is encountered.  The mistake too many educators make is an over-focus on phonics.  They stay on it too long rather than having the big picture in mind and moving children to that next level.  That's when children get the idea that they must decode each word they encounter, even if they already know it on sight and that actually disables reading growth or at least deters it.  That's also where you see motivation decline because how much fun is "manipulating phonemes"?

Reading is getting the meaning out of print.  So in addition to phonics instruction, children need a steady diet of great stories read aloud to them and shared one on one as well as in small and whole group.  Families can have a great influence here, especially if your child is in a school where the phonics is isolated and overemphasized and no read alouds of delicious stories that are not easily decodable occurs.  What's the benefit?  Children get that big picture:  they are exposed to complex sentence structure, new vocabulary, the sound of a fluent reader sounding like he/she is talking when she reads, they get the meaning because 100% of their little brains are freed to understand the story rather than being divided between decoding (which can take up most of the brain power early one) and comprehension.  Then they get the idea of what really is (and the motivation to do it themselves).


My advice with struggling readers (my new friend, Donalyn Miller calls them "dormant readers") is always - look for the building blocks they are missing.  Just using repetition on too high a level with a child is frustrating for the child and everyone involved. 

Good teachers, whether they are parents or professionally-trained educators, recognize such "holes" and step back to more fundamental skills.  Here's an example.  If a child is having trouble blending sounds, make sure they have a strong, almost automatic recall of letter sounds.  If they have to work at blending and at recalling the sound, it may be a brain overload.  Think more concrete to less concrete, less abstract to more.  Use the concrete to help bridge them to the abstract.

With young children, the emotional support of a positive rather than negative experience, is so critical. Reading researcher, Dorothy Strickland, says, "It is the broader pattern of child-adult activities and interactions that support a child's language and literacy development."  If we do not give children mostly positive experinces with books, they will not choose to be readers.  

If a struggling child does what seems to them to be nonsensical exercises, how do we think that is going to give them the emotional fortitude they need to practice and become competent?  Think games, think tying whatever method you are using to teach to a positive experience, balance that instruction and practice that is necessary in the context of great read aloud experiences so your child sees the end they are working so hard to get to -- being able to read ANYTHING THEY WANT.  I have seen it time and time again that reading difficulties, when paired with appropriate balanced instruction, can be overcome.


This ended up being longer than I expected but I hope I answered the questions raised by my visitor on Kathy's blog AND perhaps some of yours.  Follow-up questions posted will be addressed (blogging is a great forum for that type of dialogue).  I also welcome, as always, your comments.

And today, share this blog with a parent or teacher, just one, that you believe can benefit and we'll spread the revolution!  Check out my book, Anytime Reading Readiness, for more ideas about supporting your young readers.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Girls "Smarter" Than Boys?

I was not happy when I read the news article in my local paper entitled :"State's Girls Beating Boys".  This is an issue not only in Alabama but according to the center on Education Policy, one in all public schools in all states.

The first paragraph caught my eye immediately.  The reporter  made the blanket statement that

“girls . . . are smarter than boys are”.  

That is simply inaccurate and irresponsible. Yes, boys may be performing poorly on formal reading assessments, and, yes, reading is the foundation of all learning. However, just because boys don’t do well on state reading assessments shouldn’t delegate them to the “I’m not smart” category.

A comment from Dr. Susan B. Neuman was included and I believe she is spot on:

"Girls tend to read what teachers give them to read.  They read a lot of stories early on.  They're intrigued with the process of learning to read. With boys you have to motivate them to read with subjects they're interested in.  Boys also have more energy which can create classroom management problems for teachers."

Although I agree as far as that goes, 

I have a slightly different view. We must give boys genuine connections between practicing reading skills that we test and are required to teach AND finding meaningful experiences with print of all sorts. 
Those reasons may be quite different than those that motivate and satisfy girls. 

If our teaching was driven by what students need instead of a static curriculum that may not meet their needs, we will see more success.

Years ago educators started talking about “differentiating reading instruction” to meet needs of different types of learners. Reading Rockets has a simple definition of that "education term".  Every teacher and parent can make a difference with students by being on that channel, regardless of the child's gender.  With boys, it helps to address how boys can best be motivated to read.   If acting out the story with a physical activity helps, especially with those younger children, why not incorporate that?  The core, whether we are talking about boys or girls, is going beyond the skill-based focus on instruction which have overtaken classrooms (a necessity but not the only important focus).

A truly balanced approach to reading instruction includes addressing not only skills or “mechanics” but also the practice, the habit, the “behavior” of reading.   These days, with so much focus on limiting reading to selected titles identified by curriculum and no variation allowed in the classroom, it's a perfect opportunity for families to step up and balance that.
Educators AND parents should be searching out print that mesmerizes, motivates, and gives valuable information, that bridges between the content students need to know and what interests them.

Until we do that, neither boys nor girls will see authentic reasons or have the answer to an important question, “why should I read anyway?”

Parents, I welcome your take on this, your comments, and you sharing this blog with educators and other families.  The solution is part of my revolution to bring families and educators together in genuine partnerships that result in the highest achievement possible for every child.  Author Jon Scieszka has taken on this challenge through his Guys Read website.  You can also read about what girls and boys are reading in an article from

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Reader Who Most Influenced Me

On this week's Share A Story Shape A Future blogging event sponsored by The Reading Tub, they pose the question:

Who is the person who influenced you most as a reader?

Here she is with her first grandson (someone she also influenced as a reader):

My mom

She's gone now from this earth but she sits on my shoulder every day. I see her putting a bowl on her head and prancing around the kitchen, reciting Robert Louis Stevenson's poem, The Land of Counterpane. I expect it was a meaningful poem since my brother and I both had times of extended illness in which we were confined to bed. It made us giggle and we loved the rhythm and rhyme of the poetry.

I see her pouring over a book, occasionally with those silly black framed glasses from the 1950's on her nose - do you know the ones with the wings? Her two most favorite authors were Phyllis Whitney and Eugenia Price (Momma loved historical fiction). As soon as I was in 5th or 6th grade and was a strong enough reader to attack these novels, she began sharing them with me and we'd have play fights over who would get the newest title first.

Although I cannot remember the first time I heard this phrase, I can still see that dreamy look in her eyes when she would tell me "you can go anywhere in a book" I believed her and I still do.

All her children believed her and their children (Nana's grandchildren) do too. What an incredible legacy this little feisty woman from the coal-mining country of Virginia has passed along, simply because she loved reading and books.

Today, she remains an influence not only in my personal reading (I have a good book or three or four on my bedside stand all the time) but also in my work as The Literacy Ambassador. Her passion for reading and stories and talking and sharing inspire me to this day. They are the reason I am an enthusiastic and passionate speaker, writer and advocate for the fact that "there is a book for every child". I know that without the indelible impression she left, I would not be doing what I am today. She, in fact, is the core of the revolution I am starting with my two new books, Anytime Reading Readiness and Before They Read. To learn more about that revolution, visit Reading is For Everyone
You can also stay in touch on Twitter and Facebook where you'll find me as litambassador and on Linkedin

Engaging Older Readers (3rd grade and up) With Personel Connections To What They Read

Personal connections aid in understanding a story, whether your child is the reader or the writer (a composer like these two fellows in the picture to the right).  I encourage families to find great books that connect to your child's a passion so they will show more interest in reading.  I know you've heard that from me before but it is worth repeating.  
When a reader makes personal connections to text, he then becomes part of the story, adding his or her own memories, ideas, experiences to that of the author. He moves from reading on the surface into deeper connection and the understanding (what teachers call "comprehension") goes through the roof.  
So How Do You Get Your Kids to Respond That Way To Reading?
Good authors like Willie Morris (author of My Dog Skip) give us a large hook to connect with.  Nearly everyone has experienced a pet and/or the loss of that friend sometime in our lives like he tells about in his book.  If your young person is more into baseball, skateboarding or jazz, try Under the Baseball Moon by John H. Ritter.  Have a youngster who likes history?  A Wish After Midnight is a combo historical fiction and time travel adventure that will hold them til the very end.   Relationships and self-image important?  Try Nothing But The Truth by Avi.  If you want to share an adult book with your teen, feel free.  The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba is an incredible real life story of inspiration.  Sharing books you are enjoying (as long as you are comfortable with the content) is a terrific way to connect.  The key is that

if we are going to expect our young people to be readers in the midst of all the possible distractions in this modern world, then we must give them an authentic, meaningful-to-them reason to do so.

Carve Out A Little Reading Time
Once you have a good selection for your child to choose from (and have involved him/or her in the selection process, pick one time a week (protected from interruptions and outside distractions) in which the whole family will spend time reading. I've got news for you; it may not be easy at first, especially if this isn't already a habit with your family.  However, it can start with as little as this once a week, 15 minute time slot, but think of ways to expand it into travel time in the car on the way to soccer, or home from school, time just before "lights out".  It may be easier for you to start on the weekends.
Set a goal 
Your goal over the course of the next 6 months is to move from one such time a week to two and then to three.  Don't try to jump in all at once, especially if your family isn't used to this dose of reading.  Find the balance for you but know that consistence is very important.  Also, pay attention to your family schedule, your children's extra-curricular activities and school homework level, etc. when considering that is reasonable for your family.
W\hat you will often find is that your children will actually enjoy themselves, the adults will feel the benefit of a little down "doing something all together" time, and you'll be fostering a habit for reading.  In the meantime, you'll also be giving your child a dose of practice (something we all need to do if we are to improve our skills whether it is in reading, exercising, riding a bike or playing a video game).
Of course, the earlier you begin this in terms of the ages of your children, the more they will value reading as a habit and valuable use of time so my advice to those of you with younger children is to start early.  Don't believe the myth that some children just won't be readers.  Every child needs to read and read strongly for information, pleasure and, yes, even escape.
If your family can only manage 15 minutes to start with, begin at that level.  The goal is for everyone to be reading something during that time.
Give Them Control
As you allow your children to make choices - sometimes assigned materials from school, but other times magazines, ebooks, Wii manuals on the latest interactive games, a novel or a "fact" (nonfiction) book -- anything as long as it is reading, you will all be gaining benefits.  If you and your family have invested in an IPOD Touch, a Kindle or a even laptop, the novelty of reading "online" might appeal to your children more than holding a traditional book.  
Especially if you haven't done this a lot in your household before and regular reading together wasn't a part of your earlier lives together, this can be a challenge to get started.  However, I assure you, with the proper approach, even those who are at first reluctant will come "on board".
Need a little jumpstart?  Maybe some of the reading is tandem (you and your young child read a book together while Dad and Junior are pouring over an article in the lates Sports Illustrated. Your example of being interested and excited is essential here:  any child will see through you if you are just biding time and not invested in the experience.  Yet, on the other hand, if you are involved and getting something out of the reading, your child will feed off that too. 
A few more ideas for this "everyone is reading" time:
1. Give your children cool, colorful post its or sticky arrows (or even colorful strips from junk mail or old funny paper panels with a dab of rubber cement on the edge - did you know that its temporary if you only put it on one paper surface?).  When they run across a word they don't know, can flag it, then skip over it, if they can get the meaning from the rest of the sentence.  Later, you can spend a few minutes exploring the definition and pronunciation of the word together. 
2.  Everyone has one "pass" to interrupt and share about something they are reading (a particularly juicy description that makes pictures in your head, reminds you of something that happened last week, or was just fall out funny.  Print a paper ticket or coupon to hand out at the beginning of the reading time if you like (click here for a template "Polar Express" train ticket).  As an extra incentive for your kids to do this, they can also earn points toward freedom from a chore for a day, a small monetary reward (a quarter or dollar), or a special trip to the ballpark with a parent.  Again, choose those rewards based on what is meaningful and desirable for YOUR kids.

3.  At the end, with five minutes to go, you can also do something teachers call, "turn and talk".  Pairing again two family members together, you "turn and talk", telling each other about the best part of what you read.  If you run over (and you just might), don't announce "time's up".  Let the conversations go on as long as they will.
Don't turn your family reading time into a quiz, drill and skill, where you are pummeling your child with questions, just to see if he or she understands what she read.  What a turn-off and they get enough of those at school.  Instead, pose questions like these in conversation so your children see that talking about books is a natural activity.  Let your child's answers and reactions lead you to the next question:
What is your phrase or word you related to most in the book you read?
Have you ever experienced the feeling those words described?

When and how?

Can you imagine what it would be like to .....

Why do you think he/she reacted that way?  How could he have reacted differently to the situation?  What would have to be different in the relationship between Willie and his dog (or family member or whomever the interaction or emotion is shared with) to change his reaction.'

So what?  What is the significance, the importance, of his reaction, interaction, response?
I am taking this from knowledge (what I call regurgitation of fact) up through Bloom's to analysis, synthesis, etc.
You and your family will be practicing higher level thinking skills without turning your home into a academic "hothouse".
Share, Share, Share
Come back to this blog after you try this experiment and post your results.  Share what you are already doing with your children in this regard and how you squeeze reading into busy lifestyles and schedules.  We'll all benefit when we learn from one another.
A last tidbit:  You don't have to do this "encouraging your child to be a reader" alone.  All this week,  my friends at the Reading Tub and many of their friends are blogging about reading and children in their Share A Story: Shape A Future Event.   You will also find fun giveaways. I'm going over there right now to jump in; won't you join me?

Happy Reading!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Author Showcase: The Literacy Ambassador in the Reading Tub

A Snapshot of an Author

Many of you have read in my posts about the Reading Tub. I'm honored to be in their author spotlight this month so encourage you to visit their blog as well as the author showcase page itself.

In addition to the interview with me for this month, you'll also find book lists and reviews, articles of interest to educators and teachers, archives of past authors (can you find your favorites and a few new ones?) and even learn how to be in the showcase yourself if you are a author of children's books.

Need a presenter, trainer, speaker?

Some of you may know that I travel around the country to speak to parent groups and conferences as well as conduct educator training and you won't find a stronger advocate for children and books than me.  Feel free to visit TLA's website to find topics thatmeet your needs.

Next post will be for our parents promoting reading with older students . . . stay tuned!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Focus on Early Childhood (Do You Have A Infant, Toddler or Preschooler)?


Tomorrow I'm attending a wonderful north AL institution:  the NW Alabama Childcare Conference.  I always get excited because I get to see all my friends in the early childhood world (teachers and directors) from across the northern part of our state.  And this year, we have a keynote speaker I know will be incredible:  Steven Layne.  I wish those of you who are parents could be here to hear him.

I met Steven at a conference several years ago and so applauded his message:  we need to spread a PASSION for reading!  Check out his books, Love the Baby and My Brother Dan's Delicious, now available on audio too!.  What I like most about Steven is that he isn't your typical stuffy researcher from the university environment.  He indeed has a passion that is contagious and we need that kind of epidemic.  Don't be afraid to catch this bug!

(and teachers)

I also want to share with you parents of 3-6 year olds a new video from TLA, Inc. that teaches you how to play a game, Rhymin' Simon, with your young children.  It's drawn from my new book, Anytime Reading Readiness, and its partner for educators, Before They Read, and is a quick easy way to build early skills while having a great deal of fun. 

Rhyming is the doorway into the world of thinking about words for the sounds within them (apart from their meaning).  The ability to recognize and even generate (eventually) rhymes comes as early as age 2.5 or 3 but it starts with simply playing with the language.  As you talk daily with your child, you have given him many great tools in the language he uses; this activity and others like it are the way to effectively build on those experiences as he/she moves on the road toward getting ready to read. 

My last gifts to you: 

1) a list of books to support rhyming and other early childhood literacy skills.  Enjoy!

2) a chance to win a copy of Anytime Reading Readiness!  Just cut and paste this email address with the words ANYTIME CONTEST in the subject line and you'll automatically be entered.  Contest runs through the end of February.

A Few Tidbits - A Little Off the Channel But Always Returning to Children and Families and Books

Over the last few days and week, I found a few resources sure to help you in your busy days with children of all ages (and in your own life).  This seems a hodge-podge to me' just consider it a smorgasbord!

All these topics connect to parents (or any other adult) and kids and learning and reach across the spectrum of beginning and pre-readers into the world of older more independent readers (my two alternating focuses in this blog).

You know, reading with your children is really bigger than the book.  It's about developing a relationship and learning to share and listen, it's about playing and all the terrific tidbits you learn when you take those few minutes out of your busy day to connect with your child, it's about identifying everyday learning experiences and encouraging that nature "investigator" in our children to shine.  In the real world, it's difficult to separate out literacy from any other type of learning; it often happens at the same time, overlapping and intersecting.

1)  Work of Childhood.  This blog is for home schooling families but it's actually a great resource for anyone who has children (I always said when people asked me if we homeschooled our son, "Yes, but he goes to public school too - after all, there should be no lines where learning happens). 

2) Although I'm not into pushing products, I have found two new friends who often search out the very best for young families and share them.  Here are links if you'd like to check them out to My Wee View and Mom Audience.  If you are a mom who is in business for yourself, Mom Audience also gives you a chance to list your great idea and business for free!

Now back to the business of literacy.  Every month this year, my friend, Anastasia Suen, is hosting a Carnival of Children's Literature!  I made a note on my electronic calendar to "buzz" me as a reminder to visit each month for terrific information about reading and children of all ages.  This month it is hosted by Jenny's Wonderland of Books and next month it will be Sally Apopkadek, a blogger on publishing and published children's literature.

Do you know that my friends at the The Reading Tub have a blog?  Terry and her friends always put together terrific resources for families AND educators so share this one!  In fact, they've also listed the Carnival in their February 17th post!

Look for The Literacy Ambassador to be featured in their Author Showcase soon; we'll give you a heads up when that's available.  In the meantime, you can find a few young adult books that are in need of reviews, listed to the right of the February 17th blog!  If you're looking for great books for your children to read, why not get them involved?

Last but not least, my new friend, Hester Bass, has been visiting all over the country to celebrate and share her book, The Secret World of Walter Anderson.  Learn more at Hester's website.  Here's a picture of her beautiful book at an artist we all need to know (I almost feel when I look at this illustration as though I'm out there on the water).

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Playing with Sounds and Patterns/Engaged Interactive Read Alouds

Today I was so excited to talk with my friend and colleague, Stacey Kannenberg on her radio show "The Ready to Learn Mom"As you can see from the title of this blog, our topic was again for parents of younger readers.  Although the focus will be on preschool - 1st grade, many of the ideas discussed can be used with children throughout elementary school.

As usual, we had a great time sharing ideas with parents and others loving and interacting with children.  If you didn't hear the show live, you can listen to the podcast from Stacey's website.  The date of the show is 1/27/10.  If you were able to join us, there are many resources listed here that we referred to in the show.

Playing with sounds and patterns of sound in our language is especially important for children as they are learning how to spell and how to decode words.  Besides, it's fun.  Think about silly rhymes and rhyming songs you love (I was listening to country music this morning before the show and heard lots of rhymes).  Don't forget tongue-twisters.  When writing my new book Anytime Reading Readiness, I collected a tongue-twister for every letter of the alphabet and listed them.  Here's the one for X:

The excited experts explained that the extra X-rays were excellent (remember that we're playing with sound, not letters so the fact that many of these words start with -ex but are the "cksssss" sound you get when you say the letter "x" is OK).

Dr. Seuss always played with silly animals and names in his books so anytime you pick up one of his titles (like Cat in the Hat or Hop on Pop) you are playing with those sounds integral to our language.

Here's a list of five other books with terrific rhymes and beginning sound emphasis.  Stop from time to time as you read and point out the sounds that are same and different within the words you are reading.  Talking about words gives your child a new level of awareness.

A Sock is a Pocket for Your Toes by Liz Scanlon
Jazz Baby by Liz Wheeler
Baby Bear, Baby Bear What Do You See? by Bill Martin, Jr.
Bear Hugs:  Romatically Ridiculous Animal Rhymes by Karma Wilson
My First Action Rhymes by Lynne Cravath (complete with actions - you and your child don't have to sit still when you read!)

The Library Lady shares practical ways to play as well on her website in an article about how young children learn.  Scholastic points out that playing with poetry is another good way to pay attention to those patterns.
Check out Anytime Reading Readiness (for parents of 3-6 year olds) and Before They Read (for teachers) for even more ideas!

A Primer for Engaged Interactive Read Aloud

Introduce the book with a prediction (try to figure out by the title and the illustrations on the cover what the book will be about - don't just guess, put some thought and exploration into it).  HINT: Predictions don't have to be correct to be a good one.

Interruptions by the reader or the listener are always allowed!

Changing your voice, pausing, being intense and slowing down all add to the drama of the story (after all, we're competing with TV and videos)

Thinking, wondering and pondering with your child as you read

Posing "how" and "why" questions at times.

Enjoying the text together.

For more on all of these topics, visit TLA's website and check out Anytime Reading Readiness (for parents) and Before They Read (for educators)- two brand new titles from Maupin House for partnering between families and educators of children ages 3-6.  They've even combined these two titles into a Home/School Literacy Partnership Set of 2 teacher books and 20 parent books for classroom collaborations.

Have fun!