Some of my fondest childhood memories involve staying at my grandmother’s house and sitting her lap while she read to me. This was a rare occurrence in my life—I didn’t get to visit my grandmother very often, and my parents didn’t read to me. Looking back, I wonder how my life would have been different if my parents had read to me on a regular basis. Today, most parents are aware of the value of reading to their child, but life is busy, and it may seem very difficult to make the time to read together. Not to mention that we most likely tend to spend our limited free time using our various electronic devices. Why is it still important for parents to read with their children, and why is raising readers from birth a worthy goal for parents?
In her book The Invisible Toolbox, educator, author, and mom, Kim Jocelyn Dickson, talks about the power of reading to your child from birth to adolescence, and she has graciously agreed to be interviewed for this blog.
Don: When did you know you would be writing your book?
Kim: That’s a tough question because it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when I decided to do a book about the importance of reading to a child from birth. What I can tell you is that there are two moments that stand out in my mind when I had breakthrough realizations about what is going on with children and reading. They had a lot to do with my motivation to write The Invisible Toolbox.
The first came during a parent-teacher conference when I was a third-grade teacher several years ago. Three of us sat at one of those kidney shaped classroom tables: a mother; her daughter who, despite interventions, was struggling mightily with reading; and me. This mother was understandably distraught that her daughter was behind and asked me to recommend workbooks that her daughter could complete at home to help her catch up. I pictured this little girl sitting at the kitchen table at home, laboring over workbook pages in order to improve her reading, and it broke my heart. I told her mother that a better idea would be to take her daughter to the library, get her a library card, visit regularly, and read to her. This little girl had no “buy in” when it came to reading simply because she hadn’t been read to.
The kind of nurturing that parents need to do before a child ever sets foot in kindergarten is critical and foundational in order for a child to be able to grasp the specific reading skills that will be taught in school. There’s an internal infrastructure that needs to be built first that includes simply experiencing the joy of being read to. Otherwise, those skill-based teachings children encounter in school have no place to land. This little girl had had plenty of teaching, even remedial help, but had no concept whatsoever of the value of reading for herself personally. This “buy in” is crucial for a child and needs to happen before they ever begin school. It’s the reason that 75% of children not reading on grade level by third grade will never catch up.
It was at this point that I began to think about how I wished I could meet all my future students’ parents at the door of the maternity ward with a stack of books and encourage them to begin reading to their babies right from the start.
The second moment that stands out in my mind came later when I was teaching fifth grade at an independent school. One of my students had checked out and shared a copy of Goodnight iPad with me, a gentle, yet spot on parody of Goodnight Moon that illuminates how drastically home life has changed since the debut of the iPad. In the story, it’s evening and each member of the family is spread out, isolated on their own devices, the family bookshelf is growing cobwebs. . . you get the idea. It’s funny and disturbing at the same time because it captures in a very visceral way the truth of where we are right now. I could already see the impact that unfettered access to these devices was having on my students. Fewer were reading for pleasure, more were spending free time on screens.
We began to see students from more affluent backgrounds with reading issues. The proliferation of screens has had a huge impact on children’s readiness for school. Parents are busy, and many just don’t realize how critical the first five years are in building a foundation for future school success. At this point, my passion to help parents understand what’s at stake really grew.
I couldn’t actually meet the parents of my future students at the exit door of the maternity ward, so I wrote The Invisible Toolbox instead.
Don: How would you define preliteracy, and why do you feel it is important to the concept of raising readers from birth?
Kim: Preliteracy has to do with nurturing the internal infrastructure that will prepare a child to learn to read when they come to school. I’ve called this infrastructure the Invisible Toolbox because every child has one, but only the children who have been read to will have one that contains the tools they will need to be successful.
What we now know is that babies begin learning from the beginning. Eighty-five percent of human brain growth occurs by age 3. The synapses between neurons, or brain cells, are firing and making connections from the get-go. Reading, singing, and speaking to our babies stimulate this and create the tools that will fill a child’s Invisible Toolbox and prepare them to be able to access what the world of school offers.
Don: What have you noticed about struggling readers—especially those with dyslexia? What differences are there for those who arrive at kindergarten with a full toolbox and those without?
Kim: Some struggling readers are dyslexic, but not all. I think too often we assume that any child who struggles with reading has an organic learning or processing issue—that is, one that is present from birth—and that is simply not so. Many of our struggling readers struggle because they have empty toolboxes.
Children with dyslexia who have full toolboxes have a much better chance of overcoming their challenge and experiencing success in school. I tell the story of one of my former students in my book. He had a significant visual processing disability that made decoding very difficult. To hear him read aloud almost hurt because it seemed so painful for him. I was astounded, however, by the depth of his comprehension skills. They excelled in diametrical opposition to his decoding abilities. How was this even possible, I wondered? How can you understand something you struggle so to even decode?
I learned that both his parents were teachers and that he’d been read to a lot. This boy had significant emotional support and also had a well-developed Invisible Toolbox that somehow compensated and enabled him to succeed beyond his processing limitations. There seemed something almost miraculous and mysterious about this. But he also worked very hard. He had tremendous perseverance, which I think is a quality directly related to the emotional support he had from his parents.
Children who have organic processing issues and empty Invisible Toolboxes are in the worst possible position. Overcoming not only their processing issues, but also the lack of an internal infrastructure that prepares them for reading will be a Herculean challenge.
Don: I was fascinated with your mention of “tacit knowing” in your book. How would you explain that term in relation to raising readers from birth?
Kim: Tacit knowing is a theory by Michael Polanyi that simply means “we know more than we can say.” I learned about this in a theological or faith context, but I think it applies to just about any context. It’s the idea that humans have the ability to know or understand something that is beyond their ability to express with language. This can happen when we read an author or a poet who gives words to something that we feel or know but are unable to put into words for ourselves.
In my book, I explain it in the context of a baby who may not be able to understand the words a parent reads or speaks or even sings to them, but will understand the feeling or action that is behind the words. And that, of course, is love. When we read to our pre-language babies, what they will know is that they are loved, and this connection is the thing that will drive and cultivate their growth emotionally and mentally.
Don: Your book lists ten tools in a child’s Toolbox. Tool Number Eight: “The Ability to Find Joy, Anytime, Anywhere,” seems an especially powerful one, more so now than ever. What do parents need to know about this tool?
Kim: We are in a time now when, more than ever, it’s critical for children to learn to entertain themselves. With COVID cases spiking again this summer and their usual activities, including school, disrupted, children are home more than usual with time on their hands.
We all know that screens are an easy solution for keeping them busy, just as we all know that too much exposure is not good for them and potentially even harmful. Reading is a much healthier alternative.
Reading is one of the few endeavors humans can use to escape that has virtually no downside. A child who is captivated by a book may lose sleep, but other than that the side effects are positive. I remember when my son was very young and discovered The Great Brain series. I would occasionally find him hunkered down in his bunk bed with the light on reading into the wee hours. “Just let me finish this chapter, Mom!” he’d plead. Fortunately, it was summer, and he had the luxury of sleeping in.
As I mentioned earlier, when we read fiction we experience it as if it’s actually happening to us. The effects of escaping into reading are that we expand our understanding of the world, our experience of people, our capacity for language and empathy. We literally become smarter. All of these things have a positive outcome on our sense of well-being and self-esteem. Studies now show that reading puts our brains into a state similar to meditation and that it brings the same health benefits: deeper relaxation, inner calm, lower stress levels, and lower rates of depression.
We are in a moment right now where children and adults are feeling trapped and needing healthy, life-affirming ways to use their time. You’re correct, “the ability to find joy anytime, anywhere” is a powerful tool, and an especially important one right now. One of the most important things a parent can do during this time of disruption is to encourage their child’s pleasure in reading. This includes their independent reading for fun as well as read-aloud time with a parent. The latter can be an especially important habit to build during this time of high anxiety, quelling not only the anxiety of children, but their parents too.
When their children read daily for pleasure, COVID Slide—the loss of learning due to school disruption—is not as great a concern. Children who read will continue to learn and grow regardless of whether school is in full session or not.
Don: Tool Number Ten: “Empathy and the Ability to Understand Others,” emphasizes the power of social and emotional learning. Social and emotional learning may not be a familiar term for some parents. How would you explain this term and its importance?
Kim: Social-emotional learning has to do with the ability to understand one’s self and others. It requires that a person is in touch with their own inner life, which is the ability to be aware of and to reflect on one’s own thoughts and feelings. This is a fairly high-level skill that rarely occurs naturally, and must be nurtured. You may recall a book by Daniel Coleman that came out a few years ago called Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More Than I.Q. The basic premise is that a person’s ability to interact with others empathetically is a more important quality in predicting their success than intellectual intelligence.
Studies show that reading fiction develops the capacity for empathy. By putting ourselves into the characters’ shoes—which is what we do when we read—we practice empathy. Interestingly, the brain networks that are used to understand stories are the same networks used to understand social interactions with others.
I’m not suggesting that reading can replace actual interactions with others, but what it can do is enhance our ability to understand them. I’ve seen it time and again in the classroom. Children who read more have an expanded capacity not only to understand, but also to articulate their own feelings and those of others.
Don: Your book also includes tools for a Parent’s Toolbox. How can parents discover the power of rituals, and how do they awaken and support a child’s inner life?
Kim: One of the most important rituals a parent can establish is a daily read aloud time with their child. I recommend doing this from the beginning and carrying it on as long as you possibly can. Reading to your child daily will have a powerful impact on helping your child fall in love with both reading and learning. It will also provide a daily source of connection between the two of you. In my book I explain how this engagement between you, your child, and the story helps to nurture and awaken a child’s inner life. Sharing a book together gives you and a child the opportunity to discuss not only the story, but also your child’s feelings and thoughts about it. Doing this together communicates that you value them—which encourages them to trust themselves and supports their sense of self-worth.
Don: Two of the most common impediments parents have in reading with their child are a lack of time, and a sense of inadequacy because they themselves are not good readers. What suggestions do you have for parents experiencing these issues?
Kim: Filling our own toolboxes, as a parent, is critical in helping our children get off to a good start, so one of the chapters is devoted to just that. There’s no question that raising a child is more difficult for anyone whose upbringing didn’t give them the tools they need in order to parent. I firmly believe that it’s never too late to parent ourselves and that it’s critical that we do this for our own sake as well as for our children’s.
When we become a parent it opens up a world of opportunity for us to grow. Growing as a reader is one avenue that is always open to us and is an important one to explore because the truth is we are our child’s first reading teacher. There can be emotional hurdles as well as practical ones to overcome. For parents with their own reading difficulties or language differences, audio books can be a great avenue for supporting their own as well as their child’s reading. Public libraries also offer wonderful resources for supporting literacy for children as well as adults. The emotional hurdles can be harder to face than the practical ones, but doing so will result in enormous benefits for both parent and your child.
During pre-COVID life, finding time to read was a barrier for many, but the truth is we devote time to the things that we value. I cover practical ways to do this in my book, but also recommend beginning a ritual of reading aloud in infancy so that it becomes a natural part of your family’s daily rhythm. It is harder to do later, but certainly not impossible.
Don: What would you tell a parent who feels that it’s too late to begin reading aloud to their child?
Kim: It’s not too late. It may not be easy, but it’s not too late. As I mentioned earlier, statistically, 75% of children who aren’t reading on grade level by third grade will never catch up. So what about that remaining 25%? They do catch up. How do they do that? It takes a concerted desire and effort to grow. New habits need to be developed. Most of the students I’ve encountered who read below grade level don’t necessarily lack the skills to do so. The reason they don’t read well is that they simply don’t read. Period. Like anything, reading is an endeavor that needs to be practiced in order to progress. Spending more time doing it will bring improvement.
The key to a child’s wanting to read more, of course, is tied into helping them find their way to the books they enjoy. As J.K. Rowling says, “If you don’t like to read, you haven’t found the right book.” Librarians are a great resource for pointing kids—and their parents—to the right book.
Here’s the good news: Even if your child is older, by supporting their independent reading and by reading to them as well, parents can have a huge impact on their child’s attitude about reading, which will result in greater success in school and beyond.
Don: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you would like to share?
Kim: Yes. Our current pandemic aside, I think it’s harder than ever to be a parent today. I have great empathy for people who are parenting during this period of time. Everyone is bombarded with distractions on every side—parents and kids alike. At some point, we have to learn to shut out the noise and decide what is really important.
I appreciated what Jeff Conyers, the president of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, had to say about The Invisible Toolbox: “(It) shares a simple truth that rises above the flood of information parents are subjected to: ‘Reading aloud from birth is one of the greatest gifts a parent can give.’”
If we, as parents, build a foundation of loving reading from the beginning—or from whatever starting point we can—we are in a much stronger position to navigate all these challenges and make good life-balance decisions for our children and ourselves.
Kim, thank you so much for sharing your words of wisdom and inspiration! I know my readers will be moved to persevere with their own children and students because of your helpful information.
Connect with Kim:
Bio: Kim Jocelyn Dickson (M.A. Princeton Theological Seminary; B.S. University of Missouri-Columbia), a parent, educator, writer, and lifelong lover of books, grew up doing all the things she currently does now in her adult life. She played school—somehow always getting to be the teacher—read books and loved to write. Books have always had a powerful influence on her, from inspiring her play as a child to inspiring her to become an author as an adult.
Kim has nearly thirty years of experience in the elementary school classroom, has taught in public and private schools in the east, Midwest, and west coast of the United States, currently teaches literature and writing in an independent school in Southern California, and frequently speaks on the powerful impact reading can have on young lives. Kim is the published author of various articles in psychology, literature, biography, women’s issues, religion, and Gifts from the Spirit: Reflections on the Diaries and Letters of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, a collection of reflective essays on the beloved author of Gift from the Sea. Her latest is the book she hopes all new parents read: The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence.
Additional reading and resources:
For a thorough discussion of the social and emotional support needed for children with dyslexia, read my award-winning book, Raising a Child with Dyslexia: What Every Parent Needs to Know, available in softcover, hardcover, eBook, and audio.
And to learn more about how every student best learns to read, I recommend Failing Students or Failing Schools? A Parent’s Guide to Reading Instruction and Intervention, by reading specialist Faith Borkowsky.
Cardboard Box Adventures picture books are great for shared reading and can help parents establish a strong preliteracy foundation for their children. Check out the CBA Catalog for a full list of award-winning picture books, chapter books, and resources for parents and educators. Visit my Amazon author page for more information.