Kindle Free Time Unlimited: Can it help kids become better readers?

This week I learned about a new tablet option for kids that offers a lot of promise to expand children’s interest in reading ─ and help busy parents who are challenged to find the time to read daily to their kids. Linda is a mom of two sons ─ 3 and 5 years old. She and her husband have busy work schedules and try to keep to their goal of reading daily to their sons. They heard about a new product/service from Amazon ─ Kindle Free Time Unlimited ─ and decided to give it a try to supplement their daily reading. So far, the family is pretty happy with how it’s going.

Here’s how it works. Recently launched by Amazon (December 2012), Kindle Free Time Unlimited offers a subscription service aimed at kids ages 3-8. The service offers “all-you-can-eat” access to children’s videos (movies and TV shows), games, educational apps, and books for a monthly fee. The fees are set based on a per child rate or family rate. To use the new service, folks have to use one of the newer Kindle Fire tablets (the service won’t work on older Kindle Fires).

Here are eight cool features of the new subscription service:

  • A parental control feature lets parents set up profiles for up to six children and add time limits to control how long kids can spend reading, watching videos or using the Kindle altogether.
  • Content is screened and organized by age appropriateness ─kids and parents can browse age-appropriate content, then select what they want to see.
  • There’s plenty of content (thousands of pieces of content) including movies, TV shows, games, eBooks, and educational apps.
  • Content is drawn from well-established providers like Sesame Street, Disney, Nickelodeon, and PBS.
  • Kids can watch, play, and read any of the content available to them as many times as they want (though parents can set time limits).
  • There are no ads!
  • Kids are prevented from accessing the Internet or social media.
  • Kids will not be able to make payments within any specific apps (applications).

Linda’s family is using Kindle’s new service to supplement their home reading. They’re using the parental control option as follows: no more than 30 minutes over a 48 hour period for videos and games, but unlimited time for reading. Although their sons don’t know that their parents are the ones who have set these time limits, the boys have accepted these parameters and are selecting on their own now a range of entertainment and educational activities on the Kindle.

There will no doubt be more and more products and services of this type for parents to consider for their children in the future, given growing competition in the tablet market among Apple, Barnes & Noble, Microsoft, Samsung, etc.

If families choose and use products and services like these wisely, they will help to support their children’s interest in reading─and with greater interest in reading, children will become better readers.

Hopes for Common Core State Standards

The print version (4 inches thick!) of the local telephone directory “yellow pages” landed like a thud on my front porch recently. I threw it in the recycle can the same day. When I need to find local businesses, it seems preferable to do a search on the Internet. Do we need a print version anymore?

Clearly, we have a number of choices to extract knowledge when we need it: consult Google and U-Tube, ask “friends” at social media sites, and of course, read traditional print texts. And still to come will be new “products” of the knowledge industry that have not yet been invented — but we know they’re coming …

How do we best prepare our children for this brave new world? In a word ─ education.

I’m optimistic about promising reforms in K-12 education ─ the Common Core State Standards. The Standards “provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.”  (http://www.corestandards.org/)

Currently, 45 states, the District of Columbia, four territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity have adopted the Standards in English Language Arts and mathematics. The implementation timeline for states is drawing close ─ the 2014-2015 school year.

I’ve been following with interest what the standards will mean for literacy education, and particularly reading. In English Language Arts, the standards are built on the premise that students must read texts of increasing complexity as they progress through K-12. The standards envision a “staircase” of increasing complexity in what students must be able to read so that all students are ready for the demands of college- and career-level reading no later than the end of high school. The standards also envision progressive development of reading comprehension as students advance through the grades ─ gaining more from whatever they read. (http://www.corestandards.org/)

Both content and skills are important components of the Standards. On the content side in English Language Arts, the Standards require certain critical content for all students (for example, classic myths and literature from around the world and foundational documents in American history and literature). Exactly what content would be taught is to be left to states and local determination. On the skill side, the Standards require that students systematically acquire knowledge in literature and other disciplines through reading, writing, speaking and listening, language, and media and technology.

What will be especially important in my view is what will be the best balance at different grade levels between reading literature (classic and contemporary) and reading informational texts in a range of subjects. Clearly, students will need to be good readers – to help build their core knowledge and to develop the skills to acquire more specialized knowledge as they need it (for example, through Internet search sites and/or traditional print texts).

The new Standards have already spawned many new resources to help teachers and school administrators prepare for implementation. And work is well underway to develop the assessment approaches to measure how well students will meet the standards.

Parents, grandparents and caretakers of children have an important role to play too in helping to support the Common Core at home. Patrick Daley, Senior Vice President & Publisher, Scholastic Classroom & Community Group, has identified five great tips to help support the Common Core at home for both English Language Arts and math (http://www.scholastic.com/commoncore/common-core-for-parents.htm):

  • Talk about books, especially the great ones:  The Common Core says that children need to read “books worth reading.” We all know that reading ANYTHING is great for kids, but they should be exposed to great writers and challenging content too. Lead by example!
  • Ask your children questions about what they’re reading: One of the key shifts with the Common Core is its requirement that students (both orally and in writing) cite evidence from the texts they’re reading to make an argument. Try asking questions that require your kids to talk about the content of the books they’re reading. For example, have them give reasons why a favorite character was heroic or clever or forgiving.
  • Push your kids to read nonfiction:  Reading fiction is still a critical and wonderful part of learning to read, but the Common Core elevates the importance of nonfiction, or “informational text,” as the authors of the standards call it. Does your son love gross bugs? Get him a book about cockroach infestations and let him dig deep into a topic that interests him. You might have a future scientist in your house!
  • Encourage your kids to write, write, write:  The Common Core State Standards emphasize the fundamental link between reading and writing. Writing to persuade by citing evidence is a key 21st-century skill. Encourage your children to keep a journal or blog, or write a letter or an e-mail to a favorite author.
  • Talk math with your kids: The Common Core requires students to learn important math “reasoning” skills in addition to learning their multiplication tables and memorizing formulas. Parents: Try talking to your kids about mathematical practices they use every day. Have them estimate time and distance, compare the value of products in a store, or calculate the tip when you’re out to dinner.

Before we know it, the 2014-2015 school year will be here and pundits will be assessing whether the new Common Standards live up to their hype. I hope they do. I also hope that the telephone directory “yellow pages” isn’t sitting on my front porch in 2014-2015.

Close bonds develop through reading aloud: two stories

I recently heard the story of John and Mary. They’re both in their 80’s. Ten years ago, Mary’s husband died. A year or two later, she had a stroke. Unfortunately, her eye sight was affected. Although she could wear glasses to read for a while, her eyesight continued to deteriorate until she became legally blind. Then she could no longer drive. Wanting to help herself, she signed up for a braille class. John’s wife who was also legally blind had been attending the same braille class and John had been helping his wife by reading to her for many years. When John’s wife died, he realized that he enjoyed reading aloud to people so much that he went to the braille class to see if there were others who wanted him to read to them. That’s how he met Mary. Now John reads to Mary at least once or twice a week. They both attend their local senior center and participate together in a book club ─ John reads the books aloud to Mary and they discuss it in their group. Their new friendship has been forged through reading together.

In “Reading for my blind grandfather” (The Guardian, June 24, 2011), Sarah Franklin movingly describes how she grew up reading aloud from a young age to her grandfather – a “privilege she will always treasure.”

“I have an abiding memory of my grandfather, Jack. It’s 30-odd years ago; Grandad’s sitting in his customary high-backed armchair in the front room, his stick hooked behind it. I’m seven, perched next to him on a stool I’ve fetched from my grandmother’s sewing room. The Sunday afternoon light’s drifting in through the window. We’re reading aloud, our two earnest, bespectacled heads bent over the page in front of us, a finger marking the words; separated by seven decades, brought together by words. It’s a common scene in families; except, in our case, the usual order of things is reversed. Grandad’s been blind since I was tiny. Rather than him reading to me, I’m reading to him. An avid reader from the moment I cracked the code, I was indiscriminate in my choice of material. When you’re reading aloud, you read something that’s of interest to the listener. So I didn’t read children’s books; I read the sorts of things Grandad liked to hear about.”

Franklin explains, “Our reading sessions weren’t really about the dissemination of knowledge; they were about much more than the information on the page. It was a way for us to spend time together when other mutual pastimes were out of reach.”

Among Franklin’s take-a-ways, “More so even than simple conversation, reading aloud is a contract between two individuals, forming a connection that endures beyond the words themselves.” Franklin cites research by The Reader Organisation, a group devoted to the benefits of reading aloud, that “the closeness of the attention being paid to the listener by the reader, and the intimacy that reading aloud brings, has tremendous benefits to both parties. This can have an enormous emotional impact on elderly people in particular.” Franklin finds that “reading together creates an experience that’s simultaneously utterly unique and completely universal, and that remains imprinted on us long after the final pages are turned.”  <http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/jun/25/reading-blind-grandfather-child>

Both stories underscore the numerous benefits of reading aloud to all ages, especially the elderly. Perhaps paramount among these benefits, the close bonds that can be forged for both reader and listener.