Visit Storyline Online for Good Storytelling

Reading out loud to children helps advance their reading, writing, and communication skills. One of my favorite sites to supplement reading out loud by parents and caretakers is Storyline Online. The website hosts terrifically produced videos of actors (like Viola Davis, Chris Pine, Lily Tomlin, Kevin Costner, James Earl Jones, and Betty White) reading children’s books accompanied by wonderful illustrations and cool sound effects. At the end of each reading, the actors tell us why they liked the story. This is an opportunity to ask your child what they thought about the story too.

The award-winning website receives more than 100 million views annually from children (and adults too!) all over the world. And there are many types of stories in their library to select from.

Here’s one I listened to recently you might want to check out: A Bad Case of Stripes read by Sean Astin.

Happy listening!


Teachers learn how to teach reading in teacher preparation programs ꟷ maybe

One in five elementary school teacher preparation programs in the United States are addressing one or none of the five components that teachers must know to teach reading to children: phonemic awareness, phonics (alphabetics), fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

This is serious business. “Teaching children how to read is “job one” for elementary teachers because reading proficiency underpins all later learning.” (The National Council on Teacher Quality)

Unfortunately, many teachers are not prepared well in their preservice programs to teach reading. The National Council on Teacher Quality’s evaluation of more than 800 undergraduate programs for elementary teacher education determined that less than half (39%) provide instruction in all five essential components of early reading instruction. And, 19% of the programs require literacy coursework that addresses no more than one of the five essential components.

The unhappy conclusion is that “training for reading instruction is not adequate in many teacher preparation programs.”

The Institute of Educational Sciences surveyed 99 teacher preparation programs and more than 2,200 preservice teachers about how much preparation programs focused on the essential components of reading instruction [in 2010]. As summarized in Samantha Durrance’s recent blog, only “25% reported their preparation programs included a strong overall focus on reading instruction.” Interesting too is that teachers-in-training were “twice as likely to report a strong focus on reading instruction in their preservice teaching experiences as in their preservice coursework.” This means that many learned on the job, not in the formal coursework at their colleges/universities.

When I worked for two decades in Oregon, there was such concern about the lack of knowledge of teaching reading that many teachers were encouraged by their schools to gain skills in teaching reading.  Several universities joined forces to collaborate on a jointly offered set of online reading programs. The program still continues between two universities –they share a common curriculum of online literacy courses. Participants take courses at either Portland State University or Southern Oregon University (selecting one as “home” institution but able to take classes at either). This effort began as a grant in 2003 from the U.S. Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, and I was founding Project Director of this effort.

The ReadOregon consortium offers three programs which enable teachers to gain skills in teaching reading: a 24-credit Reading Endorsement program approved by the state licensing board which enables teachers to add the Reading Specialist endorsement to their license; a 12-credit literacy education course of study for general classroom teachers; and a “courses-only” option.

I recall so clearly the in-depth discussions among teachers and school principals of what these programs must encompass to enable teachers to be prepared to teach reading better. They settled on seven thematic areas aligned with the International Reading Association Standards: 1) Literacy Foundations; 2) Literacy Strategies & Methods; 3) Literacy for Diverse Learners; 4) Literacy Assessment; 5) Leadership in School Reading Programs; 6) Literature; and 7) Practicum.

I’m proud that ReadOregon is continuing to prepare teachers of reading, and that many of the colleges and universities in Oregon — and in so many other states — are providing specialty programs in the teaching of reading.

But, I wish all teacher preparation programs were preparing teachers better before they entered the profession. Just a year ago, Kelly Wallace’s CNN report on the art of teaching teachers how to teach reading interviewed an elementary school principal who lays it out there: “Our universities do not teach teachers how to (teach reading) at the undergraduate level. [Teachers] are coming through a traditional track not knowing how to teach reading, just the overall basic components of it . . .  As a principal at a high-needs urban school with 1,260 students, up from 830 six years ago, [I] more than [have my] hands full just trying to keep [my]students and [my]130 teachers on track…faced with narrowing a stunning word deficit: Children living in poverty hear 30 million fewer words by age 4 than children in higher-income households, according to researchers.”

These are big — almost insurmountable — deficits to reverse once children are in school.

Durrance in Are Teachers Prepared to Teach Reading gives us the unhappy bottom line: “Teachers can’t teach what they don’t know. Teacher preparation programs need to make sure their elementary teacher candidates understand how children learn to read, as well as how to help students who struggle with early literacy skills.”

Sometimes people ask me what my favorite work was in Oregon. ReadOregon was and is my favorite. Working with many devoted colleagues, I was doing something that would help prepare teachers to teach reading better. And so many children would reap the benefits.

Is picting replacing words in our digital age – is this the new literacy?

Is technology changing our definition of literacy? That’s the question posed by Cathie Norris and Elliot Soloway, university professors studying how much time today’s youth spend with text-based materials vs. image-based materials.(1) They estimate that 90 percent of K-12 classroom time in the U.S. is spent with text-based materials, and 10 percent with image-based materials; but outside the classroom, 90% is spent with image-based materials and 10 percent with text-based materials.

The bottom line from their provocative article, Picting, not Writing, is the Literacy of Today’s Youth (May 8, 2017) hits the literacy question head on: “No question about it: picting is the new literacy. For better — for worse.”

As I read their article, I thought about prehistoric cave-paintings and Egyptian hieroglyphics, wondering if we’re heading back to an older era of communicating through pictures, respawned by new digital tools. Various North American Indian tribes drew or carved pictures into rocks—the pictures stood for an idea or individual word. Similarly, hieroglyphic symbols represented objects, or stood for sounds or groups of sounds—in a system of picture-writing used on ancient Egyptian monuments. Many view such picture-writing systems as precursors to writing.

Norris and Soloway describe the changing world of literacy—through our many digital networks —with picting emerging as a system using visual forms to communicate ideas and expressions:

  • Snapchat is a social media service where people send pictures to one another. Though a note (words) can be added to the picture, it’s an unnecessary add-on. Pictures disappear after 10 seconds of viewing, or 24 hours for a story made up of sequences of pictures. Our professors conclude that Snapchat is like verbal conversations that disappear, only now it’s the pictures that disappear. The population “picting” is huge: some 30 percent of millennials in the U.S. visit the Snapchat app 18 times per day and spend about 30 minutes a day using it, 158 million use Snapchat daily, and the average number of photos shared is 9,000 snaps per second.
  • Facebook is a video-based social networking site where the video content is growing rapidly in popularity.
  • Instagram is a visual platform—a picting site. There are 400 million active users daily/700 million monthly; 80 percent are from outside the U.S.; over half of millennials with access to the Internet use Instagram daily; Instagram is the second-most used social network among 13–17 year olds; and 95 million photos are uploaded per day (up from 70 million last year).
  • YouTube is a visually-oriented social network. In the U.S., it is used by over 180 million people, reaches more 18-34 and 18-19-year olds than any cable network, 81 percent of millennials and 91 percent of Internet users ages 13-17 use YouTube, 58 percent of Gen X and 43 percent of Baby Boomers use YouTube, and 400 hours of new videos are estimated to be uploaded every minute.
  • Pinterest is an image-pinning bulletin board site. It serves some 150 million monthly active users, with 70 million from the U.S.. There are 50 billion+ Pinterest Pins and 1 billion+ Pinterest Boards; and the median age of a user is 40, however, the majority of active pinners are below 40.

Our professors conclude from these amazing statistics that “picting is a real trend — and one that is significantly engaged in by the youth of today.”

That begs their core question for all of us: “Is the trend towards picting, and away from writing, a good thing for today’s youth?”

There’s no easy answer. Reading words and writing words are key to our culture, life, and jobs. We cannot realistically communicate only through visual forms. However, visual forms (e.g., photos, diagrams, videos, emojis, GIFs) often communicate in a way that words cannot, so they play a vital role in literacy — and may grow in importance in a digital age.

The statistics Norris and Soloway have laid out are compelling, the trend lines undeniably headed upward. As we trade more pictures (with few or no words) with one another every minute, hour, and day, let’s think about the impact on our children’s literacy skills especially.

This is a set of developments that will be evolving in this next decade of digital change, as Norris and Soloway conclude, “For better — for worse.”

☹ ‍ 🙂


(1) Cathie Norris is a Regents Professor and Chair in the Department of Learning Technologies, School of Information at the University of North Texas. Elliot Soloway is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of CSE, College of Engineering, at the University of Michigan. Their sites: www. See their Reinventing Curriculum blog at




Add fake news to the list of challenges for children: telling fact from fiction

There’s a growing unhappy fact of life — fake news. Most of us get that some of the magazines winking at us from the shelves next to the grocery check-out counter with their unbelievable headlines and pictures (e.g., three-headed Martians) are just that, unbelievable. But increasingly, there are fake news reports pommeling us from a host of media outlets — television and radio, print, Facebook, Twitter, and speeches by policymakers. It’s getting more difficult to tell fact from fiction because most of us are not conditioned to question everything we see and hear — and we don’t have good tools to verify information. Now fact-checking tickertapes on some television news channels are telling us what is true or false with colored check marks; and there are fact-checking websites to visit if we take the time.

I don’t want to play the “true or false” game around today’s news. And I don’t want our children to play this game either — especially as they face the challenges of learning fact from fiction as evolving readers.

How big a problem is this for children?

According to Sam Wineburg, professor of education and history at Stanford University, it is a big problem — the majority of children in middle and even high school find it difficult to tell fake from real news.[1] “The ability to determine what is reliable and not reliable — that is the new basic skill in our society,” he explains [2]

Wineburg reminds us that until recently editors and librarians played a key role in helping us sort the reliable from unreliable. But now, anyone who sits at a screen — most of us from very early ages — will take on this role.

Is this realistic for children? As early readers, they will be exposed to fanciful stories −like the story about Lyle the Crocodile who walks on his hind legs, dances, ice skates and shops at a department store in the city.[3] They will also be exposed to informative (nonfiction) texts about crocodiles. And over time, young readers will learn to tell the difference between fantasy and factual texts.[4]

Between the ages of three to five, children are beginning to understand the difference between make-up and reality.[5] But there are many situations in which children as old as twelve may still have difficulty telling the difference between fantasy and reality.

In the Stanford University study of more than 7,800 middle and high schoolers across twelve states, for example, researchers found that students “struggled to distinguish ads from articles, neutral sources from biased ones, and fake accounts from real ones.” Students were asked to look at information represented in tweets, comments and articles —and most students failed to effectively evaluate the credibility of that information. The researchers found the students were “getting duped again and again.” Here are some telling examples from the study:

  • Most middle schoolers could identify a traditional ad but more than 80 percent believed “sponsored content” (a paid story) was a real news story. It wasn’t clear if students even knew what sponsored content was.
  • If the text looked well-presented and polished, the students believed the site was “neutral and authoritative.” Most students were not critical readers− they did not look for supporting evidence or citations.
  • Most of the high school students accepted photographs as fact[6] — they didn’t ask where a photograph came from or question its truthfulness.
  • Many high school students couldn’t tell if a news source was real or fake on Facebook — they believed they were all the same.
  • Even at the college level, most students didn’t suspect potential bias in a tweet from an activist group. To check for bias they would have needed to question if the tweet was based on a poll conducted by a professional polling firm, which might make it a good source; or have clicked on the link within the tweet before evaluating the accuracy of information. Students did not perform these checking functions. The researchers noted that most Stanford students could not identify the difference between a mainstream and fringe source of information.

Three of Wineburg’s conclusions should especially alarm us:

  1. School classrooms are not prepared to help teach children how to assess the truthfulness of information.
  2. “What we see is a rash of fake news going on that people pass on without thinking … and we really can’t blame young people because we’ve never taught them to do otherwise.”
  3. “If the children are the future, the future might be very ill-informed.”

The good news is there are some solutions — we can teach Internet users and especially children — to become detectives, to become fact checkers. And this can start with young children.

  • Parents and caretakers can teach children the difference between reality and fantasy. They can help them learn that the fantasy characters on their tablets and television screens are not real and there are not monsters and ghosts lurking in the closet or under the bed – the serious nighttime fears of so many children.[7]
  • Teachers can help children determine fact from fiction[8] as children are learning to read different types of books. For example, nonfiction often includes picture captions, tables of contents, glossaries, indexes and headings — and while all types of books typically include pictures, a nonfiction book is more likely to use photographs instead of illustrations.
  • Parents, psychologists, counselors, and educators can help children and teenagers to think critically and learn to separate reality from fantasy, fact from fiction and propaganda – in movies, YouTube videos, and video games. While teenagers may well understand the difference between fantasy and reality, they may still absorb or become attached to ideas presented in films, television programs, music, and statements from celebrities that have little or no basis in reality; and they may lack sufficient experience and knowledge to sort propaganda from fact.
  • Parents and teachers can teach children of all ages to question information that comes to them through our many media sources. Our children can learn to become detectives and fact checkers, clicking on links to determine the source of the information, and making judgement calls about the accuracy of the information.

If we don’t take this challenge seriously— develop techniques to separate fact from fiction — we will all be living increasingly in fantasy “screen world.” Fact-checking is the name of the new game to play with our children.




[2] NPR Podcast of study:

[3] Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile by Bernard Waber

[4] “Young Children Learn to Distinguish Between Fact and Fiction,” Research at University of Texas at Austin Finds. (Nov. 27, 2006). University of Texas at Austin.


[6]E.g., students were shown a picture of deformed daises growing in a rocky field, with accompanying news story the daises were deformed due to radiation spill. This was not true but the students did not question the photograph nor, therefore, the made-up news story.

[7]Avi Sadeh of Tel Aviv University’s School of Psychological Sciences found understanding the difference between fantasy and reality helps children overcome nighttime fears. Widen and Russell of Boston University, in “Fantasy vs. Reality: Young Children’s Understanding of Fear” suggests “that preschoolers more readily associate fantastic, nonrealistic creatures [such as ghosts and monsters] with fear.” When adults such as parents, teachers or mental health professionals teach a child to tell the difference between fact and fiction, children can more easily overcome irrational fear.

[8] Irony is, this source is “sponsored content” from The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, an online newspaper and former print newspaper. The newspaper was founded in 1863 as weekly Seattle Gazette, and long one of the city’s two daily newspapers, until it became an online-only publication in 2009. The Education section included sponsored link “Teaching Fiction and Nonfiction in Kindergarten Education by Demand Media” by Shelley Frost:




When your cat tells you it’s time and she means it … a tribute to BJ

I’m not writing about literacy today. I’m writing about BJ the cat, the subject of my first children’s book, “How BJ Diana Came to Live at the Z House.” It’s been a few weeks. I couldn’t bring myself to write this tribute until now.

The eighth grader who lived down the street found the tiny black kitten in the fields by the high school 22 years ago. She brought the cat to her mother’s home and named the little cat, Bonnie Jean ─ Marilyn Monroe’s real name. They called her BJ.

I knew none of this until I met the cat. There’s quite a story ─ covered in the book that I hope you will read. But today is about the end of her life — the last three days of her life.

She had been slowing down for months. Her kidney disease had been progressing. There were months of supplementing her diet with baby food to quell the vomiting. And for months, a ravenous appetite, as if she couldn’t pull enough sustenance out of her food. And so much water drinking ─ from bowls placed strategically throughout the townhouse: third floor bathroom, next to her food bowl, and by the front door. She especially liked to lap warm water from the shower stall floor after I ran the hot water for her.

Now she wasn’t interested in eating. The doctor told me this was a sign to look for. She started napping behind the curtains in my bedroom. And tucking herself against the wall in the corner of the bedroom.

Following one especially long stint of sitting on my stomach and gazing intently at me one night while I watched television in bed, she folded her small body under the crook of my left arm and didn’t move all night. She was warm–but not a comfortable warm. And she was moving slowly when she woke.

That was the day I noticed she was not vocalizing. She was moving back and forth between two new spots I never saw her in before ─the back of my bedroom closet behind the laundry hamper, and next to a metal file cabinet in the back of the closet in my son’s old bedroom.

It was night time when I searched for her and opened the door to my son’s closet. She answered a quiet soft sound to tell me she was there. But she wasn’t coming out.

We never had a family pet die naturally. Euthanasia seemed the better way to help our pets when their diseases took hold. But I planned to let BJ go naturally. I had been coming home from work at the end of each day wondering if she would be alive or dead.

In a consult with the veterinarian, he advised me to rethink the plan. When the kidneys stop working, she’s going to feel nauseous, he said. And this is painful. She’s already retreating; this is the herd reaction, to protect herself. You probably have only a week, he said. Don’t let it go too long.

I thought we would have more time. I thought we would have a full week.

But she spent two nights in the closets. It was two nights since she left her place next to me, where she had slept for so many years. She was telling me it was time. She quietly, so quietly, made the most awful decision for me. I had to agree.

She was 5 lbs. the last time we went to the doctor weeks earlier to have her sharp nails trimmed. She was down then more than 1 lb. from two months earlier. And after her nights in the closet, not eating, she must have been down more. She felt light and limp.

The last night she’s tucked into the closet in my son’s old room. For a moment I wonder why she doesn’t want to be near me but I know this is not about me. This is about taking control of her waning life according to cat rules, herd rules.

There’s no complaining, no loud crying which she has done for so many months earlier, unwilling or unable to sleep well at night ─ impelled to hunt fur mousies–carrying them around the house, crying plaintively and yowling at them and at her aging predicament perhaps. Then, you would have thought we lived with lions.

She lost her hearing two years ago. I could yell her name behind her head and she would not turn around. So I knew it was quiet inside her head.

This last night, I kneel by the closet where she’s resting. Slide open the door enough to see her and confess to her that my heart is broken. I don’t want her to be old and sick. She’s awake and listening. I share the plan with her. In the morning Noah’s coming over and we’ll give you a sedative – a pill crushed into honey – and press it along the inside of your mouth a couple of hours before we drive to the doctor’s. I don’t want it to be too dark for you tonight ─or for me ─ so I’m putting the light on in the hall so you can find your way if you want to move around. I’m putting a little bowl with baby food and water outside the closet if you get hungry. Then I apologize for crying because I don’t want to scare her. And ask if there’s anything I can do to help her. She doesn’t answer. So I tell her I love her and will come check on her during the night, which I do every hour.

The pillow she always sleeps on next to me is empty. This is the Tony Little pillow with the microballs in it that I purchased from the Home Shopping Channel because my neck was hurting so much. After I purchased the pillow ─ that really helped my neck by the way ─ BJ immediately started sleeping on it. So I gave it to her and purchased another for myself. For years, her Tony Little pillow has sat next to mine on the bed.

While she rests in the closet that night I tuck her pillow into the cat carrier so she will be comfortable on the last trip. While we wait, I write some words to try to remember this night.

The diminishing cat at 22 is readying herself to pass

She cannot keep up with the herd running inside her

She is safer behind the laundry basket in the closet

I cannot help her through this waning she tells me

It is best to be still she tells me quietly

At dawn we press the honey sedative against her gum and she is calm, so calm. After a while we drive to the veterinarians.

It is 8 a.m. when the assistant ushers us into the examining room. Usually the cat would be straining to get out of her carrier. She is so still now. Her favorite veterinarian, the woman, is with us today. I gave her the BJ picture book for her children years ago, so she knows her early story.

There’s the next sedative shot – and the cat doesn’t stir really. We have already slid the Tony Little pillow, with her nestled into it, out of the carrier and she is exposed on the examining table. Black fur on a stark white pillow.

The doctor kindly assures us BJ isn’t feeling anything as the little electric razor shaves away fur on one paw where the IV will be attached for the final dose.

I take the little piece of fur to add to the fur pieces saved from other pets – Mister Boogie, Dolly and Pepper.

Then in goes the final fluid to take her away from us.

The doctor asks what we want to do with her body.  We want her ashes.

Then she asks about the pillow─ do we want the pillow to take home? We decide to keep the pillow with her body.

The doctor lifts the Tony Little pillow with little BJ gone now, and leaves the examining room as I wonder where her precious cat spirit has gone.

We leave with the empty carrier case, knowing it was time because the cat told us it was time.

To our beloved little BJ:  We learned many important lessons from living with you for 22 years. Especially, if you don’t like the home you’re living in or the situation you’re in, get out and find something better. And when your vulnerable time comes and you can’t keep up with the herd, find a safe place and wait for those who love you to help you. You will always live safely and with great love at the Z house.


Paperback – July 19, 2012

How many homes does a cat need? A bold black cat sets her sights on moving into the Z house, where Mom Z and her son, Noah live. Mysteries unfold as the Z family tries to get to the bottom of the young cat’s puzzling behavior.