Behind doors 1, 2 or 3──which toys promote infants’ literacy development?

Behind doors #1, 2 and 3, you can select three types of toys for your infant. Which door do you select to promote literacy development ── and why? Findings of a Northern Arizona University study examining the type of toys used by infants during play and the quantity and quality of parent-child communication using the toys provides some surprising answers.[1]

In the study, 26 parents and their 10-16 month old infants were given three sets of toys to play with:

  1. Books── five different board books[2].
  2. Traditional toys ── farm animal puzzle, shape-sorter, set of blocks.
  3. Electronic toys ── baby laptop, talking farm, baby cell phone.

Audio recording equipment in the families’ homes recorded the language between parent and infant as they interacted with the toys over a three-day period ──during two 15-minute play sessions for each toy set. This scenario enabled families to play with all of the toys in each set.

What were the researchers looking at during these interactions? Throughout each minute of the play sessions, researchers measured the number of adult words used, the child’s vocalizations, the conversational turns[3], the parent’s verbal responses to the child’s utterances, and the types of words produced by parents.

Why would a study like this be important? We know from a growing body of research that early language development creates the foundation to support a child’s success through school, children who know more words at age two enter kindergarten better prepared than others, and infants develop larger vocabularies by the types of interaction with their caregivers. We know too that “size matters” ── the size of a child’s vocabulary. More than a decade ago, Hart and Risley[4] studied families from various socio-economic backgrounds to assess the ways in which daily exchanges between parents and their child shape language and vocabulary development. The findings revealed major disparities between the number of words spoken and the types of messages conveyed. After four years, these differences in parent-child interactions added up to significant discrepancies. Children from high-income families were being exposed to 30 million more words than children from families on welfare. And follow-up studies showed that these differences in language and interaction experiences have lasting effects on a child’s performance later in life. This has become known as the 30 million word gap.

This knowledge informed the study to determine if the type of toys used during play affects a child’s language development?

What then did the researchers find when they analyzed the data collected by the recording devices?

The researchers found that there were indeed significant differences in the language interactions between parent and infant playing with books versus traditional toys versus electronic toys. During play with electronic toys, there were fewer adult words, fewer conversational turns, fewer parental responses, and fewer productions of content-specific words than during play with books or traditional toys. Children vocalized less during play with electronic toys than play with books. Parents produced fewer words during play with traditional toys than play with books and use of content-specific words was lower during play with traditional toys.[5]

  • Book play averaged 66.89 words per minute.
  • Traditional toy play averaged 55.5 words per minute.
  • Electronic toy play averaged 39.62 words per minute.

The researchers conclude that “to promote early language development, play with electronic toys should be discouraged. Traditional toys may be a valuable alternative for parent-infant play time if book reading is not a preferred activity.”[6]

Many folks are looking at this study now and adding their perspectives – see two recent blogs: When It Comes to Infant Language Development, Not All Toys Are Created Equal (Aaron Loewenbeg) and Electronic versus Traditional Toys: What They Mean for Infant Playtime (Ann at “The Thoughtful Parent”).[7]

Loewenberg notes, “When children are engaged with electronic toys, such as a baby laptop or talking farm, parents may get the mistaken impression that the toy is helping the child more than their parents can. Or, given the demands and stress of juggling work and household duties, parents may feel no choice but to leave their infants and toddlers alone with these toys for periods of time. But there’s no evidence that children in the 10-16 month age range are able to learn vocabulary by using media without a parent or other adult talking with them about what they are seeing and playing with.”[8] Loewenberg also points out that the study size was small and not very diverse. “The study had a small sample size of just 26 parents and almost all of them were white and college-educated. Hopefully, similar research will be done in the future with a more demographically diverse set of participants.”[9] But these limitations aside, he concludes, “… it’s hard to dismiss research that shows such clear benefits of traditional toys over fancier (and more expensive) electronic items. So my advice to parents of very young children looking to purchase a toy to help their infant’s language development would be this: Be skeptical of a toy company’s grand claims about the educational benefits of their high-tech product since they rarely have research to back it up. Instead, opt for a low-tech toy or book that both parent and child can engage with together.”[10]

Ann at “The Thoughtful Parent” reminds us that, “Electronic toys …are pretty much ubiquitous. Young children are very attracted to them. So what is a parent to do? Electronic toys can be helpful if used sparingly. We all need a few minutes to do dishes or cook a meal and these toys can be good distractions for a few minutes. It’s good, however, to keep in mind that you as a parent are the best “toy” for your infant. Talking to him/her over toys and books is the best way for her/him to learn language and interaction skills … and narrating to your child what you are doing as you go about your daily routine.” [11]

My takeaway: when the “game show of life” has us standing before door #1 (books), #2 (traditional toys) and #3 (electronic toys), I’m selecting door #1 first for the infant in my care because vocabulary development matters and engaging infants through effective communication is a high-stakes ── 30 million word ──pay-off.

_________________

[1] Sosa AV. Association of the Type of Toy Used During Play with the Quantity and Quality of Parent-Infant Communication. JAMA Pediatrics. 2015. Dec 23

[2] Board books: designed to survive the wear and tear of infants’ mouths and hands and offer opportunity to share with a child on a caregiver’s lap. The best ones tell a simple story with few or no words, allowing readers to invent their own. Illustrations are crisp and clear, with limited images on each page.

[3] In conversation, turns include the pauses, silences, moments of potential transition when the momentum may be taken up by either party.

[4] “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3” by University of Kansas researchers Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley. (2003). American Educator. Spring. http://www.readtosucceedbuffalo.org/documents/30%20Million%20Word%20Gap.pdf

[5] Sosa study

[6] Sosa study.

[7] http://www.edcentral.org/toystudy/ and http://www.thoughtfulparent.com/

[8] http://www.edcentral.org/toystudy/

[9] http://www.edcentral.org/toystudy/

[10] http://www.edcentral.org/toystudy/

[11] http://www.thoughtfulparent.com/

 

Can your dog or cat help a child learn to read better?

Early this morning ─ really early ─ BJ the cat[1] sprawls across my collarbone peering into my face, “vocalizing.” Her meows grow louder which can only mean one thing: “get up, I’m hungry, can’t you hear me?” BJ is mostly deaf from advancing age. I’m convinced she has no idea how loud she is. As she tunes up the MEOW volume, I shuffle downstairs to get the food bowl ready ─run water in the faucet until it’s hot enough to mix with her canned food to make warm gravy. She watches quietly next to her tan placemat on the kitchen floor. As I put the food bowl on her placemat, she vocalizes soft mewings that I interpret as, “I’m happy to just about be getting my food.” Then there’s quiet while she laps the gravy. Next, a visit to the water bowl followed by stretching. Finally, a trip to the window seat where she waits for the sun to stream in for a morning sunbath.

BJ is 20 years + some months old. In her senior years, she seems to have more to comment on than ever before ─she did not vocalize much when she was younger. She never has been the kind of cat who might sit and listen contentedly, for example, to a child reading out loud. Why you ask would I even expect her to do this?

Well, I learned recently that some cats do –that animal therapy teams throughout the country are joining forces to listen to children read. So I’m looking at BJ through new eyes. Could we be a therapy team – go to schools and libraries and help children learn to read better? Nope, not BJ the cat and me. And truth be told, it’s primarily dogs who participate in these programs. I learned this from looking at the pictures of therapy teams posted on the Internet – from animal assistance reading programs in Georgia, Florida, Connecticut, Delaware, Brooklyn, Chicago, and Puget Sound.

So now I’m wondering how to get my therapy team together ─ join forces with a dog (or mellow cat) to participate in one of these programs because the data shows they are really helping children learn to read better. And children, schools, and animal therapy teams alike are saying it’s fun!

What do these programs look like? In an article for The Bark, [2] Anita Stone explains: “For each session, the dog and the child-tutor settle down onto a blanket-covered pad on the floor in a corner of the school media center or in the library. Either the dog picks out a book or the child selects a picture book, brings it to the dog, holds it flat and begins to read. Though the children believe they are teaching dogs to read, in fact, with the dog as a comfortable, attentive audience (and an occasional gentle assist from the dog’s adult volunteer partner), they are actually teaching themselves. As far as the child is concerned, however, reading is about the dog, not about the child. No pressure. No embarrassment. No humiliation.”

Stone provides some good history about these programs. “Reading Education Assistance Dogs (READ) was among the first to use “reading dogs” in the classroom. Launched in 1999 by Utah-based Intermountain Therapy Animals, the program was introduced in a Salt Lake City library … and a year later, successfully moved into the school system. READ dogs are trained, registered and certified therapy animals who serve as classroom reading tutors, assisting children with their quiet presence and helping them develop a love of reading.”

Many other programs around the country have followed suit. For example, a psychologist volunteering with Helping Paws International, collaborated with Intermountain to create a therapy assistance program called BARKS (“Bonding, Animals, Reading, Kids and Safety”) in Durham County, North Carolina. By 2002, the program had accepted and trained several breeds of dogs, and the demand from schools waiting to participate has grown significantly. BARKS dogs act as partners in 30-minute weekly reading sessions with elementary school children. “Helping Paws International” has also been successful in working with autistic children in North Carolina, and many teams are now operating in states such as Florida, Ohio, and Texas.

“Sit Stay Read!” was established in the Chicago area more than a decade ago by an owner of a dog training school. The Chicago program worked with teachers, reading specialists and literacy experts to establish a program focusing on reading fluency with second- and third-graders of low-income communities. One volunteer team (human + dog) works with groups of four children. The program started with four schools but quickly found some 40 schools were on the waiting list. The results have been really positive. Fluency test results show reading acceleration to 24 words per minute, versus 9 words per minute for children not involved with the program. And both the attendance of children and their attitude in the classroom have improved.

The Reading With Rover![3] literacy program places volunteers in the schools, bookstores and libraries of the Puget Sound area of Washington State to help with literacy programs. I especially enjoyed the testimonials (“woof” reviews) at their website. Here are a few:

  • It’s always been a struggle to get my child to read each day. I’ve never seemed to be able to find the right topics to draw him in. Reading with Rover has been a HUGE help! My son will read almost any kind of book during Reading with Rover, and he wants to read for the entire hour! This is so different from how he is at home. I highly recommend this program for any child who is not a fan of reading! ─ Jessica
  • My granddaughter is in love with your program! And when I was first introduced to it at Third Place Books last month, I totally understood her delight and enthusiasm. In the 40 years that I’ve been involved with education, I don’t think I’ve experienced a more exciting and rewarding program. I had tears in my eyes as I walked around and watched the various children read to these wonderful dogs! I have told anyone who will listen about it! I applaud all of your special efforts to make this so magical! ─ Jennifer C
  • Wow, was it a hit!!! Nate had a blast. Read to 5 dogs and finished 2 whole books. He was so proud of himself. He talked about the dogs all the way home. He is also trying to figure out how our unruly dog, Norton, could be a Reading with Rover dog. When we explained that Norton didn’t behave well enough to be around all those other dogs, he kept thinking. He’s now convinced we can start our own Reading with Rover at home with the neighborhood kids! I had to laugh. That should be funny. Thank you  ─ Shay H

All of these programs (there are many described on the Internet) report success in helping children learning to read. The biggest problem they seem to share is how to find more animal assistance teams.

So, what does it take for a dog (or cat even) to make a good therapy animal? These programs generally require registered therapy animals that have been trained and tested for health, safety, appropriate skills and temperament. And training for the human that accompanies the dog for the reading sessions is needed as well; for example, what to say to the child when Rover falls asleep while the child is reading to him.

A report on these types of reading assistance programs by ABC news a few years ago[4] highlighted researchers at the University of California, Davis, who confirmed that children who read to a dog really do perform better. They found that young students who read out loud to dogs improved their reading skills by 12 percent over the course of a 10-week program, while children in the same program who didn’t read to dogs showed no improvement. For young kids, one of the big challenges in learning to read is the embarrassment of making mistakes. Reading to dogs provides a simple solution — a non-judgmental, comforting furry friend who “listens” and takes the pressure off a child as he stumbles.

So, with the research suggesting that animals can help children learn to read better, I’m hoping that other lovers of animals will look into these programs to help meet the growing demand for animal therapy teams.

I wish that BJ the cat could listen to children read but she’s doing too much of her own talking to be a good listener these days. My plan, therefore, is to look for a dog with the right temperament to be my partner in one of these programs in the future.

________________________________________

[1] Subject of one of the Z House stories: “How BJ Diana Came to Live at the Z House.”

[2]“Reading” Dogs Help Children Learn By lending an ear at story time: http://thebark.com/content/reading-dogs-help-children-learn

[3] http://www.readingwithrover.org/

[4] Report: Therapy Dogs Provide Comfort to Students. Study: Reading to Dogs Helps Children Learn to Read. http://abcnews.go.com/WN/study-dogs-children-learn-read/story?id=11428770

 

Can AmeriCorps help millions of children learn to read better?

There are flashing red lights for an estimated 6 million children in the U.S., ages three through grade three. More than two-thirds of fourth grade students do not read proficiently. And those who do read proficiently by third grade are four times more likely to graduate from high school than those who don’t. Being proficient in reading and graduating from high school are critical steps for success in our 21st century economy.

As a nation how do we help the millions of our struggling readers? Clearly, big solutions are needed.

One big solution is already in play ─ bring to the schools a well-organized, large volunteer force. Emma Brown, education reporter in a recent Washington Post article,[1] explores this solution by asking if volunteers can help kids read more proficiently. Her answer is yes.

We’re not talking here about the small-scale tutoring programs that in the past reached relatively small numbers of children at a school. Given the enormous dimensions of the nation’s child literacy problems, there’s growing recognition that we’re talking about large-scale solutions. One solution researchers are studying is an effort to bring a scaled-up volunteer force to the schools. The volunteer program they’re aiming their searchlight on is AmeriCorps.

AmeriCorps is one of the programs operated by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the federal agency that engages more than 5 million Americans in service through four main programs ─ AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, Social Innovation Fund, and Volunteer Generation Fund. In a recent blog post, [2] the CEO of the CNSC (Wendy Spencer) makes the point that ‘national service is a powerful strategy for addressing critical problems facing our nation,’ calling out ‘new evidence of AmeriCorps’ effectiveness in improving childhood literacy.’

The evidence is that AmeriCorps volunteers are helping millions of children to improve their reading proficiency.[3] Examples come from two recent evaluation studies of programs in operation in Minnesota and California:

  • “An independent evaluation of the Minnesota Reading Corps, which relies on AmeriCorps service members to identify and tutor struggling students, showed that preschoolers in the program were far more likely to gain the literacy skills they need to be ready for kindergarten than other preschoolers.”[4]
  • “A separate study of a different tutoring program, Oakland, Calif.-based Reading Partners, found that it added about two months of additional growth in students’ reading proficiency. And it made that difference despite depending on AmeriCorps members and community volunteers, who had no special training in literacy education.”[5]

To gain these positive outcomes, the programs working in schools operating in several states ─ not only Minnesota and California ─ need the right training for the volunteers and the right curriculum for the students.

You might ask, why are schools looking to volunteers ─ what about the reading specialists and classroom teachers in the schools? Why aren’t they the front line ─ and perhaps the only line ─ in working with children with reading challenges?

There are indeed reading specialists in many of the elementary and secondary schools in our states[6] who typically serve as teachers, coaches, and/or leaders of their school reading programs. They’re authorized by their licenses to teach reading and provide technical assistance and professional development to classroom teachers. They also support, supplement and extend classroom teaching, and work collaboratively to implement their school’s reading program. But the fact is, there are not enough to go around. And while we all want the best trained teachers in reading ─ the reading specialists[7]─ to work with children struggling with reading, this is not possible. Too often, the reading specialists who have been tutoring children for years in our schools have shifted their roles ─ now directing much of their effort to helping classroom teachers improve effectiveness in teaching reading and overseeing school reading programs. And the classroom teachers don’t have the time to focus on the one-to-one reading challenges of so many of their students.

So, where does this leave children who need help to develop reading proficiency?

The handwriting is already on the wall ─ we cannot/will not be able to bring in enough trained reading specialists and classroom teachers to take on the mammoth challenges of child literacy in our schools. So, an approach of recruiting a substantial volunteer force to address this problem is being tested in many schools. This approach is not without controversy ─ the “prospect of tapping an army of untrained people to tackle students’ literacy problems doesn’t sit well with everyone.”[8]

Nevertheless, many schools are bringing in a volunteer force to scale up efforts to help children improve their reading proficiency. Two substantial trials have been the Minnesota Reading Corps and Reading Partners programs.[9] With support from the CNCS and matching funds from the private sector and other sources, the Reading Corps program has expanded beyond Minnesota to seven additional states (California, Colorado, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Dakota, and Virginia) and the District of Columbia.

These developments have grown fairly quickly. Just 12 years ago, the Minnesota Reading Corps[10] initiated its experimental program for 250 children with the goal to get every first-grader reading at their grade level by the year’s end. The early successes in the program led to rapid growth ─ nearly 1,500 AmeriCorps members are using the Reading Corps model to serve 36,000 students across the country this year at more than 900 sites. In the early years of the program, it was the teachers and classroom aides who tracked students’ reading skills and provided the one-on-one help at the first sign of reading troubles. The program model shifted when they tried an approach to try to bring down costs and make the reading program easier to replicate in other schools ─ they would try ‘handing over all that tracking and tutoring to members of AmeriCorps.’[11]

This approach worked. And this is the program model in play today─ AmeriCorps volunteers assess children from kindergarten through grade three at three points per year to determine who needs what type of reading assistance. ‘They pull struggling students out of their classes every day for 20-minute one-on-one sessions, using scripted lessons to work on literacy skills that range from identifying letter sounds to reading fluency.’[12] At the preschool level, AmeriCorps volunteers tutor children and work alongside teachers in the classrooms all year long. A few days of training is provided for volunteers before they begin their work in the schools; and once at the school, they receive ongoing guidance from a teacher at the school (internal coach) plus an employee of the Minnesota Reading Corps (external coach).

Bolstered by the impressive outcomes from this model, the Minnesota Reading Corps is now raising funds to expand into 10 additional states in the next five years.

Some promising evidence that this model works

  • A 2012 study found that Minnesota Reading Corps participants were three times less likely to be referred to special education, saving the state an estimated $9 million a year. Kindergartners and first-graders who received help from the Minnesota Reading Corps made significantly more progress than other children, even after just one semester, according to the study conducted by researchers from the University of Chicago. The program had less of an effect for children in grades two and three.
  • At the preschool level, by the end of the school year children in Reading Corps classrooms on average met or exceeded all five literacy targets for kindergarten readiness, which are based on predictors identified by a panel of national reading experts and include knowledge of letter names/sounds, rhyming, alliteration, and vocabulary. Children in comparison classrooms, on average, met only one target by the end of the school year.

The Reading Partners program which also uses a volunteer force ranging in age from teenagers to senior citizens is expanding in the schools as well. At each school, an AmeriCorps member serves as the site coordinator to train and manage the volunteers. And the children who work with a Reading Partners tutor are making ‘significantly more reading progress than their counterparts who don’t, according to an external evaluation of the program at 19 schools in three states.’[13] Even though the program is making a major and positive difference in the literacy development of children in the program, unfortunately ‘tutoring is not enough to solve all children’s reading struggles.’ The Reading Partners program is offering the equivalent of two extra months of instruction per year, but the fact is, some children are years behind.

The leadership at AmeriCorps has concluded that scaling their volunteer force to address child literacy issues is warranted based on this type of solid evidence coming from the evaluation studies of their programs:

  • Preschool children tutored by AmeriCorps volunteers were significantly more prepared for kindergarten than students without such tutors.
  • AmeriCorps members helped students meet or exceed targets for kindergarten readiness in all five critical literacy skills assessed, and the effect sizes were substantial.
  • The program was effective across a range of settings – and for all students regardless of gender, race/ethnicity, or dual language learner status.

Here are my three key takeaways in the face of the red lights flashing warnings at our nation’s child literacy problem:

  1. These programs have demonstrated they’re working for children based on the gains reported in the evaluation studies.
  2. These programs are providing a needed supplement to the good efforts of reading specialists and classroom teachers who cannot attend to the reading difficulties of the large number of children at their schools.
  3. Unless a new solution emerges for scaling up the type of one-to-one tutoring assistance needed by children with reading challenges, a well-organized volunteer force drawing from AmeriCorps should be expanded to increase the reading levels of millions of American children who need this critical help.

______________

[1] March 28, 2015

[2] AmeriCorps Program Improves Childhood Literacy by Wendy Spencer, March 30, 2015: http://nationalservice.tumblr.com/post/115035049382/americorps-program-improves-childhood-literacy

[3] CNCS invests more than half of all AmeriCorps grant dollars in education, with AmeriCorps members providing teaching, tutoring, mentoring, afterschool support, and other services to students in more than 10,000 public schools, including one in three persistently low-achieving schools.

[4] Emma Brown, Washington Post article, March 28, 2015.

[5] Washington Post

[6] A Reading Specialist Certification (license) is required to serve as a reading specialist in elementary and high schools.

[7] Certification generally involves completing literacy-related coursework after one has obtained a bachelor’s degree. Each state has different criteria for obtaining reading specialist certification. Some states require general teacher certification, and some require at least one year of teaching experience in a general classroom before obtaining reading specialist certification. Some states require applicants to pass a reading specialist content area examination as well.

[8] Washington Post article.

[9] From Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reading_Partners): Reading Partners is a children’s literacy nonprofit based in the San Francisco Bay Area with programs in over 40 school districts throughout California, New York, Washington DC, Maryland, Texas, Colorado, South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Washington. In its core program, Reading Partners operates Reading Centers at elementary schools in under-served communities where children reading below grade level receive free one-on-one tutoring from volunteers using a structured, research-based curriculum. The program has a success rate of nearly 90% in measurably helping students improve their progress in reading, with over 75% narrowing the achievement gap by the end of the school year. Teachers refer students struggling with reading to the campus Reading Partners program, where they receive one-on-one attention of a trained volunteer tutor for 90 minutes each week. Tutoring sessions focus on building students’ reading skills in five critical areas of literacy: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension.

[10]From https://minnesotareadingcorps.org/: The Minnesota Reading Corps is the nation’s largest AmeriCorps tutoring program. Since 2003, the program has helped more than 100,000 struggling readers age three to grade three progress towards proficiency, and the model has expanded to seven other states and Washington DC, now reaching more than 36,000 students annually. Tutors commit to a year of AmeriCorps service, receive training and ongoing support throughout the year from literacy coaches, and use assessments to ensure their efforts produce the desired results ─ helping children achieve grade-level reading proficiency. The effectiveness of Minnesota Reading Corps has been confirmed every year for the past 12 years. Internal evaluations are conducted annually and independent evaluations have been commissioned every three years.

[11] Washington Post article.

[12] Washington Post article.

[13] As reported in Washington Post, the study was conducted by the social science research firm MDRC and funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service

 

 

 

Visit Seussville & read Oh, The Places You’ll Go─it’s Dr. Seuss’ birthday!

March 2dr seuss 1 is an important day for reading ─ it’s Dr. Seuss’s birthday! Seuss would be 111 had he lived. The good news is, he does live – in his books, art work and at Seussville, official home of Dr. Seuss on the Web.[1] Seuss’s birthday has been adopted as the annual date for National Read Across America Day, an initiative on reading created by the National Education Association. School, library, and book store events are planned throughout the country to read one of Seuss’ books ─ in 2015 the book is Oh, The Places You’ll Go. Read Across America hopes that 45 million people of all ages will take time to read a book today to celebrate Dr. Seuss’ birthday. What a tremendous legacy.

Most parents, educators and children know the biggest Seuss bestsellers ─ The Cat In The Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose, Horton Hatches the Egg, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas!. But do they know that writer and cartoonist, Dr. Seuss wrote and illustrated 46 books for children. And that he’s not done yet because a new book is coming out this July (What Pet Should I Get?), thanks to manuscripts and illustrations Dr. Seuss’ wife found while cleaning his office after his death.

You have to wonder if the phenomenon of Dr. Seuss as we know it ─ the fast-paced, rhyming stories leaping to life through whimsical characters─ would have happened without a “challenge” that was not really his own making. He had already published his first book for children (And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street) at the age of 33. Then he moved on to publishing books for older children. When Seuss was 51, a publisher asked him to write a book to help children learn how to read. But there was a catch ─ they would give him a list of just 300 words that most first-graders know, and he would have to write the book using only those words.[2] Seuss wasn’t sure he could do it, but two words jumped out at him as he looked over the list ─ “cat” and “hat.” So, Seuss took up the challenge and spent nine months writing The Cat in the Hat, published in 1957 when he was 53. While the book is 1,702 words long, it only uses 220 different words. Immediately, parents and teachers began using it to teach children to read, and within the first year of publication, The Cat in the Hat was selling an impressive 12,000 copies a month![3]

These “word” challenges continued for Dr. Seuss. Just a few years later, Seuss’s publisher bet him $50.00 that he could not write a book using only 50 different words. Seuss won the bet ─ Green Eggs and Ham published in 1960 uses exactly 50 different words ─ and only one of those words has more than one syllable (the word “anywhere”).[4]

dr seuss 2Clearly, Dr. Seuss enjoyed the challenges. And now we can enjoy the fantastic books, characters, illustrations, and more recently, Seuss “electronic” world at the Seussville website! If you haven’t visited the latter, check out this animated world complete with sound effects, maps, interactive games and activities kids and adults alike will really enjoy. I especially like scrolling through the pictures of different Dr. Seuss characters and having access to printable resources like a birthday certificate you can fill in with your child’s name and interactive activities (e.g., how many fish you can count in a row, characters you can color in).

So, on this 111th birthday celebration, big thanks to you, Dr. Seuss, for the many gifts you have bequeathed to younger and older children ─and adults alike. I count among these gifts many quotes that ring so true ─ here are my favorites:

  • You can get help from teachers, but you are going to have to learn a lot by yourself, sitting alone in a room.
  • Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!
  • Today you are you! That is truer than true! There is no one alive who is you-er than you!
  • You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You’re on your own, and you know what you know. And you are the guy who’ll decide where to go.[5]

dr seuss 3

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[1] Through the wonders of technology, Seussville is brought to life by Random House Children’s Books and Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P.: http://www.seussville.com/?home#/home/

[2] By comparison, picture books for children up to age 8 average 1,000 words (though many books are shorter); easy readers for ages 5-9 are 50-2,500 words, depending on the publisher and level of reader; chapter books (short novels for ages 7-10 typically are 10,000-12,000 words. Info taken from: <www.writing-world.com/children/backes1.shtml>

[3] Info from The Writer’s Almanac (produced by Prairie Home Productions and presented by American Public Media), March 2, 2015.

[4] Info from The Writer’s Almanac (produced by Prairie Home Productions and presented by American Public Media), March 2, 2015.

[5] http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/d/drseuss109092.html#Rc46uM7BhBYLj3MC.99

For good storytelling, go to Storyline Online

Library Lion.2015From time to time, I revisit a favorite website – Storyline Online – to check out the latest productions of well-known actors reading children’s stories. The book I picked out for today is Library Lion, written by Michelle Knudsen and read by actress Mindy Sterling. If you and your children like libraries and lions, this is the book for you.

Here’s the plotline: “Miss Merriweather, the head librarian, is very particular about rules in the library. No running allowed. And you must be quiet. But when a lion comes to the library one day, no one is sure what to do. There aren’t any rules about lions in the library. And, as it turns out, this lion seems very well suited to library visiting. His big feet are quiet on the library floor. He makes a comfy backrest for the children at story hour. And he never roars in the library, at least not anymore. But when something terrible happens, the lion quickly comes to the rescue in the only way he knows how.”[1]

First off, Mindy Sterling is a reader who exudes warmth. And she skillfully makes up cool voices to bring the characters to life – librarians, children, and lion alike (the latter through some impressive roaring). I especially enjoyed the sound effects and animated illustrations ─ characters dashing across the page, crashing sounds of the librarian’s fall from a step stool, and lion’s tail dusting off book shelves. If I had to choose to read this story to a child in print form (usually my preference) or go online to listen to/watch the video book, I’d choose the latter. This is an entertaining story truly enhanced by the talented reader, and sound and art effects of the video production.

This is my third blog featuring the resources of Storyline Online (see blogs on October 13, 2012; and February 17, 2014). Storyline Online is a program of The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Foundation. The program is grounded in research that “reading to children has been repeatedly shown to improve their reading, writing and communication skills, logical thinking, concentration and general academic aptitude… as well as inspire a love of reading.” [2] The program records actors reading children’s books accompanied by a graphically dynamic video book. Parents can access the video books any time/anyplace – for free. Many teachers play Storyline Online videos for their students. And, doctors and nurses play these video books for children in hospitals. Since inception of the SAG Foundation’s program, there have been over 50 million views worldwide and millions of views every month.

If you haven’t visited Storyline Online yet, or haven’t been there recently, this is a great website to get your fix of good storytelling, whether you have a child to listen with you or not. My favorites are Elijah Wood reading Me and My Cat, and Betty White reading Harry the Dirty Dog. And now I’m adding Library Lion to the list. Like the lion who likes to go to the library for storytelling, sit back and enjoy some great stories read to you by some great readers.

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[1] http://www.storylineonline.net/library-lion/

[2] Information from < http://sagfoundation.org/childrens-literacy/storyline-online/> The SAG Foundation’s children’s literacy website, Storyline Online, streams imaginatively produced videos featuring celebrated actors including Rita Moreno, Annette Bening, James Earl Jones, Elijah Wood, Hector Elizondo, and Betty White reading children’s books alongside creatively produced illustrations, helping to inspire a love of reading in children. Storyline Online receives over 4.3 million views every month in more than 211 countries. Storyline Online is available 24 hours a day for children, parents, and educators worldwide. For each book, supplemental curriculum developed by a literacy specialist is provided, aiming to strengthen comprehension and verbal and written skills for English-language learners worldwide.