The Book Fort

A Literacy Newsletter for Educators and Parents

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Issue 41: The Story & Science of the Reading Brain

"When we pass over into how a knight thinks, how a slave feels, how a heroine behaves, and how an evildoer can regret or deny wrongdoing, we never come back quite the same; sometimes we’re inspired, saddened, but we are always enriched. Through this exposure we learn both the commonality and the uniqueness of our own thoughts – that we are individuals, but not alone” (7).

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In this delightfully unusual text, Maryanne Wolf, in true honor of Socrates and his many students, poses some questions about the future of reading and its very nature that pushed me to consider my instructional methods. She begins with this, “In these pages I invite you to ponder the profoundly creative quality at the heart of reading words” (Preface). If this title wasn’t enough to draw me in, this sentence certainly was. If we are indeed, what we read, as Joseph Epstein put it (5), we’ve got a challenge that might even be a crisis in education. As evidenced by the declining reading scores on standardized test, the way students read has changed and our measures have not changed with this, for better or worse. Declining SAT verbal scores (225) are of course blamed on the teachers (not the test, oh no), but blame is not the answer. We’ve all got to consider the big questions Wolf poses in this text and determine how we can move forward to best prepare our students to emerge from academia with the communication skills necessary to thrive in the 21st century. This book isn’t a typical professional learning text geared toward educators, but there is a wealth of knowledge in the pages that will give you a history of reading and a scientific look at what happens to the brain when people learn to read by way of a lovely prosodic style. Below you will find a few quotes to ponder and some of my take-aways. Check out the book here, follow the author @MaryanneWolf_, and check out her work on dyslexia here.

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Yes! I am sure we all remember our first influential reading experiences, those that made us feel as if we had made new friends and traveled to distant lands. The one thing I have been terribly saddened by in my career as a public educator has been the students that have not had these experiences, those who never developed a reading identity or love. Teaching at high poverty high schools and community colleges meant that I had many gaps to fill if I planned to offer my students this opportunity; therefore, I made it my mission to learn all I could to make it happen. I consider this my legacy and I plan to continue spreading the Book Love all over the world as long as I possibly can.

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“Learning to read begins the first time an infant is held and read a story. How often this happens, or fails to happen, in the first five years of childhood turns out to be one of the best predictors of later reading” (19).

This may leave us feeling desperate as early as kindergarten with both our students and our own children if the mysterious thing that is the ability to read does not emerge by age five. So many students come to our schools and classrooms without this early reading life that we are left to triage and this often results in negative labels and experiences for children. Also, what if they come to us in middle or high school, or even college still fighting this early deficit? Talk about feeling helpless as educators. I challenge you, at whatever level you teach or lead to instead consider how you can make the biggest impact on the development of enjoyable, skill-building experiences for students. This could be self-selected independent reading, read-alouds, book clubs, or even intensive study of the morphemes of the English language set to rhyme. Whatever unlocks this mystery of reading in ways that don’t punish or shame -- this will move mountains; this is what students remember as they emerge as young adults.

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A question that emerged in my doctoral cohort often and among colleagues of varying ages and years of experience, this one has no easy answer. My thought is that replacement might not be the best word; blend might be the better one. We don’t want to contribute to the growing population of young adults that don’t have practice thinking for themselves or critically analyzing all the words, images, sounds, and other such media they are constantly skimming everyday on their devices, yet these devices have the power to continue to delight and enrich our lives, to connect us and give us access to information and people we would never have otherwise. I challenge you to blend your approach to instructional in ways that utilize the technological tools we have and push students to think for themselves about all that they are taking in.

As for the decline in verbal SAT scores after the testing format changed to cover less vocabulary and more analytical reading skills, “Many students who have cut their teeth on relatively effortless Internet access may not yet know how to think for themselves” (225). That, then, is our most important job with older students. Younger? Teach them to love reading, to transport to other realities and change the brain into a reading brain. Older? Help them fill in the gaps with this same word knowledge and decoding ability, but teach them to think, to know themselves, and to build their identities.

Book Wizard

All this talk about reading means we've got to find kids the right print books to build their brain power! That isn't always easy, particularly if you don't enjoy reading the books your students like to read. Check out Scholastic's Book Wizard for help finding and leveling books. Bonus: they now have a mobile app!
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Storybird lets anyone make visual stories in seconds. We curate artwork from illustrators and animators around the world and inspire writers of any age to turn those images into fresh stories. It's a simple idea that has attracted millions of writers, readers, and artists to our platform. Families and friends, teachers and students, and amateurs and professionals have created more than 5 million stories—making Storybird one of the world's largest storytelling communities. Check it out today and follow them on Twitter @Storybird.

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Thoughts on Meaningful Tech Integration

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Reading Recommendations

David T. Wilson Elementary 5th Graders Recommend...

Missed Previous Issues?

Kristie Hofelich Ennis, NBCT

In an effort to systematically study relevant research and stay connected to the teachers I greatly respect and with whom I have worked for years to successfully implement independent reading, this newsletter came about. It will offer research and practical ideas for quick implementation and may prompt further discussion or study with your colleagues. I hope you'll find it useful and thought-provoking; I also hope you will stay in touch if you implement any of the ideas with your students. They are, after all, why I do what I do!