Importance of Engagement
It was evident even prior to kindergarten that Bain was struggling to recognize the alphabet and read in ways that his peers weren’t. Because his struggle was marked by letter and number reversals, we spent several years researching dyslexia and implementing novel innovations to help him.
Before we conceived of these books, Bain was blessed to have a Montessori teacher who had specialized dyslexia training. She was able to integrate a standardized dyslexia approach within the Montessori model. We were thrilled to have the combined approach; it represented the cutting edge of learning, personalized to meet the needs of our son. Yet the result was not what we hoped. Bain found the repetitive dyslexia drill work dull and grew to increasingly dislike and avoid reading. Realizing this method was not a help for our son, his teacher wisely discontinued the drills. We all knew the key would be finding a way to get Bain involved and pursuing material because he wanted to: in short, engaged. Soon after, in a whole-family effort to ignite such a spark, this series was born.
A primary challenge was that most books at Bain's reading level contained content that, as he decisively informed us, was “for babies.” Yet when he would attempt to read a book with more sophisticated content, by the time he laboriously sounded his way out to the end of a sentence, he had no idea what he had just read. In his experience, the work/reward ratio of reading was simply not worth the effort.
An engaged approach meant that he would not only understand what he was reading, but would be interested in the content, and that through enjoyable reading practice, over time the decoding work of reading, even of books not in cursive, would gradually become easier and more automatic. We knew that as his work/reward ratio began to shift, his authentic enjoyment would increase.
By the time we pursued testing after writing these books and following other strategies I share in the Appendix of each book, Bain had developed so many reading strengths that despite the fact that he still flips numerals (which is what prompted us to test; numerals cannot be written in cursive!) the testers could not confirm dyslexia and offered only an enthusiastic “Keep doing what you are doing!”
Science Behind Engaged Reading
Though the idea of "engaged reading" is not a new one, the practical application of what it means for this series was ultimately inspired by the research of Art Glenberg, head of the Arizona State University Laboratory for Embodied Cognition. We found his work described in Sian Beilock's book How the Body Knows Its Mind (Atria Books, 2015). Glenberg develops young readers by incorporating movement into reading lessons.
Glenberg found that when 1st and 2nd graders use toys to act out the story they are reading, their comprehension improves. Sian Beilock summarizes, “Acting out the sentences boosted children’s understanding of a story by 50 percent or more. Those children also tended to remember a lot more details–even several days after the initial reading experience . . .The explanation that Glenberg favors . . . is that experience acting out the sentences pushed kids’ brains to mimic those of more experienced readers. Just as when we read the word kick and the foot area of the motor cortex comes alive, acting out a sentence helps us connect words and their referents . . . When the kids are later tested for comprehension they are able to call upon a rich set of sensory and motor experiences related to what they read, experiences that guide their memory and understanding. (Beilock, Sian. (2015) How the Body Knows Its Mind. Atria Books. p.52).
When I (Bridget) saw this research, a light bulb went off in my head. This idea that not only could a young reader become more engaged by acting out each sentence read, but that their reading skills could improve through such a method, sent me running to the computer to develop a prototype. With a generous amount of input and feedback from Bain, our first book, Many Pennies, a book that engages the reader to "do something" after each sentence read, was born. In the excitement of creative flow, we created Unlocking the Secrets of Hand Shadows soon after.
Engaged Reading is Fun!
One thing that our family learned the hard way is that when an early reader struggles, reading can become a tense experience for both the child and the parent. One of our goals for ourselves and for this series was to recover the fun in reading. The instructions in these books are intended to be not only engaging, but often silly. Allow for as much fun and creative exploration as you can; the benefits of these books are not limited to practicing reading. Making hand shadows and juggling pennies develops coordination, hand strength, focus, and creative expression. If laughter is the outcome, that is the greatest success.
Why some of our books are to be read aloud with mom, or read aloud with dad . . .
Though we are well aware that not every child has a mom or a dad they can read with, we made the decision to write Many Pennies to be read aloud with mom, and Unlocking the Secrets of Shadow Puppets to be read aloud with dad. The reason is: intimacy is one of the greatest ways to build engagement. There are certain actions in our books that would not read the same if the prompt was "with your reading partner." As we expand the series we hope that there will be a book for each special person in a childs life. We have had some school teachers use the books in classrooms and they simply explained to students that every time the book says "your mom" or "your dad" they would substitute "your teacher!"