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A Year with Mia: Highlights from Our Blog

January 24, 2019

Get to Know Us Better – What’s on the Blog?

Over the past year, we’ve covered a good deal of territory via our blog, some of which you may have missed. From the silly to the serious, from new books to very old ones, here are some of the highlights from 2018, organized by topic.

On Mia and Mia Learning

We spent a lot of time this year on demystifying Mia and putting her into context. We discussed the origins, mechanismstechnology, and philosophy behind Mia, the literacy experts who inform her coaching and general approach, how she can help teachers, parents, and librarians rather than presenting competition, and even her social justice potential.

Reading Aloud Series

This series of three related posts were among our most well-received, covering why, what, and how  parents should read out loud to their independently reading children. We also had a diverting way for parents to assess their greatest strength in reading aloud.

Just for Fun

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has spent a significant amount of time online that quizzes were some of our most popular blog fodder. Among our followers’ favorites? Finding out which fictional dragon matched their reading style and receiving a book recommendation based on which literary cat best suited their purr-sonalities. We also had a great time interviewing illustrator Alex Rodgers and exploring how books shape identity in a poignant conversation with Rowan Walker, an eloquent bibliophile who happens to be gender non-binary.

Lists for Days

In 2018, our blog also had some mighty engaging lists of books organized on themes, like chocolatey reads, colorful picture books, books about fabric, clothing, and cloth, and more thoughtful compilations, such as our collection of biographies about women artists and our list of graphic memoirs written by women. We’re always gratified when these lists circulate widely and prompt more library check-outs and store purchases of heretofore underappreciated books.

Can’t Get Enough of Mia? 

If you’ve read every bit of our blog and you’re still hungry for more, great! Sign up on our pre-launch page at Indiegogo to learn more about Secret Agent Mia’s Book Club and to make sure you don’t miss a thing when it comes to our upcoming crowdfunding campaign.

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Guest Blog: Five Harmful Beliefs and Myths About Reading – and How Mia Can Help

August 23, 2018

by Leigh Ellis Beauchamp, M. Ed., Certified Reading Specialist 

You may have read my previous blog post about why I see Mia as a force for leveling the reading playing field. In this post, I’ll cover some of the more pernicious myths and beliefs about reading I’ve seen at play among parents, teachers, and students in my 14 years of teaching, as well as my vision for how Mia can help to counter them.

1. “Comic books [or any other type of text] aren’t books. They don’t count as real reading.”
Any reading is good reading! As I mentioned in my last post, kids are far more motivated to read when the book is one they choose and like! For example, maybe you believe that jogging is the best way to exercise, and you try to make your child jog a mile a day, with little success. You might get 30 seconds of a halfhearted run before dealing with 20 painful, foot-dragging minutes and a miserable kid. Meanwhile, your child loves swimming and spends two hours a day excitedly splashing and kicking around in the pool. Isn’t she still getting a workout? In fact, isn’t she getting much more of a workout than the unmotivated jogging drudgery that she only did because she was forced to? Would you ever want to jog again if that was your primary memory of jogging? So, why give your child unpleasant associations with reading by forcing her to read the way you think she should? READING IS READING IS READING. And so often, the “unliterary” comic strip or website your child begins with opens the way to print books (see #2). Mia’s recommendations are tailor-made to your child’s preferences, to ensure that their motivation is as high as it can be. Mia will never chastise your child’s tastes in reading material or hesitate to recommend a graphic novel. The science is unequivocal: Any reading is good for kids.

2. “My child should only read high quality literature.”
Taking issue with the appropriateness of a book’s content is one thing, but if you’re making value judgments on the merits of a text, try to put those aside. Recipes, emails, blogs, scripts, lists of ingredients … all of these require us to read. A young teacher I met in graduate school told me that it wasn’t until she was in high school and discovered fashion magazines that she started to enjoy reading. Those seemingly trivial, unworthy texts opened a world for her. I myself devoured a steady diet of fluffy series involving twins, babysitters, and the like. If your child likes “quality” literature, then more power to her! But, again, please don’t force the classics on your child in the hope that she’ll automatically develop a taste for them. Let kids read what they want to read, and forget the canon. It’s the simplest psychological equation: Human beings will repeatedly do what we enjoy; if your child enjoys his reading, he’s a lot more likely to repeat that pattern than if he doesn’t. And we want him to repeat that pattern, every day!

3. “I let my kid take the summer off from reading. They deserve a break.”
Studies show that kids’ reading proficiency nosedives when they don’t read over the summer in a troubling effect known as the “summer slide.” It is an absolute epidemic. Nearly all children advance in reading ability by about 9 months during a school year. Those who read over the summer move up an additional few months, while those who don’t, predictably, move back. The same holds true year after year, until, by 5th grade, the difference between the students who read over the summer and those that did not is 2.5 to 3 years.At the beginning of every school year, and again at the end, I show and then act out this video clip for my students. I go forward a number of steps to represent the knowledge gained by a student during the school year. Then I say, “But what happens when I don’t read over the summer?” They respond, “You go back.” I then take steps backwards. I then go forward again to represent the next school year, but again, tell them I’m choosing not to read over the summer. “What happens?” “You go back.” They start to notice that I don’t move terribly far forward. I just keep hovering, undoing steps I had taken to make progress and not really getting that far. Meanwhile, when I acted as the child who read all summer, it was just forward all the time in a straight path. I was almost out our classroom door in no time. So it goes with summer reading.The good news is that studies show that if a K-2nd grade student reads 10-12 books over the summer, they make the same academic gains as if they had attended summer school. The same is true for 3rd-8th graders if they read 5-6 books. I ask my 7th graders to guess how many books they would have to read this summer to equal a summer school education. Many are shocked that it’s only six, and once they realize it’s so few, I ask them to tell me how many books per week that means they’d have to read during the summer. They quickly figure out that it’s one book every two weeks. I then reiterate, “Ladies and gentlemen, just reading ONE book every TWO weeks over the summer, for a total of SIX books all summer, will do the same thing for you as if you went to summer school.” And I let that sink in. Summer reading is imperative.I stress this constantly with parents of my students, who frequently meet me with shocked and confused looks. I wish more parents knew about the dangers of the summer slide! If you feel guilty about your child’s summer reading habits, don’t despair. It’s not too late to change things: Why not read the same books as your child over the summer so you can talk about them? Without a teacher checking in over the summer months, Mia can be a valuable ally keeping your child on track and maintaining their reading momentum, and she’ll often suggest reading as a means to deepen their bond with you.

4. “Older kids don’t need to be read aloud to.”
I wholeheartedly agree with and reiterate what Mia Learning staff have already said on this topic. There’s something simultaneously comforting and exciting about having a text read aloud to you. The words flow off the page and right into your active imagination, which is freed up to simply soak in the beautiful language and create a sort of movie in your mind. Also, students’ listening comprehension is often quite a bit higher than their reading comprehension, usually by a few years. Kids who may not be able to grasp a text they attempt to read on their own can let their minds soar when they’re read to, creating a positive experience with language. It’s all about creating positive experiences.We return to activities that we feel good about. Mia coaches children who report struggling with a complex text to seek out an adult who can read the book with or to them, promoting resilience if they are indeed interested in the book. She also reminds kids of the social components of reading, encouraging them to connect with others via activities like reading aloud.

5. “Kids need to be tested after every book they read to see how well they really comprehended them.”
First, most of these tests involve low level, basic recall questions. They don’t require much deeper thinking, so they’re not terribly hard to pass. Second: Think about how relaxing and entertaining watching television can be. Let’s assume for the sake of argument it’s a favorite pastime of yours. Now, imagine you have to take a test immediately after every show you watch to see how well you comprehended it. How motivated will you be to watch TV now? While we do want to pay attention to kids’ comprehension, we don’t want to kill their motivation with constant testing. Mia will ask your child to actually reflect on how they’re making meaning from what they’ve read, not to assess their comprehension but to gauge how successfully her recommendation aligned with their purpose, ability level, and tastes.

One thing many of these myths have in common is that they tend to make us feel stressed out about our children’s reading. When we’re fretting over the quality of our child’s book selections, interrupting their momentum constantly to test them, or denying them the pleasures of being read to, we inadvertently take what should be a joyous experience and strip it of all its charms. Mia is dedicated to helping your child or student to associate reading with fulfillment and enjoyment. Why not join her in her mission? Don’t let these destructive myths get in the way of a lifelong love of reading.

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How Deep is the OCEAN?: What to Read Aloud to Your Independent Reader

June 20, 2018

How Deep is the O.C.E.A.N.?: What to Read Aloud to Your Independent Reader

Part of what makes books so magical is their capacity to satisfy so many of our most fundamental human needs.

By Diana Black

Previously, we covered why and how you should be reading aloud to your school-aged children. Today, let’s talk about what to read to them. Remember, Mia is all about helping to empower kids through their reading choices, and this includes what they read with you as well.

One of your first questions might be, “They get to choose what to read on their own, but do I choose what I read to them?” With very few exceptions, we highly recommend that you collaborate with your child when it comes to choosing readaloud books. While they may need some convincing to give a particular book a chance, chiefly you want them to associate reading with pleasure. Therefore, their opinion should at least be solicited and factored in, if not always deferred to. Doing so conveys respect for their personhood and their agency as a reader.

Obviously and most importantly, you want to choose books your child will enjoy, but there’s more to it than that. When selecting books specifically for reading aloud, it helps to remember the handy acronym, OCEAN (with all due apologies to personality psychologists). To the best of your ability, perhaps with help from Mia, a friend in the know, or a stellar librarian, gauge the book on the following five questions before floating it as a possibility with your child:

Will it…

O: open my child’s mind to new ideas, people, places, eras, etc.?

C: challenge them in some way or make them consider something more deeply?

E: …help them to develop empathy for others and expand their notions of what’s possible? 

A: ask more of them than books they might read on their own?

N: …help to fulfill a need for them?

If you think the answer is yes on at least one dimension, then it’s probably a good choice. Let’s dive in (with all due apologies to pun-haters – you monsters!!):

As suggested in our earlier post, take advantage of the fact that your child can comprehend more when listening than when reading on their own. What you read out loud can be more advanced and sophisticated in terms of vocabulary, plot, themes, and more. If your child can read most picture books independently, reading aloud might be the perfect way to introduce them to chapter books.

One of the key purposes of reading aloud to children of this age is broadening their minds, exposing them to new things and opening their worlds. This means prioritizing books that are diverse on multiple levels. A readaloud can also be more demanding of a child in terms of perspective-taking. Challenge them to empathize with characters who are fundamentally different from them in some way. Is the setting utterly foreign to them? Does the book take place in another era?  Do the characters live in totally different socioeconomic circumstances from your family? Is the main character of a different gender than your child? Are they of a different race or ethnicity? (To understand how books can be valuable means of facilitating interracial understanding and self-esteem, we recommend checking out the work of We Need Diverse Books.) Has your child ever put themselves in the shoes of someone of different ability than themselves? Read diverse books to your child that prompt them to perspective-take, think critically, and increase their capacity for compassion.

Diversity doesn’t only apply to settings, authors, or characters – you can also use reading alound as an opportunity to expose your child to books from diverse genres. Discovering a genre they’re passionate about can ignite a lifelong love of reading. Do kids need to know the actual word “genre”? Maybe not, but understanding the names of book types like “mystery,” “horror,” “fantasy,” and “realistic fiction” comes in handy. It’s far more difficult to define or even articulate literary tastes without such vocabulary, limiting kids’ ability to make informed book choices. Remember, part of Mia’s core mission is to expand kids’ toolkits for understanding their tastes. So read books from multiple genres, taking the time to identify them with labels like “poetry,” “adventure story,” or “biography.” Your child will begin to appreciate the dazzling array of options available to them and, rather than being overwhelmed, can start to hone in on starting points for future selections.

Finally, ask yourself if the book you’re considering for a readaloud could serve to address some unmet need for your child. Will it help them process or recover from an emotionally trying time? Can it help them to feel validated? To find their courage? To navigate a complicated social situation? To see the humor in their circumstances or simply feel less alone? Remember, readalouds are the perfect time to introduce weightier themes and subject matter, capitalizing on the opportunity to talk about and unpack them with your child. That’s the kind of substantive conversation they’ll remember for years to come.

Intellectual needs are also compelling reasons to choose a readaloud: Maybe your child is hungry for more knowledge about a subject, but not quite ready to read more demanding fare independently. Part of what makes books so magical is their capacity to satisfy so many of our most fundamental human needs.

Many parents prize sharing books with our children that we loved when we were kids, and this is undoubtedly a compelling reason to consider a book for reading aloud. Your childhood favorite can be meaningful to both you and your child and give a satisfying sense of continuity. However, if your child rejects a book you’re nostalgic about, try not to take it personally. Maybe you just have different tastes.

Does your child has difficulty sustaining attention during readalouds? Please, don’t give up! Consider a graphic novel or a picture book as a potential “way in” to readalouds, or give your child more say in book selection – you may find they’re more receptive after just a few thoughtful adjustments on your part. When you engage them in discussion, you may also discover that a child who insists on walking around the room or playing with legos is actually deeply engaged with what you are reading. 

Be on the lookout for Mia-recommended books for reading aloud which pass the “O.C.E.A.N.” test swimmingly–yes, another pun, which we hope isn’t salty humor–over the coming weeks. Please let us know on Facebook or Twitter what you and your children’s favorites are and send Mia your questions. She’s here to make sure you don’t feel like you’re in over your head. 

Good luck, and happy readalouds!

 

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10 Tips for Reading Aloud to School-Age Kids

June 6, 2018

10 Tips for Reading Aloud to School-Age Kids

By Diana Black

Our first post in this series described the many benefits of reading aloud to elementary and middle schoolers who are already capable of reading on their own, explaining how it empowers and enriches their reading lives. This post focuses on how to do it well.

Thankfully, many of the strategies you used for reading aloud to your child when they were younger still apply when they reach school age. But there are also, naturally, other tips and tricks much more suitable for reading to older kids. So how should you approach a read aloud with your elementary- or middle-school-aged child? Here are ten expert tips to get you started and provide your family with Mia’s favorite boredom antidote:

  1. Take care of your voice. Vocal health, like any other physical self-care regimen, requires upkeep. Stay hydrated, avoid smoking, and if something hurts you vocally, quit doing it. Dial down the screaming at sports events or concerts, please. Keep a cup of water or herbal tea beside you while you read to your child so you can focus on what you’re doing without being distracted by a sore, scratchy throat.
  2. Make it dynamic. At its best, reading aloud has much in common with great music. Keep listeners hooked by varying volume, speed, and pitch. A mixture of loud, soft, fast, slow, high, and low: that’s the recipe for engaging read-alouds (and what Mia calls her “trusty boredom antidote”). It also helps to distinguish characters from one another and to communicate their state of mind. Remember, you’re likely reading books out loud which are more sophisticated than those your child would read solo: The more your rendition can clue them in to what’s going on, the better.
  3. Respect your child’s intelligence. Discuss the books you read together over breakfast or a cozy cup of hot chocolate. Think of it as a two (or more, if other children are also listening to your read-alouds) person book club. Ask open-ended questions and listen well to the answers, allowing the conversation to evolve organically. Notice any book features that seem to evoke strong feelings in your child. If the story parallels their experiences in some way, perhaps ask them whether they relate to it. Try not to quiz kids on plot points or test their recall for its own sake, as it can feel unappealingly close to homework.
  4. Don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself.  So many wonderful children’s books demonstrate an irresistible sense of humor. Sure, mom or dad being silly in public or (heaven forbid!) in front of peers might mortify your middle schooler. But in private, believe it or not, they still love to see you loosen up and lean into your goofy side. Consider it an opportunity for you to play.
  5. Choose voices that make sense for the characters. This is easier than it sounds. A young character’s voice should be higher than an older or large character’s, for instance. Monsters’ voices are usually deep and gruff (think the titular beast in Julia Donaldson’s classic The Gruffalo), while mice are squeaky and high-pitched. A comic relief character could have a voice that’s amusing in some way.
  6. The unexpected is often very funny. Sometimes an incongruous voice makes for comic gold: think of Kenneth Grahame’s poetic, soft-hearted Reluctant Dragon, who is huge, yes, but also achingly gentle. Giving him a suitable voice contradicts our expectations for dragons and helps set the story’s tone. You can also make use of an unexpected, sharply contrasting vocal shift as a plot point. Think what fun it is to hear a seemingly harmless character with a heretofore sweet sound – surprise! –  turn out to be a dastardly villain with a vicious voice!
  7. Listen up. Be an observer of conversations. Casually eavesdrop at the coffee shop or in line at the grocery store, and take mental note of vocal qualities that stand out to you. How are emotions conveyed in speech? If someone’s speaking voice irritates you, what exactly makes it annoying? You’ll find yourself becoming a more effective reader for your children the more you study speech patterns. Better still, it feels like a game for you!
  8. Illustrate meaning to up EQ. Emotional intelligence, or EQ, an indispensable life skill linked to a myriad of positive outcomes, involves picking up on non-verbal cues. Facial expressions, grunts, sighs, snorts, and more are full of information that can be quite challenging for children (and even adults) to figure out. So it’s helpful to give kids multiple routes to understanding meanings. School-aged kids can up their EQ by hearing stories read aloud and seeing your face reflect the feelings of the characters. In a sense, you are an illustrator, because you illustrate meanings facially or with simple gestures. Situate yourself beside your child or in a chair across from them, so they can see your face in full. If you’ve just read the sentence, “He laughed contemptuously,” follow with a patronizing chuckle and let your face show scorn to illustrate what “contemptuously” means. For parents with kids on the autistic spectrum, this may be an even more important teaching tool.
  9. You don’t need to be a professional to be effective. If you’re an audiobook fan, you’ve probably noticed a trend in recent years toward having books performed by celebrity actors. Or maybe you have certain professional narrators who amaze you, like Jim Dale from the Grammy-winning Harry Potter audiobooks. For some, this is intimidating: “Why would my kid want to hear me read Matilda when she could hear Kate Winslet reading it?!” True, you may not be an Oscar or Grammy winner, but you have one key advantage over the pros: you know your child. That relationship is the metaphorical stage on which this performance plays out. You’re enriching your child’s experience of the book with your unique interpretative choices. The quality of your performance is far less important than the fact that it’s you doing the reading.
  10. Above all, have fun! Don’t lose sight of the fact that this is supposed to be enjoyable. If you forget what voice you were using for a character the last time you read, if your vocal interpretation turns out to have been all wrong, or if you just feel completely out of your depth with this whole endeavor…it’s alright! In fact, it’s more than alright: think of what a great example you’re setting. If you can work through your discomfort, acknowledge or even laugh about your own limitations, and persist for your child’s sake, you’re modeling resilience, humility, and discipline.

Next up: find out what to read aloud to your independent reader! Mia’s been hard at work assembling your dossier…

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Reading Aloud to Independent Readers: Why

June 1, 2018

Reading Aloud to Independent Readers

Even for children who can read on their own, being read to has distinct benefits

By Diana Black

At Mia Learning, we strive to empower kids in their choices about reading, helping them select books and decide how to read them based on what they want to get out of reading. With Mia as their guide, elementary and middle schoolers can gain in confidence and engagement as solo readers. So why would we advocate for reading to those readers? Wouldn’t that undermine our most cherished goals?

Nope. This is a “yes, and” situation rather than an either/or one: “YES, we want to make kids stronger, more skillful readers, AND reading to them will help.” Part of what sets Mia apart is that she acknowledges that people read for all kinds of purposes, many of which are best accomplished interactively.

In conversations with your child, Mia will often ask about the context of their reading. She inquires whether they read the book in question by themselves or with someone else. If your child reports that one of her recommendations was too difficult for them to read alone, Mia might suggest that it’s worth another try as a read-aloud. In this, the first of three posts, we’ll endeavor to explain why reading to your kids is a vital part of supporting them as independent readers (and—spoiler alert—helping them become better-adjusted people in general).

 

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Part 1: The Why

Maybe you started at the very beginning, when she was just a mewling newborn. You placed her carefully on your lap, guiding her tiny hands to the fuzzy lion’s mane.  You slowly counted out how many spots were on the ladybug’s back. You read her Goodnight Moon every night, hoping dimly that she was getting something out of all this. Or perhaps you began when he was a toddler, answering every one of his seemingly endless questions and succumbing to the umpteenth demand of “Again!” But now that they are older and can read on their own, those days are sadly past…aren’t they?

Good news: they don’t have to be, and what’s more, the research suggests that they really shouldn’t be. That’s because even for independent readers, being read to helps them grow in ways solitary reading on its own cannot. Especially as your child’s social world and interior life gain in complexity, you don’t want to miss out.

The innumerable benefits of reading aloud to children are well-documented—at least, when it comes to very young children.  Many excellent books and articles on the subject, like Mem Fox’s classic Reading Magic (2001), explain in detail how reading to preschoolers supports neural and vocabulary development, promotes physical and emotional closeness with parents, increases children’s empathy, and more.

But experts like Jim Trelease, author of the venerable Read-Aloud Handbook (in its seventh printing as of 2013), also know that reading to our children doesn’t have an expiration date. For one thing, hearing books read aloud appears to keep older children interested in reading outside of school individually. In a 2017 interview, Trelease pointed out that a child’s reading level may differ significantly from what he calls their “listening level” and explained why elementary and middle schoolers should still be read to even once they can read themselves:

A child’s reading level doesn’t catch up to his listening level until eighth grade. You can and should be reading seventh grade books to fifth grade kids. They’ll get excited about the plot and this will be a motivation to keep reading…[W]hen you get to chapter books…there is really complicated, serious stuff going on that kids are ready to hear and understand, even if they can’t read at that level yet.

In other words, the amount of sophistication a child can comprehend aurally (when you read out loud to them) is typically much higher than what they can understand when reading on their own. So, you can select more difficult books – think twistier, turnier plots, trickier vocabulary, and heavier, more discussable subject matter. But that’s for another blog post (coming soon). Also coming soon: the HOW of reading aloud to older kids. Stay tuned…