On Board Books

board books 1

Some of my favorite memories of childhood are of reading. My mother read us chapters from classics from The Little House in the Big Woods to The Hobbit each night before we went to bed. So, when I had my own daughter, now 3-months-old, I knew that I wanted to read to her, a lot.


The American Association of Pediatrics now recommends that parents read to their babies starting from birth. James Perrin, president of the AAP told CNN that fewer than half of children younger than five are read to daily. Reading, singing, and talking to babies increases kids exposure to language and decreases the word gap that can occur when babies aren’t exposed to as much language. (For more on reading to young children, check out Too Small to Fail.)


Of course, reading to babies improves babies’ language skills, but I think it also establishes expectations and habits. I want my daughter to expect to read daily and to be able to sit, listen, and engage with books (turning pages, eventually talking about pictures) for long periods of time (right now, her maximum is about 15 minutes).


Reading stacks of board books every day has also given me a new appreciation for the genre. So, I’ve compiled a list of what makes a good board book:

  • Creative Language: It goes without saying that in a board book, every word matters because they are, obviously, meant to be read aloud. Still, some are more fun than others. Consider this from Sandra Boynton’s Hippos Go Berserk: All through the hippo night, hippos play with great delight. But at the hippo break of day, the hippos all must go away. Text like that is word candy.
  • Interesting Art: Babies’ eyes take a few seconds to focus, and if she’s really into a picture, I let her stare at it, which means I’m staring too. The new series of BabyLit board books (think: Baby Pride and Prejudice, Baby Alice in Wonderland, and Baby Romeo and Juliet) are great for this. Each page is a visual feast, I’m constantly finding something new in the images.
  • Something to Appreciate: Reading board books is all about the kids, but it’s nice to think, while you’re reading, that you’re conveying a message of diversity or environmentalism or acceptance. Recently, for us, Mary Brigid Barrett’s books Pat-A-Cake and All Fall Down have reinforced a message of diversity with illustrations that feature diverse children and families..
  • Subtext for Parents: The more you read a book, the more you can read into it. Case in point: a friend was reading Sandra Boynton’s But Not the Hippopotamus She closed it, looked up, and shook her head. “Deep,” she said, “everyone can’t always be included.” That’s good stuff (but not the armadillo).

board books


Add these books to your board book library:


  • Sandra Boynton wrote Hippos Go Berserk, But Not the Hippopotamus, and tons of other awesome books.
  • Gibbs Smith wrote the Baby Lit series, which features my favorite book Alice in Wonderland: A Color Primer.
  • Mary Brigid Barrett wrote Pat-a-Cake, All Fall Down, and other books that I can’t wait to read


Book Review: Uncommon Core Brings the Discussion Back to Instruction

Full disclosure: I support the Common Core. So, it’s been challenging to watch the discussion around the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). Just this week:

In the midst of all this discussion, comes the new book, Uncommon Core: Where the Authors of the Standards go Wrong About Instruction and How You Can Get it Right (Corwin Press). Authors Michael Smith, Deborah Applebaum, and Jeffrey Wilhelm acknowledge that the roll-out of the CCSS has presented major concerns. (The concerns primarily emerge through materials put out by David Coleman, author of the Standards and president and CEO of the College Board). In addition to the concerns raised by everyone from the Chattanooga Tea Party to Diane Ravitch (that the CCSS are an attempt to nationalize education, there is an overriding focus on profit, high-stakes tests take too central a role) Smith, Applebaum, and Wilhelm contend that if the CCSS is implemented in Coleman’s model it:

  • May erode teacher autonomy,
  • May result in a shift away from research-based best practices in reading instruction,
  • May negatively impact students who need it most (students who are underperforming or have specific needs), and
  • May result in a widening of the gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’

In other words, may not produce the change in education that we want to see.

In addition, the authors point out that reading for pleasure and wisdom aren’t incorporated into the CCSS. Smith, Applebaum, and Wilhelm argue, and I agree, that reading for pleasure and for wisdom are both important goals for reading in school and at home. (For more about reading for enjoyment and the CCSS is Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts’ Falling in Love with Close Reading.)

In response to the concerns, Uncommon Core provides a well-researched argument for how the CCSS can be used to enhance instruction by building on strategies that teachers already use and with a focus on student independence (one of the goals of the CCSS). A few areas they incorporated:

  • Rather than having students start with cold-readings of complex texts, focused pre-reading and background-building instruction can help students access complex texts and build skills that will make their ability to “cold read” more likely in the future.
  • Instead of reading whole texts in isolation, reading various passages and texts within a unit improves students’ ability to transfer information and skills.
  • The list of exemplar texts, Appendix B, can be a starting point to build a diverse reading list for students with texts that are relevant, engaging and challenging.
  • Text-dependent questions can drive students into text, and can be combined with more general or authentic questions to drive discussion.

Suffice it to say, the authors of the Uncommon Core establish clear approaches to maximizing the CCSS to improve reading instruction.

I have followed the CCSS since 2010 when they were newly released and have seen the discussion develop from excitement to push-back to resentment. Teachers feel overwhelmed with the expectations of the CCSS and a confusing roll-out that’s merged with teacher accountability and evaluation, among other concerns. In the news, the arguments and discussions about the CCSS have gotten far away from the classroom, often devolving into political rhetoric. Uncommon Core brings the conversation back to the classroom and gives credit to teachers who are doing the work of the Common Core. (Edutopia Common Core, Teaching the Core, and Shanahan on Literacy also provide good resources around CCSS and literacy instruction.)

In short: for teachers who are working in states that are debating the CCSS, this book is a must-read. It will provide another access point for the CCSS and a critical look into what’s behind the educational arguments for and against the ELA Standards. For teachers in states that have adopted the CCSS and are moving forward with assessment, this book provides clarity and ideas for strengthening instruction, as well as guidance around how the CCSS have been and can be interpreted. Regardless of how the CCSS shakes out—if they’re adopted as-in, if they’re revised, or if they become the jumping off point for new state standards—Uncommon Core (as promised by the authors) provides a clear path for quality reading instruction using the CCSS.

The Best Reading You Can Do: Defining Close Reading

Blame the New Critics, blame the Common Core, but there’s no avoiding the term close reading in today’s ELA classroom. On the surface it sounds easy enough—get up close and personal with a book—but looking around, there are as many definitions of close reading as there are strategies to teach it.

Adler and Van Doren in How to Read a Book describe Analytical Reading as “the best reading you can do” (1940). Beers and Probst (2013) define close reading as a way to bring texts and readers close together, physically and mentally with intense focus so that it extends “from the passage itself to other parts of the text.” Brown and Kappes (2012) define close reading as “a mechanism for teaching logical arguments and critiquing the reasoning of others for gleaning evidence from text and applying critical thinking skills.” Fisher and Frey (2012) see teaching close reading as a way to strengthen students’ perseverance and stamina so they can engage with complex texts.

There are, of course, some commonalities between definitions:

  • Short texts are used,
  • Students are intensely focused on the text,
  • Students are exploring and analyzing text,
  • Students are rereading text for understanding.

Of course, close reading involves all these things and more, depending on the purpose for reading. Ultimately, close reading is a purposeful, concentrated reading (and rereading) of text that results in a deep understanding of text, so deep that students carry the text with them. For me, that’s what makes close reading so challenging—it is meant to be so intense that it requires a different level of understanding and planning on the teacher’s part. It’s no easy task to plan for students to do the best reading they can do.


Books that were referenced in this post:

Adler, Mortimer and Charles Van Doren (1972) How to Read a Book: Revised

  1. Simon and Schuster: New York, NY.

Beers, Kylene and Robert Probst (2013) Notice and Note: Strategies for Close

  1. Heinemann: Portsmouth, NH

Brown, Sheila and Lee Kappes. (2012) “Implementing the Common Core State

Standards: A Primer on ‘Close Reading of Text.’” The Aspen Institute. Retrieved on 7.20.2014 from http://www.aspeninstitute.org/publications/implementing-common-core-state-standards-primer-close-reading-text.

Fisher, Douglas, Nancy Frey and Diane Lapp (2012) Teaching Students to Read Like

Detectives: Comprehending, Analyzing, and Discussing Text. Solution Tree Press: Bloomington, IN.

Fisher, Douglas and Nancy Frey. (2012) “Close Reading in Elementary Schools” The

Reading Teacher 66 (3) 179-188

Lehman, Christopher and Kate Roberts. (2014) Falling in Love with Close Reading:

Lessons for Analyzing Text and Life. Heinemann: Porstmouth, NH.

Close Reading: Brilliant or Buzzword?

I recently came across the post, An Obituary for Close Reading, from Teaching the Core.  This tongue-in-cheek post suggests that Close Reading has gone the way of many other education phrases and fads; it has been buzzwordified and therefore lost its meaning. When terms become buzzwords and are overused, they succumb to what Teaching the Core terms “buzzwordification.” “In its final stages,” as written in the post, “buzzwordification dispatches its victims when the connotative scope of a term becomes impossibly broad, rendering accurate, meaningful communication with the word improbable.”

Close reading is popping up everywhere. Though never explicitly mentioned in the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) (the Anchor Standard R.CCR.1 states that students must “read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it”) everyone who’s working with the CCSS will inevitably come across the idea.

I have to agree with Teaching the Core on some level. In my work with schools, I have seen the term close reading refer to everything from general Socratic Seminar preparation to a painstaking 3-step paragraph-by-paragraph procedure that involves finding vocabulary, summarizing, and annotating. Since the phrase has become so important—tied to the Common Core—yet not clearly and universally defined and understood—as evidenced by the various ways teachers are implementing close reading—it’s not surprising that some teachers are more comfortable throwing around a buzzword than implementing careful, purposeful reading of text.

I think that the conversation around close reading presents an opportunity to give students the type of reading experience that we want to have. An experience that slows down and takes time to engage with text in ways that students might not do if they weren’t all in the same room. An experience that provides for students and teachers to share the most meaningful aspects of reading, from the paragraph that just has to be read aloud to the hidden humor in a YA novel. The obsession with Close Reading could spiral into “buzzwordification”, but I hope it sends us to our bookshelves instead, looking for that next great read. 

(Texts that influenced this post: Falling in Love with Close Reading by Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts and The Case for Slow Reading by Thomas Newkirk.)