Category Archives: Literacy Lady

Literacy Center Education Network Resources

The Literacy Center Education Network provides trusted resources for Preschool, Kindergarten, and First-Grade English Language Learners (ELLs) and Dual Language Learners (DLLs).

Our site is designed for use in busy classrooms, computer laboratories, and at home. We offer interactive Play and Learn games and Print and Practice activities for parents and teachers to share with children.

In 2013, many children in the United States must meet new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts and Mathematics. Because these standards require much more from young children, especially for those whom English is a second or other language, we have an ongoing effort to develop strategies for parents and teachers. For example, if your child needs to learn 26 English letters in Kindergarten, you will find both upper and lowercase letters on our website. If you are wondering what books support early reading in your home language, you will find reviews and suggestions here.  Our user experience expert will review websites and apps with an eye to finding those that best support the needs of bilingual children. If you are looking for non-commercial activities for  learning frequently used words, you will find fun and entertaining suggestions here.  We are also collecting CCSS resources for teaching ELLs and DLLs with learning disabilities,

To learn how we got started, read about the Literacy Lady.


Literacy Lady

“Who is the LiteracyLady?” Is she an entrepreneur, professor, parent, artist, designer, or a teacher?  I have been all of these things, at one time or another. More than anything, I am passionate about teaching young children to read.

In September 2001, shortly after the terrorist attacks in New York City, I drove to the Hunters Point area of San Francisco. I was scheduled to read to small children at a daycare center in the basement of a church. Even though the city was frozen by fear, I felt it was important to keep my date. I drove through streets where buildings looked bombed out—windows were broken and bricks were on the sidewalk. There were homeless people lying in the street. This is an area of San Francisco that few tourists see. As I parked, two women came out to greet me. The director of the center introduced me as the “Literacy Lady”. Children grabbed me by the knees and said “read to me first!” When I left, I felt a new dedication to my country and to our children. I will always remember those children–their excited eyes and expectant faces. They were angels and I was looking for a miracle.

In the United States, too many children fall through the cracks and never learn to read. Thirteen years ago, only half of our children could read at an appropriate level in the third grade. Since then, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on research, assessments, corporate-based reading systems, looking at healthy brains, and today fewer than half of our children read at an appropriate level in the third grade. I strongly believe we don’t need to spend more money on assessments. We don’t need more research. We do need a better understanding about what teachers and students face in the classroom everyday. We also need to look to countries like Finland, with the highest literacy rates, to better understand how second language learning, high-quality resources, and a culture of respect between parents and teachers can lead to academic excellence. To do this, we must remember a simple fact: one hundred years ago children learned to read with one book. The literacy skills students needed then are needed today.

I grew up in a home without books. I was the first person in my family to graduate from high school and there were no expectations that I would go to college. Still, I always wanted to be a teacher. As a child, I lined up my dogs and cats and tried to teach them to read. I suppose it was a natural response to being dyslexic; a desire to help others do what I found so difficult. In medicine the signature pedagogy is, “see one, do one, teach one”. I worked hard, and in the end, I graduated with honors with a B.A. in English and Fine Art. I won a scholarship to study at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri where I received an M.F.A. While a graduate student, I received a full scholarship to study at the Skowhegan School for Painting and Sculpture in Maine and then a Fulbright scholarship to study painting in Finland. I then moved to England where I received a certificate in Teaching English as a Second or Other Language (TESOL) from the University of Surrey. I taught at various universities including the University of Surrey, University of Helsinki, and the College of Marin.

I met my partner, Wolfgang, in London in 1989. He was studying for an M.A. in a new subject called Interface Design, which is basically designing human computer interaction. It includes navigation design, color theory, typography, readability, usability and much more. Together with another German designer, we wrote a three volume thesis, which received the only distinction, in the United Kingdom, in Graphic Design, during a three year period.

We moved to San Francisco in 1995 and I started the first professional Internet design company specializing in Interface Design and User Experience. I taught Interface Design at the College of Marin and we began designing and developing some of the first virtual reality applications for the Internet. We worked with brilliant engineers who were developing an ISO standard for presenting real-time 3D data. We knew we were in an enviable position when large companies started hiring us to visualize the quickly evolving technologies.

In 1999, I spent one year loking at the simple task of learning to read. I interviewed scientists, engineers, doctors, lawyers, artists, musicians, from multiple countries. I looked for patterns and cultural differences. I read constantly about educational methodologies. I traveled to conferences and talked with some of the most brilliant educational researchers. I sat on panels and gave papers. The Internet opened so many doors but this one seemed locked shut. Children in the United States were simply not learning to read and no one could figure out why. Parents and teachers told horror stories about being trapped in a huge revolving door.  Each district bought different products and as soon as a method was introduced into the school it was replaced by a new and improved method or product. Everyone was frustrated.

In 2000, I was invited to speak at a conference in Lubbock Texas by one of my 3D buddies–Marcia. She is a physics teacher who used virtual reality to engage her students and teach the principles of math, science, and physics. I demonstrated a new site we were working on that would give teachers access to language basics for preschool age children. It was called We offered lessons in English and Spanish. A young teacher came up to me after my talk and said she loved the website but she was not allowed to use it with her students. At the time, it was forbidden to show Spanish speaking children Spanish. Startled, I asked why not? Even then, the research was conclusive. Children who learn to read first in a first language will do better at all subjects later. I was furious with the old “melting pot” ideas about language learning. After all, I had lived for eight years in Europe where children learn to speak and read in at least two languages. When I returned to our design studio,  Wolfgang said, “all we need to do is add more languages”. So, we added German and French. The young teacher soon wrote: “Thank you so much. We can use your site now because it is a foreign language site”.

Since then, we have served more than one hundred and fifty million free lessons to preschool age children. We are still developing new innovative ways to reach English Language Learners (ELLs).  Every time I look at our website statistics, I remember sitting on the floor of the cafeteria eating glazed donuts asking teachers what they wanted and needed to teach children basic language skills. It was Interface Design 101. If you are going to make dinner, you should always start by asking your guests what they like. The same is true in design. The best designs start with what end users want and need.

After years of working with parents and teachers, I believe we are getting closer to understanding the relationship between technology and early childhood education. It is true, the Internet holds great promise. We can use it to change the world or we can use it to confuse children and exacerbate attention deficit disorders. Ultimately, digital technology is nothing more than the emperor’s new clothing. At best, digital media is  fast and green and efficient. It is able to reach children with the greatest learning needs, around the globe, at the speed of light. At its worse, digital media (like television)  is hypnotic. It provides yet another avenue for marketing professionals to sell products to you and your children.

The good news is that parents, pediatricians, and teachers are in the driver’s seat. We can choose to use websites and digital content as positive tools in the education process or we can allow others to use digital media to destroy the process and diminish the intellectual capacity of  our children.


After two days in labor, I gave birth to a son. Someone told me that we spend nine months worrying about childbirth only to find out it is simply a door that leads us into life as a parent. It is like learning to read. Once you know, you rarely look back and remember a time when you could not read. My experience teaching my own son to read left a life-long impression on me. It was so awesome, I want to share the same joy with every child.

Before my son was born, I read everything I could about child development and painted a beautiful alphabet painting. I painted his nursery Chinese red and proudly hung the alphabet painting on the wall. From the beginning, from the very moment of conception, I sang the alphabet song to my child. I collected alphabet books and began to look at letters as little works of art. I read that children who are allowed to explore their environments while crawling become better readers. I know it sounds funny but I would not allow anyone to encourage Kristian to walk too soon. Well, he never really walked. One night I came home and found him running, with a little plastic hammer in one hand, on his tip-tip-toes, between Tom and Eric. To this day, he loves running.

Kristian Learning to Walk













My next memory is the day Kristian read his first word. I have told this story to countless parents and teachers but  there is nothing in the telling that makes it less significant to me. This story illustrates that no matter where you live , what you do for a living,  your child is there–arms open–waiting to learn. My advice to every parent is don’t miss a moment and certainly don’t miss an opportunity to learn from and with your child.

On a summer morning, Kristian and I walked three blocks to town. He was two years old and very proud that he could keep up with me. We counted everything on the way. Five trees. Four houses. When he surprised everyone by reciting the entire alphabet without an error, I had offered phonetic sounds for each letter in a little game we played. “What does Mr A say?” We would laugh and giggle and he would say “AAA” . We had begun to phonetically sound out words together but he had never really done one on his own. So, on that morning, as we sat at a counter on red swivel chairs, I saw an opportunity. “What is that word?” I asked pointing to the wall. I heard him begin to read, “dddoooonnnnuuuutttt” . It then got shorter, “doooonnnnuuuttt” and shorter, “donnutt” and finally he spit out “donut”. Right there, with our milk and donuts, my two year old son read his first word. I don’t know if it is important that my son was able to sound out words at such a young age but I do know I learned the importance of context when teaching reading. There is nothing like a fresh-from-the-oven donut to help a child build a mental model of a word.

John and Kristian

John and Kristian Face-off on Whole Word Versus Phonetic Instruction












When my son was four years old, I enrolled him at a progressive preschool in St Louis. I was a graduate student and it was just around the corner from my university. I loved the creative energy of all the children.

Kristian had a friend named John. The two boys were very competitive and well-matched. John had a single mother who was an accountant and a grandmother who was a retired teacher. His grandmother had taught John to sight read words and he had an impressive vocabulary. One day, the teacher held up the word “RED”. By this time, Kristian could sound out just about any word and could read, albeit slowly, sentences. He started by saying, ‘RREEEDDD”. John looked at Kristian and said “Are you nuts? That says red. Why are you making those funny sounds?” Kristian was furious with me. He came home and said he would never read again. After that, he refused to look at a word for two years. Without knowing it, we were living the debate between phonics and whole word instruction and like many parents I felt like a failure.

I won a Fulbright scholarship to study painting in Finland. So, I packed up my six year old son and we made our way to Finland, during one of the coldest years in history. I had to decide what kind of school Kristian should attend.  Another Fulbright scholar, with three adopted Asian daughters, immediately enrolled her children in a Finnish school. They were happy children who laughed as they stumbled through two Asian languages, and a little English, and some Finnish. Laughter seemed to be the only common denominator. I suspect they grew up to remember very little Finnish but probably excelled at everything they tried because of their wonderfully enthusiastic personalities.

Kristian was lucky enough to get into a Finnish/English kindergarten. Within a week he came home saying, very clearly, “I lay my spoon and fork on the table”. It appeared that my English speaking son was learning English as a second language. I took the bull by the horns and enrolled him in first grade at the International School in Helsinki.  I couldn’t afford it, and we didn’t have money for anything else, but it was one of the best moves of my life. I learned that we can drop our children into difficult situations and hope for the best or we can consciously choose educational experiences that promote the joy of learning.

Kristian Learns to Love Reading









That year was one of the most fun years we enjoyed together. We both remember the sights and sounds of a winter wonderland. Finland is submerged in darkness from November until March but the Finnish people light their world in wonderful ways. Homes are always warm and, in December, there are candles everywhere you go. The snow is another source of unexpected light.

Kristian informed me we would need to arrive at school on time. I was notoriously late and the best part about preschool was that no one noticed. But I did haul my son and myself out in sub-zero weather every morning and onto a tram for a half hour ride to his school. We laughed and sang songs to the amusement of the frozen-faced Finns. I remember Mark Twain writing about the Finns that there was never a people who spoke so many languages yet remained in silence and it is true. But that winter there was a delight in the eyes of the people who watched a little English-speaking boy jumping up and down signing “little bunny froo froo” with a huge crescendo on “bopping them on the heads”.

Kristian had a fabulous first-grade teacher. She made everything seem like it was an adventure. His best friend that year was Henry. Henry’s dad worked at the Korean embassy. He studied everything in English at the International school, he studied Finnish with all the other children in their first grade class, and his parents taught him to read and write in Korean at home. For Henry, the International school was total emersion but it was clear that he was  having a blast.  “How could one little child be expected to learn so much? “, I would ask anyone who would listen. My Finnish friends probably thought that I was coddling my son and maybe I was.  At that time, I put a big emphasis on developing creativity .  Today, I think I was wrong because I have learned children are natural artists; they don’t need to spend hours in the studio to learn to paint or to write. Creativity bubbles up like a well inside every child.

In Finland, children learn two national languages–Finnish and Swedish. It is a lot like Canada where a small percentage of the people speak French, yet, everyone is required to learn English and French in school.  Normally, the Finns start first with their mother tongue and then systematically add the second language.  They also have very sophisticated total immersion schools like the French school and the English school but these schools still require all children to learn to read and write in Finnish and Swedish. What surprised me most was how much Finnish children seem to love English– they sort of look at that as dessert. For most, it is a third language and they can’t wait to begin to study it.

In terms of reading, what really turned the tide for Kristian was a series of books about witches. To this day, I don’t know the name of that series of books. They were just hard enough to read and just exciting enough that he did not want to put them down. There was a bit of a scary edge to these books. Whatever it was they did the trick. Kristian would burst into my studio holding the book in the air and say, “Do I have to eat dinner first or can we just read when we get home?”  This was the ticket he needed to push him into the wonderful world of reading. He discovered he could read and he had wings. In fact, his teacher took me aside and asked me not to push Kristian so much with reading. She took me into the classroom and pointed to the book caterpillars that she had on the wall. Kristian’s circled the room. She told me other children were beginning to feel badly because they couldn’t keep up. I had to laugh because the memory of Kristian saying that he would never read again was still fresh in my mind.


Claremont Fan Court School, Esher, England













When Kristian was in the third-grade,  I moved to England to paint. I also started an M.A. in Teaching English as a Second or Other Language (TESOL) and I received a TESOL Certificate. Kristian attended a British “public school” which is actually a private school and I got a job at the University of Surrey. It was a wonderful year. We spent our weekends going to art and science museums and exploring London. With the help of an older boy, Kristian built a life-size car engine that was made from clear plastic. He also started playing the saxophone. He learned to draw on an Apple II c and became quite adept at using a variety of programs. I could clearly see the impact of early language learning. By the end of the year, his teacher took me aside and told me my son had scored in the 99th percentile on a test that was given to all students in the United Kingdom in the third-grade. She reluctantly told me my son was gifted.

Kristian Studied German, French, and Jazz Guitar in Middle School









Today, I know that Finland not only has one of the highest literacy rates in the world, studies show it has some of the happiest people. I am not certain what impact studying Finnish in the first grade had on Kristian but I believe it was very formative. He went on to study German, French, and Italian. He has a great love for poetry and music. He is a voracious reader who did better at math and science than either of his parents.  Mostly, my son is a respectful, sensitive and kind person who loves to travel and experience different cultures. Is any of this the result of reading his first word at age two? I don’t know. I just know that children are capable of so much more than we think.

When given structured learning opportunities, every child can and will learn to speak and read in more than one language. Every child is gifted in one way or another. We just need to unlock the key to their intellectual gifts.


I have a foster son. He is the finest person I know.

Eric arrived during my final year of college. I was having a planned baby and easing into parenthood. Everything was in order. One day, I came home and found a teenage boy in my living room.  My first husband, Tom, was an Assistant States Attorney. When someone found a teenager in the woods, Tom brought him home. Eric had run away from his home in Los Angeles and had made his way across the country to Illinois. He looked like it had been weeks since he had eaten a decent meal. He had dyed his beautiful red hair black–a stark contrast to his pale white skin. Soon after, Tom brought home two young female dogs–Jasper and Granite. Both got pregnant, as quickly as I did, and we had one pregnant lady, a troubled teen, and nineteen dogs. There wasn’t much we could do about it but laugh.We called our home the fertile crescent.

Over the course of the next months, Eric became our son. He created names for all his mothers—there was adopto-mom, bio-mom, and fosto-mom. I was fosto-mom for foster mother.  In the beginning, Eric took courses at the local high school like hog management and wood shop. He had no interest in school and developed friends we really did not want in our home. But as I grew larger and larger, he grew more and more helpful. He soon came home early every day so we could make a big bowl of popcorn and discuss his day. I was tougher than I like to remember. I called it “tough love” –a term I have heard people use. I don’t think I would be able to do it again.

On the day I went into labor, Eric and I were playing monopoly. There was an enormous storm that quickly filled the local creeks and threatened our passage to the hospital. Eric was so concerned about the baby and me that he made a pact with God and stopped smoking on the spot.

Eric and Kristian Celebrate His Second Birthday








When Kristian came home, Eric developed healthier habits, he became a runner, and joined the track team. By the time he graduated from high school he had straight A average and soon headed off to University. He worked and paid for all of his own expenses, graduating with a B.S. degree in accounting. He worked hard and passed the C.P.A exam. Then, he decided to get an M.B.A. I couldn’t have been prouder. Somehow his success felt like my success.  He took the test to be an Enrolled Agent, which is a very difficult test with a low pass rate, and he passed it.

It was at this juncture I realized how easy it is to push our children without really looking to see what they want in life. One day Eric said, “Do you think this will be enough? If I take this test?” Enough of what and for whom?  I thought. I had been so insistent on seeing him succeed, and so happy to be part of the process, that I never noticed that my love had started to feel conditional.

The real story is that Eric had me at hello. He didn’t need to go anywhere or become anything for me to love him. I loved that skinny kid who walked in the door and needed a good meal. I loved that awkward teenager who taught his baby brother to walk.  It still makes me giggle when I remember Eric teaching Kristian to say “Rand McNally Corporation” while we were still working on “mommy and daddy”.  No matter how old I get , and how much I forget, I will have a clear mental picture of the two boys whizzing by on a bike—Eric pumping like hell and Kristian in a little seat behind him, smiling as if there were no tomorrow.

Eric and Kristian at Principia Graduation

More than anyone I know, Eric taught me the true value of family.  Not everyone comes into the world with adults waiting to love them. For those of  us with difficult childhood memories, loving others and ourselves is not a slam dunk.  Eric  taught me what I value most in education is the human touch. Education is not a foot race where we run as fast as we can to get as far as we can. Education is an inside job. Education is plugging in to the pure joy of an open heart and mind; looking for and experiencing the world in new ways. This is why education makes us better and happier people. It is has nothing to do with the degree or the letters we place behind our names.