J.J. Parsons's Blog: Reading With Eyes Shut

March 5, 2018

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I've been away from Reading With Eyes Shut for quite a long time. Other projects with virtual reality have sponged up my time of late.
But now that Edison and Charlotte have completed their third adventure, they are heading to the middle east and I may have more time to spread the word about Reading With Eyes Shut!
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Published on March 05, 2018 07:35

May 20, 2014

Reading With Eyes Shut: Read a page with the eyes of a reluctant reader

Do you remember a time when you couldn’t read? Remember when your child eyes gazed without comprehension at a page of sticks and circles?

What about the learning-to-read phase when you struggled to sound out words, trying to hear them aloud or in your head; trying to make sense of each word and remember them long enough to assemble meaning from a sentence or paragraph.

Readers may be “reluctant” for a variety of reasons. Reading With Eyes Shut focuses on one of those; the idea that some readers spend so much mental effort focusing on decoding words that they don’t experience the intrinsic joy of visualizing characters, places, and events. Reluctant readers are missing out on the fantastic worlds that authors help us to create in our minds.

Most of us don’t remember that bumpy journey when we learned to read, and so it can be hard to get a handle on the plight of reluctant readers.

Those of us who love to read are, for the most part, skilled readers. We consume pages with the voracity of a paper shredder. We read with little thought about the mechanics, as our minds are busy processing the story, communing with the characters, and enjoying the plot. Understanding challenges faced by new readers and reluctant readers takes imagination.
Here’s a little challenge that offers a taste of the world from the eyes of a reluctant reader. It is a short conversation, written in English (though with a bit a dialect). Here, give it a read:

Ven Two Alt Gize Meet Oop Nort On Da Lake Fichen*





"Crieps, cetchenenny?" 








"Oofda, bitenard?" 


"Vahchayoozin? Dalindyrik?" 






"Oh, Vachadrinkin?" 








Da Ent!!!

* I can’t trace the original source of this tale, as it can be found on the Web in several places with slight variations.

Consider the amount of mental effort you had to exert to decode the story. Compare that to the usual energy you devote to reading. See the difference? Reluctant readers are spending copious amounts of metal energy in the decoding process, leaving little for the more pleasurable part of reading.

Reading With Eyes Shut techniques attempt to temporarily reduce the decoding burden, and at the same time add a visualization component. The goal is to give reluctant readers a fuller reading experience; one complete with the pleasure of visualization, even if the reader is still in a learning-to-read phase and struggling with decoding. As the link between reading and pleasure becomes strong, readers become more motivated to read. With practice their decoding skills improve, setting in motion a positive feedback loop that helps reluctant readers become avid readers.

For a sample Reading With Eyes Shut story link to Samuel and the Pirates .
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Published on May 20, 2014 09:10 Tags: kids, reading-with-eyes-shut, reluctant-readers, stories, visualization

March 25, 2014

Reading With Eyes Shut: Kick Up Your Narrations

I don’t like my voice. It is to high. I sound too young. Thinking back, my voice must have been in its most formative stage when I taught kindergarten. Now, despite fifteen years of university-level teaching and a lifetime of interacting with adults, I still tend to sound like I am speaking to five-year olds.

How do I know this? Digital voice recorder. I set up a rudimentary recording studio for a prototype of the mixed media Reading with Eyes Shut edition of the Edison Jones adventure, Dead Chest Island. What came out was not at all satisfactory. Yet, it pointed out my faults.

By studying my recordings, I was able to pinpoint several problems that were fixable. My voice is still not the caliber of professional voice talent, but it sounds more pleasant—when I remember to monitor it. With practice, my “good” voice might become natural. Right now, I have to keep reminding myself “fatten your inflection, and pitch down instead of up.”

Okay, so what is the relevance for Reading With Eyes Shut? First, you don’t have to worry about it. If you are a parent, librarian, or teacher who is reading to students, don’t worry about your voice, and don’t let your voice discourage you. BUT, if you have a little time and you want to improve your narrations (making the stories you narrate a bit more interesting, perhaps), then make a quick recording of your voice, listen back, and see if the tips that follow here might help you improve.

Breathe. When you take a breath, you create a quiet space, which offers listeners a chance to consolidate their thoughts and build visual images. Take a breath at the end of every sentence. Commas also indicate breathing spaces. Use them.

Speak from your diaphragm. This advice is given by every voice coach, but what does it mean? Try this:
Hold your nose and say “Let’s go to the zoo.”
Let go of your nose and touch your cheek. Say “Let’s go to the zoo” again.
Touch your chest and say the phrase again.
Be sure you are sitting up straight (or standing) and put your palm just under your navel. Say, “Let’s go to the zoo” one more time. This last time, your voice should be a bit deeper and more mellow. That is diaphragmatic voicing.

Monitor your inflection. My initial voice recordings made it clear that I tended to raise the pitch of my voice on syllables or words that I wanted to emphasize. If my speech was on a musical score, those would be high notes, indicating that my pitch as going “up” for emphasis. Because my voice is already in the high range, this additional “up-ness” made me sound shrill. I’ve been practicing moving my pitch “down” when I want to emphasize some passage.

Here’s what I tend to do:

Some voices have the opposite problem; they are too flat. To solve this problem, practice raising the pitch of your voice on some syllables.

Monitor your pace. Do not speak too quickly or too slowly. Change your pace as you read. For exciting parts of a story, pick up the pace. But, you can add an element of surprise by suddenly slowing the pace just before the climax of the action.

Monitor your volume. Obviously, you’ll adjust your speaking volume based on the setting in which you are reading. Bedtime reading calls for a quieter voice than a teacher might use to read to a class. But volume is a powerful narrative tool. Contrary to our intuition, a quiet voice will make your audience pay close attention. If you sense that you are loosing your audience—when children go all squirmy or their eyes begin to wander—start to whisper, and you’ll get their attention back.

Articulate. There’s a scene from the movie Six Degrees of Separation when Trent (Anthony Michael Hall) is instructing Paul (Will Smith) how to sound “classy.” The key was how to pronounce the word “bottle.” Trent says:

“This is the way you must speak. Hear my accent. Hear my voice. Never say you're going horse back riding. You say You're going Riding. And don't say couch. Say sofa. And you say Bodd-ill. It's bottle. Say bottle of beer.”

Before that movie, I never realized how we mash up English. Yep, I was even worse than Paul, slurring out “bodd ull” even when stone sober. It is “BOT ell” not “BODD ull.” Does it matter? Well, when children follow along in the book as you narrate, they might be confused when you read a word like “bottle” because they see the “t”s but hear “d”s. English has enough exceptions to spelling rules that we don’t have to create additional confusion by lazy pronunciation. So keep your lips moving crisply as you narrate. “Spit spot” as Mary Poppins would say. In fact, saying “spit spot” is good articulation practice.

So, have fun with these tips. Experiment with your narrative voice. It can add a fun dimension to your read aloud time.
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Published on March 25, 2014 09:23 Tags: bedtime-stories, edison-jones, read-aloud, reading-with-eyes-shut, reluctant-readers

March 18, 2014

London Book Fair

Parents, narrators, and librarians who want to discuss Reading with Eyes Shut techniques at the London Book Fair can congregate for lunch on April 9th. Interested?

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Published on March 18, 2014 14:50 Tags: librarians, london-book-fair, londonbookfair, read-aloud, reading-with-eyes-shut

March 6, 2014

Reading Aloud

I love this blog from a person with the obtuse handle Da Poppins: How an Overwhelmed Mom with Four Kids Under the Age Six ...
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Published on March 06, 2014 07:21

March 4, 2014

Reading with Eyes Shut: Read Aloud

March 5 is World Read Aloud Day; a perfect time to try Reading with Eyes Shut visualization techniques. I have a sample posted for reference here. It demonstrates how narrators can add rich visualization to a reading session.

As a narrator or storyteller, it helps to do a little pre-planning before you sit down with your listeners. Read through the chapter you are going to narrate, and note where you want to add visualization. You can use sticky notes if you hesitate to write in the margin of a book. When using ebooks, you can use the annotation feature, if you are comfortable with it.

You can refer to an earlier post “Tips for Narrators” for a list of places in the text where you might insert visualization. To summarize, look for places where new characters are introduced, where the scene changes, or where something visual is happening plot-wise. Your goal is to help your listeners to picture vivid scenes in their minds. You can elaborate on the author's descriptions with material that you imagine or that the author offers later in the book. You can also ask questions that lead your listeners to paint in the details with their own imaginations.

Setting the Activity
Some listeners, especially those who are reluctant readers, are easily distracted, so the beginning of the session is key to making it a success. Give your listeners motivation to participate. Here are some ways to begin:

“One of the reasons people love books is that they can create and control entire worlds in their minds. Let's see if you can create a world based on this story. You're going to make the very best world if you close your eyes, listen to the story, and try to make a movie in your mind.”

“This book has some crazy people in it. You can really enjoy them if you close your eyes and try to picture them yourself.”

“This story is very mysterious. There are lots of clues to the mystery, but you might miss them unless you can picture what's happening in your mind. So, why don't you close your eyes so you can visualize the story and solve the mystery.”

“The books that older kids and adults read don't have pictures in them, so what makes them so interesting? People who are skilled readers paint pictures in their minds as they read the story. Let's see what kind of pictures you can create if you close your eyes while I read to you.”

You get the idea. Just make sure to supply a good reason for your listeners to close their eyes. And make sure they are comfortable that nothing bad is going to happen when their eyes are closed.

Visualization Key Words
So next, what can you say to facilitate the visualization process. Here are some phrases that can help:

Picture a boy, any boy...”

Imagine that you are in a dark tunnel...”

Make a movie in your mind...
Can you see it in your mind?

“The story begins on a tropical island. Let's create a picture of it in our minds. Suppose you're a bird, flying above it. You can see turquoise water of the ocean. The island is fringed with white sand beaches....”

What does it look like? Is the island? Round? Long? Square? Kind of wiggly?”

Now there's an image you can play with. Mrs. Petrie slumped in her chair in a blob-like way, snoring...”

I'll give you some clues about Charlotte. She is tall and slim, graceful like a dancer...”

“Jonathan is about the same age as Charlotte. Is he tall or short? Muscular? Tubby? You can fill in the details.

Listen to this description and see it in your mind...

“Do you have any idea what might happen next? Make a movie of it and play it in your mind.

Putting it all Together

Once you've marked the passages where you'll insert visualizations, and you've some idea of the phrases you'll use to invoke images, you are ready for the best part—reading loud. Enjoy!
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Published on March 04, 2014 11:19 Tags: edison, read-aloud, reading-with-eyes-shut, reluctant-readers, visualization

February 26, 2014

Reading with Eyes Shut: The Digital Connection

Those of you who have been following the Eyes Shut posts are now familiar with the idea that reluctant readers may miss out on the pleasure of visualizing because they are devoting all their mental energy to decoding words on the page. Paper books are unforgiving in this respect, however, digital books of various sorts can help build the visualization connection.

Audio Books
An obvious choice for reluctant readers, audio books don’t require any decoding skills. They are storytelling in its most basic verbal tradition. The voice talent for today’s audiobooks is truly extraordinary, pulling listeners deep into the mood and action. You can find citations about audiobook effectiveness for reluctant readers here .

The catch with audiobooks is that they offer no bridge between the printed world and the audio world, unless readers follow along with the audio using a printed book--and that can get pretty hair raising if the reader can’t keep up with the pace of the audio.

Ebook readers, such as Kindle and Nook have a built-in screen reader that reads pages aloud. Readers can listen to each page with eyes shut or they can follow along in the text. As a bonus, readers can click words to view definitions. These devices operate using text-to-speech technology, however. The synthesized voice, though good, does not come close to matching the nuanced delivery of human voice talent. This paper offers a quick overview of research pertaining to ebook readers, their audio features, and effectiveness for reluctant readers.

Interactive Digital Books
Some of you know that my background is in creating interactive digital books, such as textbooks with photos that “come to life” as videos, diagrams that animate, and embedded self-check quizzing. Until recently, it seemed to me that such technology was most useful for educational materials, such as textbooks. Fiction seemed fine as straight text whether in printed or digital format. But confronted with the reluctant reader problem, I began to wonder if interactive books could be structured to foster visualization.

I put together a prototype, trying to keep the interface simple. My goals were:
1. Give readers a chance to listen and visualize without any decoding requirements. To implement this goal, I put an Eyes Shut button on the page. That button links to a narrator’s description of a scene, character, or event. These narrations are descriptive and generally are NOT part of the actual text. As I was the author, I had the luxury of knowing lots of details that were cut out of the final draft to keep the plot moving along. (Authors take note: Save all those bits you chop out of your final draft. They can come in handy later!) Readers are supposed to click the Eyes Shut button, close their eyes, and listen to the narrative. So on the first page, before the story begins the Eyes Shut narrative goes something like this:

Close your eyes and picture a boy. Any boy. He might look like you or your brother or a friend. Don’t worry if he starts out as kind of a shadow. You can fill in the details later. Let’s call this boy, Edison.
Edison is standing in a hotel room. Picture it. The room is not fancy. There are two beds and the covers are rumpled. There is a chair and a table next to the window. The walls are painted bright yellow because this hotel is in the tropics on a little Caribbean island.

2. Give readers the option of reading the text or listening to it. Every page has a Headphones button that will read the text aloud. In my sample, I am the narrator. I’m not a professional, but I chose a real voice over text-to-speech because reluctant readers are more likely to respond to a real voice. It was necessary to change the layout of the book at bit because I wanted the Eyes Shut button to be on the top of a page, not embedded between paragraphs. From a usability perspective this strategy makes sense. Readers do the following:

a. Turn to a new page (for which they have to have their eyes open).
b. Click the Eyes Shut button and listen.
c. Open their eyes and either read the page or click the headphone button to listen to the page. The page looks like this (the links aren't active on this blog):

3. Provide definitions for “hard” words. Dead Chest Island has a Lexile score of 740, which makes it a comfortable fit for middle grades, but some words could be stumbling blocks for reluctant readers. I added a small circle next to these words. Readers can click the word to hear it pronounced and hear a definition. I chose to make these definitions audio tracks rather than written definitions; that’s what we do as teachers and parents when young readers have trouble with a word. We say the word aloud and tell them what it means. Here’s page two. I’ve hotlinked audio definitions to “groping” and “turquoise.” Groping, because many readers will sound it out as “grop” “ing” (with a short o) and will puzzle over it.

To see how this all works, you can link to my sample here or by going to www.edisonjones.com, scrolling down to the bottom of the page and clicking the Reading With Eyes Shut sample link.
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Published on February 26, 2014 12:04 Tags: digital-books, ebooks, literacy, reading-with-eyes-shut, reluctant-readers, visualization

February 23, 2014

Learning to Read with Eyes Shut: What’s Wrong with Picture Books and Comics?

Picture books are just about every readers introduction to the world of books. Who can forget The Cat in the Hat, Curious George, and Where the Wild Things Are. The stories entertain us; the art work enchants us. Comic books, once relegated to pulp fiction, have evolved on the literary food chain into a form of not quite high art, but certainly an artistic genre. Comics are also used as a tool to encourage reluctant readers. Comic book publisher, Diamond Comics sums up their advantages in an article here.

The Power of Books
So what is wrong with picture books and comics? Nothing. Except. Readers who have developed a love of books, whether in print or on screen, enjoy a good plot and empathize with characters, but an even deeper attraction is what goes on in the mind of readers; the imagery that readers create in their minds based on the words provided by a book’s author. That imagery is powerful, enabling readers to create cities, landscapes, worlds, and universes. Through the imagery in books, readers travel through time and witness miracles. In a sense, reading makes us gods, with the power to create and destroy. That is brilliant stuff. Addictive stuff. And it is what hooks many readers and keeps them flipping pages.

Internal vs External
As a form of entertainment, books require the most effort, but yield the greatest rewards. Movies also entertain us, but they don’t require much effort from viewers. The director, actors, costume designers, and set designers have done all the work for us. As viewers, we watch, but we need create little imagery of our own. The action takes place externally, not in our minds. This external entertainment is quite different from the internal rewards we seek from books.

Picture Books
In terms of external vs internal rewards, picture books and comics are more similar to movies than to novels. The illustrator, provides us with images that may be imaginative, but are not formed by the reader’s imagination. Before there is a general outcry, let me say that illustrations do help us expand our creative thinking by showing us images that our prosaic brains might never imagine. From that perspective, picture books certainly can foster creativity and give us cues for building our own imagery. Picture books are a lovely introduction to reading, but for many children, picture books don’t provide the hook that transforms reluctant readers into avid book lovers.

Comic books with their profusion of illustrations and sparse text, have disadvantages similar to those of picture books. There is surprisingly little empirical research on the effectiveness of comics for helping reluctant readers. Lots of anecdotal supposition. I’m curious if comics help children transition into book lovers or if they create readers who basically stick to comics and continue to shun books with words formed into paragraphs.

That leaves us wondering: Are there effective tools for transitioning reluctant readers into book lovers? Is the key in visualization? As with comics, there is not an abundance of empirical research pertaining to visualization. Going back to 1975, an often quoted study (Bullock) concluded, “When pupils admitted to an adult literacy scheme were asked why they failed to read at school, the common factor that emerged was that they did not learn from the process of learning to read, that it was something that other people did for pleasure.” Does that pleasure come from visualization and if it does, how can we develop the connection between reading, imagery, and pleasure in reluctant readers?

The Reluctant Reader Trap
Here is a hypothesis: Reluctant readers spend so much effort decoding words, that they have no additional mental capacity for imagery. Because decoding is “hard” and without imagery, there is little pleasure in reading, reluctant readers are trapped in a vicious cycle; they are not motivated by pleasure to develop their decoding skills, yet until they can easily decode the words on a page, they’ll not be able to experience the pleasure of reading. No pleasure from a book, no motivation to practice or develop decoding skills.

To help reluctant readers break out of this cycle, teachers and parents either have to push them to develop decoding skills or find some way to make the reading-imagery-pleasure connection. This trifecta is the basic idea that underlies Reading with Eyes Shut and its techniques for encouraging children to visualize settings, characters, and events with their eyes closed while a story unfolds.

You may anticipate a problem with this approach; with eyes closed, there’s no decoding going on. No “real” reading is taking place. True, but sometimes the head-on approach to a problem does not work. Sometimes we have to take a tangential approach. In a previous post, I listed some techniques for reading to children and helping them develop visualization skills. Storytelling and audio books offer plenty of opportunities for visualization. We can also harness the power of digital books to enhance visualization. More about that in a future post.
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Published on February 23, 2014 07:40 Tags: reading-with-eyes-shut, reluctant-readers, visualization

February 20, 2014

Reading with Eyes Shut: Tips for Narrators

When narrating a story to a child who is visualizing, how do you know when to interject visualization cues? Here is a short list:

1. When you start, set the mood. Summarize what the story is about--location, characters, and plot. And be sure to add a "carrot" that will get your listener interested in finding out what happens. “This story is going to get pretty exciting/wierd/scary...”

2. Whenever there is a scene change, help your listener form a mental picture. It might be at the beginning of a chapter or in the middle of a story, but when the scene changes, there is a great opportunity for visualization. You can simply ask, “Can you picture it?” or you can elaborate by talking about your own imaginative images.

3. Whenever a new character is introduced. Personally, I like authors to leave characters a little vague, so that I can imagine them to look like people I know. As you narrate, encourage your listener to build an image of each character--an image that gets clearer and more detailed as the story progresses. “Let’s start building a photo of Edison in our minds. Picture a boy, any boy. You can fill in the details or change the way he looks as you find out more about him later in the story.”

4. Just before a key event in the plot, ask where your listener would take the story. A little foreshadowing keeps children guessing and stretches their imagination. “Oh oh, I think something weird is going to happen. What do you think it will be?”

5. When a character shows emotion. Can you remember reading something like “...and Pippi’s mouth turned into a perfect O of surprise...” and irresistibly, your mouth mimics that of the character? In those moments, you are fully immersed in the story. Give your listener a cue that it is okay to react: “Let’s see you make that face!”

6. When the author introduces sounds. Authors add dimensionality to scenes and events with descriptions of sounds and smells. Sounds other than clangs, bangs, and explosions are often referential; they may be folk songs, popular songs, chants, and so on. If the sound is integral to he scene or plot, you should ask your listener if it is familiar. A little research on the Web can unearth a song track, or you can relate it to a similar song that your listener knows.

7. When smells are integral parts of a scene. Humans seem to have a hard time envisioning smells and most people can’t conjure up a smell as readily as they can conjure up a mental image. What we seem to do, however, is associate smells with feelings. The scent of chocolate chip cookies, for example, can give us happy feelings, while the smell of bleach might be kind of depressing. So, “Think about how you feel when the smell of chocolate chip cookies is wafting out of your kitchen,” might be a good cue to keep your listener immersed in the story.

In my next post, I’ll include some concrete examples of narrative cues and in later posts, I’ll discuss how authors can borrow these strategies to improve their writing.
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Published on February 20, 2014 09:37 Tags: dead-chest-island, edison-jones, eyes-shut, learn-to-read, reluctant-readers, visualization

February 19, 2014

Reading with Eyes Shut: Get Started

So you're a parent or a teacher and you want to help your children or students develop their visualization skills. It is easy to begin. You are simply going to read aloud a story--it could be a short picture book, a short story, or a chapter from a longer book. But rather than asking your listeners to follow along in the book, you are going to ask them to close their eyes and visualize the story like a movie in their mind.

It is important to explain what you intend to do and what you'd like your listener to do. Teachers call this "presetting." You set up the experience by explaining what, how and why. You might say something like this:

"I’m going to read this book to you so that you don’t have to worry about watching the words on each page. You can just close your eyes and let your mind create movies of the scenes and events. You can also smile, grimace, and pout along with the people in the story, so feel free to let your face reflect their feelings. I’ll help you as we go along. Let’s get started with the story."

And don't worry if this is a bedtime activity and your listener falls asleep. He or she may have dreams filled with the story's characters! In the classroom, teachers may need additional guidelines. Sitting up is better than heads-on-desks, and you may want to get students involved in some head and arm movement as the story progresses. We'll get into that on subsequent posts.
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Published on February 19, 2014 07:30

Reading With Eyes Shut

J.J. Parsons
Reluctant readers may spend so much effort decoding words, that they have no additional mental capacity for imagery. Because decoding is “hard” and without imagery, there is little pleasure in reading ...more
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