Literacy is the foundation of everything we do for our learners. Reading is a required skill for every subject, whether it is science, English, math, or social studies. If this foundation is shaky, it can cause a student’s academic world to get much smaller very quickly.
At one point in our history, a person was considered literate if he or she could read and write. Now a literate person must read, write, speak, listen, view, access, evaluate, and ethically use information. It is a much broader spectrum that must be addressed in order for students to leave our K–12 environments ready to be fully functioning members of society. This goes beyond college and career. This is about the quality of one’s life in today’s world.
When students are starting to read, they tap into one of the very things that makes us human: stories. We tell stories, we read stories, and we learn through stories. Our minds are strategically wired for stories. For most of human history, we learned how to be successful in life by listening to stories, learning them, and retelling them to the next generation. The evolution of the oral tradition to the written tradition allowed readers a broader perspective by providing a window into people and places outside the realm of personal experiences.
Young children are naturally curious, so the role of the elementary teacher is to create an environment in which they gradually release students to take ownership of their own learning. This does not mean throwing them in the deep end of the pool to see if they can swim, but it does mean educators are designing instruction that is developmentally appropriate and offers opportunities for self-directed learning.
If Johnny is fascinated by muscle cars, then let Johnny read about muscle cars, write about muscle cars, and demonstrate mastery of learning targets through that specific interest. I am not advocating for educators to stand back and let children’s learning become limited in scope—there are subjects and facts that need to be learned—but that we allow students’ individual interests to drive their learning whenever possible.
K–2 students are not reluctant readers as long as they are given the opportunity to find books that speak to them personally. Allowing even the very youngest students some autonomy in book selection leads to a much more pleasant relationship with reading and books. If you have reluctant readers, my first question is going to be if they have complete and open access to a wide variety of materials from which to select and the freedom of independent self-selection. That is the key.
Libraries and Personalized Learning
The school library, when professionally staffed, is the original personalized learning classroom. That is where students first discover who they are as readers. Libraries are one of the last places in the school building where a student has complete free choice over the content he or she chooses to read for pleasure. Highly qualified librarians understand that there is no such thing as “boy” books or “girl” books. They have a deep knowledge of literature for the age group they teach and can recommend books based on students’ individual interests.
The library allows students to pursue their interests without judgment. Knowing what a child likes to read is an intimate relationship. A good librarian guards that privacy and finds no greater joy than to watch a student light up with the discovery of a story that resonates in the heart.
This is also true when it comes to research. Many times, elementary teachers give their students a laundry list of possible topics, and these younger students often find it hard to decide which topic to research. The librarian can ask clarifying questions to help the student narrow down the research topic in which they are interested.
This way, not only can we help that student locate appropriate sources, but often it results in a student developing interest in a completely new topic. If he or she is engrossed in the topic, the research is not quite so painful, and may even be enjoyable.
Librarians also manage digital learning tools for research, which can help students discover their interests. The PebbleGo database, for example, provides our youngest learners with their first exposure to vetted, expertly curated articles on a variety of topics.
It is a beautiful thing when students in K–2 find articles they can read and understand. It is so much easier to teach the research process to students if they have opportunities to use that process from the very early grades. Those connections are cemented in their minds, and the journey to higher levels of research becomes that much easier.
Elementary teachers have a responsibility to create a literacy-rich environment in their classrooms in which reading is encouraged and can be engaged in freely. It is less important what students are reading at this age and more important that they are understanding and thinking critically about what they are reading.
We all know that there are books and great pieces of literature that students should probably read and know, but when we spend so much time worrying about raising test scores rather than building the love and joy of reading, we are completely defeating the purpose. Test scores will naturally rise if students enjoy what they are doing—because they will do it with joy and do it more often.
This article originally appeared in Language Magazine in September, 2017. At the time, Susan K. S. Grigsby, EdS, was the district media specialist with Forsyth County Schools in Cumming, Georgia.