This Thing called Literacy

I bet you have heard the term literacy and thought ok this teacher is talking about reading and writing. If we are looking at the bare bones of literacy that is exactly what it is, reading and writing. But more than that it is really how we as adults and how our students or children interact with language. When I was going to school I would sit in class and do these workbooks, we would have to read a little story like Mr.Mugs (which I have on my shelf) and then do some questions. At the time I think this was thought of as “engaging” literacy work. My friends kids took some of my Mr.Mugs antique work books home and spent days working with them and loving it. I think that if I was to use those in my classroom still many a teacher would give the side eye because I was not doing all sorts of acting and shared reading, and readers theatre, tableau, different hats, visualizing, summaries, tough questions…the list goes on and on. You can do a million different things to exercise your literacy muscles but what I am finding more and more is that for most kids 2 things are true.

1.Kids like to read– Read without interruption, without all the extra stuff that shows how much they “get it”. They love to be in the books and relating to the characters they are reading about. They love to imagine their own endings, talk to a friend after they have read the book and maybe even write down ideas for their own sequels. Having to read a chapter and constantly show their thinking interrupts what some refer to as the “reading flow” (Gallagher). My students this year proved my little theory when I gave them more time to just read and less time to have to tell me everything they understood or “connected” to. More time to find a great book and less time cold reading some story that is uninteresting while I mark down their every error. More time having a conversation about the books they are reading and less time answering convoluted questions on a computerized reading test. Kids like to read and if you give them a chance to get into the reading flow and love a story, talking about it is no longer work, it becomes fun.

2.We choose what we read so they should too– There is not an adult I know that is told you must read this because, “You are not the best reader, so this one is a good fit for you” It is appropriate to make sure your child or student is reading a text that they understand and can read with minimal errors but more than that it is important they get to choose a book that appeals to them even if it is a little hard. I think they try harder to understand the text when the text is one they want to read versus one they are assigned. I had two students this year choose to read the first book in a great series Fablehaven by Brandon Mull. Technically this book was more difficult a level than either of these girls were assessed at and it took them a long time to read it but they used every free moment they had to read to each other, help each other through the hard parts and their confidence and motivation to read increased dramatically. I like the practice of them having an “any level” text at their desk and a “good fit” book so they can work on skills and also have a book they really want to explore.

6 years in to teaching I am still learning a lot on what exactly “literacy” is and how to teach it better but I have not worked with anyone that I would consider an expert in the field because the field seems so different when looking at the individual student. Imagine telling your child who can relay all the twists and turns of the most recent RPG on their Playstation or the child that will read graphic novels and write their own, or the child creating websites or youtube videos in their room that they need to work on their literacy because you have not seen them reading enough. I have to work on this more in my classroom. Literacy includes so much more than just reading a book or writing a story but it does include just reading a book and thinking up an amazing story. We can’t let ourselves get so caught up in the technicalities of what literacy is or what literacy instruction is because if we do we will forget the magic that comes with reading and it all becomes so mechanical.

Back to the beginning I think so many established teachers and parents are told the “old” ways of doing things are not good enough anymore but for some they are. Literacy should be an individual exercise in how we interact with language if that is the quiet reader in the corner or the aspiring actor who wants to perform scenes from his book my job is to foster their desire to read and that is what I intend to do.

Reading by example

So I am sitting tanning in the backyard and listening to a fantastic teacher resources, “Reading in the Wild”. The author Donalyn Miller is passionate about igniting the spark of a reader in everyone. It got me to thinking about the countless times that parents have said to me, “(insert student name) hates reading I just can’t get them to read”. My go to answer has always been that maybe what they like to read is not available or maybe what they have available is too difficult. But a big piece I was missing is that it is very likely the passion and desire to read, being a “wild” reader is not being modelled to them by me in the classroom or their parents at home.

I asked my students this year if they have noticed their parents reading at home, the response, “Does their iPhone count?” While it is possible they are demonstrating reading an article on a news site via said phone it is doubtful. When was the last time we as adults picked up a book and read for enjoyment?

Beyond that when was the last time we read to a child because we thought the book was so great? I make it a habit of buying children’s books. Mostly because I can use them in class for lessons and they can be super engaging but also because I can model strategies without it being a “boring” lesson. Because of the grade I teach (currently grade 6) the majority of my class is not working on breaking down or sounding out words. This is not something I need to model for my students as a whole class and frankly the experts say this type of teaching to kids at their age would be detrimental. I model thinking and fluency. We read with enthusiasm and take time to discuss what is happening in the text, what is said and sometimes more importantly what goes unsaid. Picture books are great because they tend to be a lower level than my students are reading at so they can all read the words. This gets us right to the thinking about what is going on. Character motivation, problem, inference work. All of these things are possible with most children’s books.

Students and children in general need an “expert” model when they are learning a task. As parents at home with your pre school age kids you do not put a book in front of them and  say, “Ok read it” You pick up the book your read it with fluency, characters come to life with different voices, you use dramatic pauses. Before long you think your 3 year old can read because they can recite that book you read every night, word for word ,and with just as much enthusiasm as you read it with. That is all because you have modelled it to them.

The same needs to occur if you want your older children to continue to be enthusiastic readers. Model the behaviour. Find a book you love and make sure they see you reading it, talk to them about it and ask them to tell you about what they are reading. Institute a quiet reading time in your home, in my classroom I aim for 40 minutes of reading time. Their choice of book and they find a place to sit and they read. I read too and sometimes I talk to them about their books and they ask me about mine. It is a pretty good system but there is always room to improve.

Here are a couple books you might want to check out in the kids section at the library or chapters or even better a locally owned book store.

Fantastic art and a great message on being courageous.
Another beautifully illustrated book. Wonderful message.
A story about loss and acceptance. This is a sad story but powerful message about loss. 

Well there you have it. Back to do a little more reading. My current read, “The Night Parade” Is fantastic. I will do a review later.

Summer Reading

I know that for a lot of kids reading is a chore. I had a student say they don’t like reading because it is just about tests. It broke my heart and really helped shift my focus. Reading should be about adventure, mystery, humour, discovering things about characters and maybe even yourself. It should not be about getting a better mark.

Summer is a really great time to reinforce the greatest part of reading…fun! The library is a great place to let your child discover what types of books they enjoy reading, what types of adventures they like to go on.

I am like a kid in a candy store at CHAPTERS or Barnes and Noble. Always looking for the next great read aloud. Summer is my time to read all the books I have come across over the year. Decide which appeal to me the most and which might grab the attention of my students. Last summer it was Monstrous and Nightmares…This year who knows? But I can promise whatever text it is will have been read in the sun with an ice cold water at my side and the pages may or may not smell like coconut oil in September.

It is a scientific fact that the sun charges your positive energy batteries and so while you are out recharging the batteries you might as well get out a great book 🙂

Happy Reading.