She is sitting in the doctor’s office with her in daughter in her lap, both holding up the same book. Her mother is very surprised; Barbara has learned to read! Most of the other kids in her kindergarten class are in the process of learning to read basic words, like ‘cat’ and ‘dog.’ But Barbara has just read an entire Dr. Seuss book to her. She is certainly proud of and astonished by her daughter’s achievement.
Opening the Door
The simple process of learning to read has been a monumental accomplishment in my life. At an early age, I was able to explore the world through the written word. I have always been an avid reader. Sneaking a book to bed at night since I was seven, flashlight in hand, I remember vicariously enjoying the characters that came to life before my eyes. I think many people (people who also cherish the act of reading) have similar tales of ‘reading by their flashlight’. I do not precisely recall the process I underwent in order to accomplish this task, but I do remember that I have always been interested in books. My mom tells me that every moment I got, I asked to be read to. Every night, my brother, sister, and I gathered for my mom and/or dad read to us. However, I was never satisfied with only one or two or even ten books. I always wanted more. When both of my older siblings learned to read, the gift of reading was passed to them. They each became another storyteller for me. Naturally, they became irritated at my constant begging to be read to. Therefore, my entire family strongly encouraged me to learn to read. I, of course, pretended that I could read certain books – the ones that I had heard countless times. But they truly gave me the push to learn to read; although, I believe I would have had this desire even without their guidance.
I also see this strong desire to read in the children I take care of. Rachel, when she was three, would pull out book after book, and be content to be read to for hours at a time. Her younger brother, Zach (when he was 1 ˝) was the same way. Both snuggle up with me and sit for hours while I share the magic that is in their books. Bedtime has become a long, drawn out process to them; we spend at least 2 hours reading before going to bed. They both show tremendous interest in what is being read; they show that they actually are following along. (This applies more so to Rachel than to Zach.) Shortly before her fourth birthday, Rachel decided she wanted to learn to read. Her parents and I began by showing her the letter-sound connection. She was so excited to be able to match people’s first names with their corresponding initial. ("Barbara begins with a ‘B’! Mommy begins with an ‘M’!") She also took pride on learning to print the letters of the alphabet. Now, at age six, Rachel is a fantastic reader. She is at the top of her Kindergarten class, and constantly craves a great challenge. I also see this same spark with the students I teach at Sylvan. At various ages,
As mentioned above, once I learned to read there was no turning back. I constantly had a book in my hand. Going to the library was a huge treat. Thinking of all the other kids that were in my class, we bookworms could not live without some outside reading book in our possession. We constantly buried ourselves in a good book, surfacing only to do necessary tasks. In the various classrooms I have been in, I have –with great ease—been able to pin point the bookworms in the class. All these kids have one thing in common. They all have trouble paying attention to monotonous lessons. This is not because they have a short attention span; it is because they are anxious to find out "what will happen next" in their book of the week. During my practicum a few years ago, one student in particular stands out. Almost every day she came to class with a new book to read. She always had whatever she was reading in class, but also had at least one other outside reading book to accompany her. I certainly deem her an avid reader. I have seen many children just like this particular girl. I went to school with them; I myself was one of them. I am one of them.
However, with as many children who I see plunging daily into the joy of reading, I painstakingly see an equal number of students who lack this love of reading. Perhaps they have had a sour experience with reading. Perhaps no one nurtured their curiosity for books. Perhaps they were taught to read in the "old school" style, which completely turned them off to reading for pleasure. I do not know why these individuals do not read, but I do know that they are missing one of life’s greatest gifts. Therefore, for the child who has no encouragement to read, no desire to read, then does reading have no significance for him or her? Does this child go through life sensing that he or she is missing something monumentally important? Or is this child left unchanged, since he or she has never known the thrill, the joy, the sheer pleasure that reading can provide. Again, I do not have the answers; I can only speculate.
I have been blessed with the unique experience of encouraging a fellow classmate to read. After a heart-breaking scene I witnessed in one of my classes in high school, it became painfully clear that this student was a rather poor reader. I approached him after class, and –without trying to embarrass him—asked him why reading frustrated him so much. After some serious thought (and much prodding and probing on my part) he explained that when he was in early elementary, his teachers gave very little praise with his accomplishments. "If you didn’t know a word the first time you saw it, they would criticize you and humiliate you in front of the whole class. Even when I was able to read all the words in a sentence correctly, they would ask why it took so long to read the sentence. It was like I could not please them….no matter what I would do, I had failed.". After listening to this tragic (yet, probably all too common) story, I sat down with my classmate and encouraged him to give reading another chance. I explained to him that the more you read, the better a reader you become. I told him that, even if he started out with car magazines (I knew he was a car fanatic) he was still reading. Reluctantly he began to read. I would see him in class proudly showing off his latest issue of Hot Rod or Road & Track. He would ask students around him if he wanted them to read to them a particular article. Though he would stumble here and there with words occasionally, the more he read, the better he became, and the more confidence he had as a reader. This certainly became a significant part of his life again. Years later, he got in touch with me, and thanked me for instilling in him the confidence to read.
Technology’s Role in Reading
Since there are a number of people out there who read
better with their ears than with their eyes, technology MUST be involved in the
reading process, particularly for those who fall into the above category. With the help of screen readers, books on
tape, e-text, and other alternative text formats, more people will find reading
accessible. Within the classroom,
teachers need to take advantage of the tools available to them. The state of
Fusing Readers and Non-Readers in the
In the classrooms I have worked in, I have noticed that the best way to promote literacy is not to simply cater to one group or another (the readers verses the non-readers). On the one hand, the readers tend to need the constant challenge and satisfaction of finding the next adventure in the books that they crave. The non-readers, however, need to find that connection in a good book; if not in a book, it is essential to at least give the non-readers the opportunity to discover the empowerment that reading provides. I do not think it is fair to lower the bar for the avid readers, nor to put the bar out of reach for the non-readers. Individualized goals and contracts need to be in place to empower all students. For example, a student who reads 2- 3 books a month should be challenged to increase the number of books she reads in a month, or challenged to read 2-3 higher level books in that same period of time. For a student who chooses not to read (a non-reader), the challenge for her should be to find one book, magazine, newspaper, etc. that she reads for a set amount of time per week. (Perhaps 20 minutes a day could be a reasonable goal.) In any case, once the student reaches his or her goal, the student and teacher should consider how to further challenge the student. Perhaps they should challenge themselves with a book from a genre they don’t typically read, or increase the quantity of books they read, or increase the amount of time per day they devote to reading.
Another key is to give everyone choices, when appropriate. A democratic classroom is the perfect environment to see this in place. This can be done in a variety of ways. For the books students are mandated to read, give them choices on how to demonstrate their knowledge of the book. Perhaps they would like to do a presentation on what they’ve read. Perhaps they could compare and contrast a film version of the book (where applicable). Perhaps they could MAKE the film version of the book. I have even witnessed a "talk show" based on the book. Here, students were selected to "play" the role of a character, as a guest on the talk show. The rest of the class plays audience members, and attempt to pull out the true character of the story. This is a challenging, yet fun, way to demonstrate knowledge of the story at hand. It can be done with a complicated novel (like Wuthering Heights), or a simple fairy tale, like Cinderella.
Providing various genres and forms of literature should also help to fuse the readers and non-readers. If students are only exposed to short stories, then their window of literacy has been greatly limited. It is important, however, to model how to read different genres. For example, one typically reads a light magazine article differently than one would read a novel or a textbook. Show them how to best absorb the material at hand. Model how to take notes, even with a novel, and how to keep a reader’s log. What’s most important is to properly expose students to multiple literacy outlets. How else can they find what is most appropriate and appealing to them?
Finally, I believe I must let my enthusiasm rub off on my students. While I am a huge literary fan, a few spots in literature are not appealing to me. However, I must work to find a bright spot in anything I teach. Students respond best when they see genuine enthusiasm about the material. When I did a unit of Greek Mythology, we spent about a month on a subject matter that I adore. While there are literary fans who don’t care much for Greek Mythology, I was able to show my students the wonders of the work at hand. By connecting these ancient tales to their lives, they became fascinated with Pandora and her jar, with Phaëthon riding the chariot, with Medusa and her hideous appearance. Furthermore, after we had moved on to another unit, I still had students exploring Greek Mythology. One student proudly showed me the Mythology book he had found in the library. Other students excitedly pointed out the Greek references in the literature they read today. I asked them why they were so consumed by this subject. After careful thought, one student said that my enthusiasm rubbed off on them. She had been exposed to Greek Mythology before, but never had a teacher truly wanted to teach the unit. Past teachers, she said, made it seem like simply something they "had" to teach, not something they wanted to teach. The fact that I had chosen to do a unit on this made it all the more appealing.
My Final Thought
So what is the key to literacy? I believe the key components to literacy include giving readers choices on what they read, demonstrating genuine enthusiasm about the material at hand, exposing readers to multiple genres, connecting the material to your own life, and –most importantly- finding that intrinsic motivation.