Friday, September 9, 2011

The Human Side of Literacy

At Sporting Chance Press, we are interested in literacy and the development of healthy kids of good character.

Schools and libraries offer a number of literacy programs. Sometimes, the private sector gets involved as well and helps fund these in some way. Sports teams often work with large public corporations to sponsor a program. The team provides name recognition and media attention to drum up publicity/interest in the program while the corporation contributes much of the funds. Professional athletes chip in as well and attend program kickoffs and award ceremonies.


Literacy programs like America's Battle of the Books (one of our books, Maddie Takes the Ice was a ABOB selection for 2011) are built on recognition and competition. They start with a book selection process that involves teachers and other reading experts. The experts help select a group of books that are listed by reading level and the organization creates some tools that can be adopted. Schools, classes and practically any division of students can compete against another. In these programs, one school may compete to see if its students can read more books than another. It might involve some kind of testing where students must show they read and understood a book. Other variations exists as well. But in the end, the idea is to create some sense of excitement about reading.

These literacy programs are wonderful and they don't have to be expensive for schools. Some use the Public Library facilities and books. These literacy programs are a great way to encourage reading.

Sadly, in some states a number of school libraries are closing due to budget shortfalls. This will involve job loss for school librarians and media personnel who are often helping our kids read and learn. This will not help literacy in the United States.

Early Readers are different

Literacy programs that promote reading through competition help kids who are already readers to become better and better readers. But sometimes I think the issue of literacy for the youngest of readers can get overlooked. Learning to read is often difficult for a child on a personal level. There is a different kind of struggle that takes place when a child is just learning to read. If it is not solved early, it can continue for many years and hold the child back in school and life.

Many kids are taught to read at home--in fact it may not take much formal teaching at all for many kids, just Mom or Dad sitting at home reading from a book with a child on their lap who points to words or pictures. Many kids learn this way and by the time they start school they are ahead of the curve.

But many kids enter school who have difficulty reading. In many schools there are wonderful programs that provide one-on-one reading help. But the bottom line for these programs is having a good teacher who understands the art of teaching reading who will work patiently with the child. Supportive parents are also a huge help. And if you are a parent who has had a child who struggles to learn to read, you know the incredible patience these teachers possess.

People are better than tools

I think many people don't understand that the actual tools used for teaching a young child to read are often just a cheap series of small books with large type and pictures. A child who is first learning to read in these programs is not given a small library, nor do they need a selection of books. In fact they may spend a couple months on a single booklet. Literacy tools for beginning readers are not very expensive at all. But what may be expensive in a school are the services of a good teacher. In many schools, Moms from the community help in these efforts. In my opinion, a good volunteer can do more than hundreds of books.

I disagree with people who believe technology is going to solve literacy problems. I have a friend who was a very innovative school superintendent who consults with principals now. She is a hard-nosed educator who managed finances very tightly in her schools that were urban and poor. She also did not suffer fools for teachers, but software programs did not impress her. She demanded teachers who could teach reading.

The best reading teachers may be a child's homeroom teacher. Sometimes it's a reading specialist, but not always. Nevertheless, I believe the first and best step to literacy for a child who is having difficulty reading is another human being.

Once a child learns to read, advanced skills will be honed when they practice the craft. Good teachers and libraries are necessary and good parental support is vital. Unfortunately, teachers know they cannot always count on parents. Many parents read very little and are not good examples for their kids. Some people think that schools are going to somehow change the parents. I don't think that was practical 50 years ago when it was touted and I don't think it's practical now.

I've heard the notion that I believe comes from reading studies that homes with books breed good readers. To me this might be one of those statistics that show a relationship, but not a cause and effect. Certainly if the parents are good readers, they are likely to have more books than a home in which the parents are not good readers. But I have a hard time believing that even if you dumped a truckload of books on the parents doorstep, the child would automatically become a good reader. There are programs that entice people to buy or donate books to provide children with their own little libraries despite their financial circumstances. I think these are wonderful, but again, I don't believe they should be the focus. The nurturing and development of good teachers is most important for the nurturing and development of good readers.

I believe young readers are developed by teachers, parents and librarians --not by software and piles of books whether those books are in paper or electronic form.
A child who is inspired by an enthusiastic teacher or librarian who reads an interesting story out loud is worth more than a stack of books piled sky high. Books are cheaper and more accessible than ever before. You can buy used kids library books at my library for 25 cents a piece. Access to books are not the problem. If you really want to get at the core of the literacy problem, support teachers and librarians. And if you are a grandparent and you buy a little one a book, sit down and read it with that child--and read it again--and again--and again.

Image from University of Texas, College of Education

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