Becoming Literate: A Lifelong Process

December Podcast Episode 4: Traditional Literacy Learning

I could not have written Maximizing School Librarian Leadership: Building Connections for Learning and Advocacy without dedicating a chapter to school librarians’ role as literacy leaders on their campuses. Chapter 4: Traditional Literacy Learning is a topic that is near and dear to my heart and essential to my thinking about school librarian leadership.

When I taught preservice K-8 classroom teachers, I learned how much support beginning educators need in order to be effective literacy teachers. Many of the undergraduate students in the courses I taught were not proficient readers and writers. When I served as a junior high and high school librarian I cotaught with content-area classroom teachers who were, without a doubt, experts in their disciplines, but had not been taught to support students in reading and writing in their content area.

It was (and still is) my belief that every educator is a literacy teacher and every educator’s proficiency in teaching reading and writing matters. This belief is why I wrote three professional books on classroom-library coteaching reading comprehension strategies (Moreillon 2007, 2012, 2013).

Reading
Reading, writing, listening, and speaking are considered traditional literacies. Of these four, reading has captured the lion’s share of attention from parents and policy makers. Students’ standardized test scores in reading have been the topic of conversation and concern for decades. In recent years, there has been a national emphasis in the U.S. on students reading at grade level by the end of third grade.

As a former elementary classroom teacher and K-12 school librarian, the children in the schools where I taught clearly demonstrated to me that readers progress in their ability to comprehend “grade-level texts” at various rates. It is curious to me that some policy makers focus on third-grade reading scores when it is in fourth grade that the curriculum turns sharply from narrative texts to informational texts. This transition can be a difficult one for developing readers.

Perhaps this is why the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the only standardized national test in the U.S., tests reading (and math) in fourth and eighth grades. This does not mean, however, that learning and practicing strategies to comprehend difficult texts starts in fourth grade or stops in eighth. Young children enjoy informational texts in their preschool years and learning to make meaning from difficult texts certainly extends post K-12 schooling.

In fact, I am often reminded that my own ability to comprehend texts is greatly dependent on my background knowledge, my ability to make inferences, and willingness to ask questions and seek clarification and greater meaning. In short, my willingness to make time to read deeply. This is particularly true when it comes to conflicting information from multiple sources and articles on subjects for which I lack prior knowledge. Reading with deep understanding is a lifelong process for me, as I suspect it is for you.

Writing
Writing in likely the second most emphasized literacy in the school community you serve. While it may very well be true that the more one reads, the better one writes, writing in various registers and genres must be practiced. Two writing applications that have challenged the students with whom I have worked are summarizing and synthesizing. Both require students to understand the purpose for the piece of writing and to filter information through their own understanding in order to be successful.

Summarizing and synthesizing require that students are able to separate main ideas from supporting details; they must be able to determine importance. Importance is based on the purpose for writing and on what the reader considers essential or new knowledge (that answers their questions). When students have made effective notes, summaries will be based on writers having put information in their own words. Synthesizing can be especially challenging when readers have discovered conflicting information.

One of the most effective (and personally satisfying) professional development opportunities in my career occurred when a high school principal required that the entire faculty adopt a writing process method and a particular writing format. Students were required to practice the format in all content areas and at all grade levels (Note: The scripted format was intended to be a starting place for writers, not the ultimate goal.) When educators and students had a common language for talking about writing, more students were able to achieve the basic skills they had lacked. Proficient and excelling writers also had a format on which they could return when they were stuck in their writing. It worked for students and for educators. (And for full disclosure, it worked for me when I was writing my dissertation!)

Foundations for Other Traditional Literacies
Listening and speaking seem to be getting short shrift in many schools today. Many of us listen to media-delivered voices more than we listen to the real-time face-to-face thoughts of other human beings. In schools, many students are not given or do not take opportunities to learn to speak clearly and with ease on topics about which they are passionate. When educators facilitate discussions about literature and informational texts (including material found in textbooks), they model and help students practice these important skills. Responding to texts orally, as well as in writing, builds understanding while it builds classroom community. Speaking is a way to have our voices heard. Listening to one another is a way we build empathy.

Students also practice speaking and listening during presentations. Even when students have created technology-supported or other visuals to share with audiences, they can also speak to the impact of new knowledge on their thinking, feelings, and actions. They can ask and answer questions during a Q&A and reflect on the effectiveness of their communication in all four traditional literacies.

School librarians can take up the cause for traditional literacies during coplanning. (See the lesson and unit plans in my coteaching reading comprehension strategies books cited below.) We can share the importance of traditional literacy learning and teaching as we collectively determine the essential agreements of our school or district’s common beliefs about literacy. (See next week’s post.)

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  1. How do you demonstrate to students that “literate” adults can be challenged to create meaning from difficult texts?
  2. How do you, as a school librarian, support students in further developing traditional literacies?

References

Moreillon, Judi. 2007. Collaborative Strategies for Teaching Reading Comprehension: Maximizing Your Impact. Chicago: ALA.

_____. 2012. Coteaching Reading Comprehension Strategies in Secondary School Libraries: Maximizing Your Impact. Chicago: ALA.

_____. 2013. Coteaching Reading Comprehension Strategies in Elementary School Libraries: Maximizing Your Impact. Chicago: ALA.

 

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