For the luckiest children, the gift of traditional literacies begins in their homes. “Seeing, hearing, mouthing, and touching books helps children lay down the best of multisensory and linguistic connections during the time that Piaget aptly christened the sensorimotor stage of children’s cognitive development” (Wolf 2018, 133).
Adults and older siblings read to the luckiest of children. As babies and toddlers, these children have nestled into a lap and have been held in the arms of a loving family member or caregiver who invites them into the world of story.
Reading with others creates a warm connection with language and literacy that sets young children on a path to enjoying reading. One of the most consistently important predictors of reading development has been how often parents read to their children. (In this photo, I am reading my book Read to Me to my then eight-month-old grandson.)
For other children, books and reading are not prominent features of their lives until they enter preschool or when they attend public library storytimes. When preschool teachers read to children daily, they set an expectation for connecting through books. Or when children attend storytime at their public library, they learn that books contain stories and illustrations that are fun. They begin to learn through story.
For still other children, their kindergarten and primary-grade classroom teachers and elementary school librarian are the first caring adults who model the gift and value of books and reading. Wise educators select books that offer children invitations to learn about themselves, about others, about the physical world and the world of the imagination. Young children also learn to listen attentively to and (hopefully) respond to stories. They learn to share and attend to the responses of their peers. They begin to understand the social aspects of reading with other people outside their homes.
Home, preschool, and primary-grade books are often selected to support young readers developing literacy but that can change as children advance through the grades. Some students will continue to be avid readers; others will not. Some will become regular library users who seek out new books, authors, and topics; some will only read when they are required to do so for a class assignment. Some number of students will invariably wrestle with school-based reading materials and increased expectations for literacy learning, especially when they bump up against “gatekeeper” texts.
Gatekeeper texts are “various texts that permit or deny student access to educational, economic, civic, and cultural opportunities” (Schoenbach, Greenleaf, Cziko, Hurwitz. 1999, 9). Gatekeeper texts are found in all content areas. They include difficult classic texts, standardized tests, testing materials, including those used in advanced placement courses, college and career applications and forms, and more. For far too many students, these gatekeeper texts have turned them off to reading, writing, or making the required efforts to advance their lives.
It is imperative that educators help students be effective readers and writers so that these texts do not limit students’ life choices. Deep reading comprehension strategies and a problem-solving orientation toward challenging texts can help readers be successful.
Traditional Literacies in Daily Lives
It is important for students to see family members, school librarians, classroom teachers, administrators, school staff, and other important people in their lives engaged with traditional literacies. Seeing parents and educators reading their own self-selected texts is important. Engaging young people in discussions about what adults are reading, listening to, or viewing—be it a novel, the news, or information in any format—lets students know that reading and discussing what you read are essential lifelong activities.
Adults must also model writing beyond making grocery store lists. Do we still write letters and thank-you notes by hand? Or if we compose them on our computer, tablet, or phone, do we let children and teens know that is what we’re doing? Do we journal or write comments or letters to the editor of news media? Do we encourage young people to engage in these types of writing activities at home and at school?
Talking about what we are reading, writing, or thinking must also be a part of daily life in and outside of school. Far too often, we let media do the talking for us and deprive youth of understanding and practicing how discussion works. Adults need to model being respectful listeners as well as effective speakers. We need to express disagreements without demeaning other people. We need to show it’s possible and preferable to develop empathy for those who do not share our views or life experiences.
The Gifts = Empowerment
The impact of the gifts of the four foundational literacies cannot be overestimated. Literacy gives people more opportunities in life, and it also has the potential increase our understanding of and empathy for others—to make us more human. Children’s and young adult author Katherine Paterson wrote an article entitled “What Does It Mean to Be Truly Literate?” (Paterson 2003). Although I read this article many years ago, Ms. Paterson’s perspective has stuck with me because I believe she spoke directly to the heart of literacy.
In her article, Paterson talks about the importance of the “humanities,” literature, philosophy, and history. She notes that “the humanities are all those subjects that make us more human, and we cannot be fully human unless our vision includes the breadth of human culture” (8). She goes on to write about how essential it is for all young people to have access to the humanities, which she thinks of as “true literacy.”
“True literacy” helps people dispel ignorance and see the larger world more clearly. Reading does that; interacting with others through speaking and listening does that. Writing also helps us see and examine our inner and outer worlds more clearly. Knowing how to use our literacy skills to improve our communities, nation, and global society may very well be the way to ensure a more just future for all. To support young people as they develop “true literacy” is a gift that educators (and families) both give and receive.
Without a focus on traditional literacies, there can be no empowered learning culture in any school (or home).
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- What is your definition of “true literacy”?
- How does your understanding of “true literacy” guide your work as an educator, parent, or mentor to young people?
Paterson, Katherine. 2003. “What Does It Mean to Be Truly Literate?” Language Arts 81 (1): 8-9.
Schoenbach, Ruth, Cynthia Greenleaf, Christine Cziko, and Lori Hurwitz. 1999. Reading for Understanding: A Guide to Improving Reading in Middle and High School Classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Wolf, Maryanne. 2018. Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. New York: Harper.