Bringing Joy into Teaching Literacy: A Worthwhile Goal for Literacy Instruction

Bringing Joy into Teaching Literacy: A Worthwhile Goal for Literacy Instruction

I’m writing this at a sad time in our history. I was just talking to Joanne Yatvin on her blog about recent events. Neither of us have an answer to the question of how things had gotten to this state in education. The building where I worked in my last year before my retirement had three lock downs for cause, incidents near the building requiring a lock down.  Things are most certainly not what they once were. These circumstances make what I’m about to say even more important.

Let’s begin this discussion about motivation vis a vis literacy instruction at an intuitive common-sense level. Mark Twain, a favorite son for my state, once said a person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t. We can teach all the skills and strategies students might need perfectly. But if students are not motivated to use them when they read, more to the point if students are not motivated to read at all, this teaching could be for naught. The writers of current content standards and curriculum too often seem oblivious to this crucial point.  We need to teach in a way that motivates students. That’s the number one item on the literacy program Bill and I proposed. Unfortunately, sometimes, the mandated standards and the way they are currently implemented tend to have the exact opposite effect.

What to do, what to do.

The first thing to do is to look at current practitioners and leaders in the field of literacy instruction who seem to have a handle on how to build that fundamental desire to want to read and write. David Harrison is a well-known author He is a favorite son in my state. He wrote a piece for the Missouri Reader entitled For the Fun of It (And the Learning Just Happens!).  When I was doing the layout for that piece I felt the need to include balloons and other such things in the supporting graphics. David wanted poetry to be fun. David has a knack for making poetry fun. Teaching poetry using David’s ways helps students want to learn poetry. Delightful! Go to the “Previous Issues” heading of this blog and see for yourself how David accomplishes this.

Dianne de Las Casas was another author who had a knack for making reading and writing fun. She was the founder of picture book day. When writing about her Glenda (my Co-Editor) said her work sparkled. Sadly, she left us prematurely shortly after that piece was published. Glenda wrote a poignant tribute to her. Happily, her love of all things literary comes through so strongly that her legacy will be with us for a very long time. Again, visit both pieces and see for yourself.

I am a member of both ILA and NCTE. I often go to conventions. I am also fortunate to be in a state where we also have state wide events carried out on a regular basis by both Willy Wood (@WillyWood2  @WritetoLearnMO) and by Mid Missouri TAWL. Going to such events is a way to recharge one’s batteries and get the support of like minded colleagues who take the notion that reading and writing ought to be fun quite seriously. At NCTE and ILA conventions, when I go to sessions by Tim Rasinski and Lori Oczkus I find two experts who know how to make what they advocate fun. Tim’s word ladders, his use of songs to teach about prosody make reading fun.  He is also a serious scholar. His works could easily fill a room (literally not figuratively).  But he knows how to reach people’s hearts as well as their minds.

Lori Oczkus is another practitioner who makes what could become deadly dull strategies come alive. She is the guru of Reciprocal Teaching. She refers to the four parts of RT as the fab four. How wonderful! She employs puppets and other hands on kind of things to bring the strategies alive for the children.   The strategies are researched based. But the teaching of the strategies is done in a way that promotes motivation. The way she teaches helps make kids want to use the strategies. This is a critical point for any teacher claiming to teach strategies to keep in mind. At the end of the day, can you really demonstrate that students are using the strategies you teach? If you can’t do that, then you’re not really teaching strategies yet.

On the writing side of things, I have to tell a tale on myself. I mentioned the four years of training in which I learned about workshop.  I failed to mention that I entered that training as a skeptical, skill and drill oriented teacher.  Those workshop trainers didn’t just teach me how to scaffold staff and students into learning the processes of reading and writing. They also transformed me into a person who now thinks of himself as a reader and a writer, who has learned how to read like a writer and when to read like a writer.  They gave me the gift of finding the wonders that can come from studying the well-crafted words of a gifted author.

There are a host of others I could cite. My goal here is not to give an inclusive list of all the folks who have learned the trick of teaching literacy in a manner that is motivational. Rather it is to give you a few exemplars. You can use them to find more of your own.

I’ve already told you in the previous blog entry about the wonderful week I had at the Missouri Write to Learn conference. Eric Litwin and Carmen Agra Deedy both tackled the issue of what we can do to stop the phenomenon of kids loving reading and writing in k-1 and hating it by the time they get to 3-4.  They both mentioned the strategy of helping the younger children find their first love- helping them to find that first book they love so much that they want to read and read and read. When they start to love reading that much they will want to use those strategies you’ve taught them to unlock the wonders of the books they are reading. Somehow, I don’t think a book about Tan Dan who ran and ran to find his big tan van will ever create such motivation.  I’m not saying to not teach the strategies, quite the opposite. I’m not saying not to use direct instruction. Come on folks, what is a well done mini lesson but an intense well thought out form of direct instruction. I’m not saying to not teach phonics. Quite the opposite, I’m saying to learn how to teach several forms of phonics and to be enough of a kid watcher to know when one approach is failing your child, so you can switch to the another. Remember it is the approach failing the child, not the other way round.

What I am saying is to be mindful of the time taken to teach such things as phonics. Time is a teachers most valuable commodity. To use it up in order to over-teach something “just to be sure”, is not the way to proceed. Revisit our remarks in the article about the NRP and the issue of how much phonics instruction is enough and which phonics instruction is likely to produce the desired results. When putting phonics into your literacy program having answers to this question of how much is enough is critical to the success of the overall program.

There are some hopeful things on the horizon. Both the major figures in the literacy world in the United States are ushering out new phonics components to their programs this year. I trust each of them enough to know that they thought long and hard about what to put in and what to leave out and how to integrate it with their meaning making components.  I have confidence that they will leave ample time to teach the students about how to think critically about what they’ve read, once they’ve broken the code.  Dare to dream- perhaps we someday soon we could have a meaning making program that includes a strong phonics component. Perhaps we already do. Looking at the research Bill and I cite in our article; such a program would fit what the research says works quite nicely.

The workshop teacher in me now feels the need to give you an off you go.  I mentioned Ralph Fletchers book, Joy Write in a previous posting. Look that over again.  Look that over with an eye toward how you can find a way to build at least SOME choice time into your daily routines. Workshop teachers/Guided Reading teachers are really rather clever people. Somehow, I think that if you can find ways to do this on the writing side of things (Fletchers book), you will also be able to do it on the reading side.

One last thing. A bit of foreshadowing. I’d love to see an evolution.  Wait- did Dr. B’s spell check just insert the wrong word? No, I really mean it. I’d love to see an evolution. Have I peeked your curiosity?  I hope so. Next week Bill is going to take a turn at the blog. You’ll have a chance to learn about him and his ideas and the research behind those ideas. The week after that I will talk about the upcoming evolution. Hmmmmmm.

See you then!

Dr. B AKA Dr. Sam Bommarito, aspiring old reading specialist.  As Evan Robb said last time- you’re never too old to blog!

P.S. a special thank you to all of those who are already following this blog on Word Press. All are welcome. Please do join us. I think we’re going to have some fun with the topic of literacy.

7 thoughts on “Bringing Joy into Teaching Literacy: A Worthwhile Goal for Literacy Instruction

  1. davidlharrison

    Dr. Sam, I’ve been traveling and so am late in reading your new and thought-provoking post. Thank you for including me in it! I’ve been blessed with speaking at the same educational event with Lori Oczkus and co-authoring some books with Tim Rasinski so I felt at home and in good company. I also look forward to contributing another article to The Missouri Reader sometime later this year. For now I’m content enjoying your warmth and practical insights/suggestions into the challenges of exciting children to read and write, not because they have to but because they love to. Keep the good advice coming!

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    1. doctorsam7 Post author

      Such good news all the way around! You know Missouri Reader ALWAYS looks forward to your articles! And thanks for helping all of us bring joy into literacy instruction!

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  2. authorlaurablog

    I’ve just caught up on a few of your posts. 😊 There are a variety of methods to teach reading skills from phonics and basic comprehension skills, to higher order thinking including scaffolding to help students go from basic Information retrieval to the ability to analyze and synthesize. Clearly, it is critical to use research based methods.
    But the most important part of reading instruction in my experience is knowing your students and knowing how to tailor the teaching to their specific needs. Additionally, I achieved excellent results with below grade level students by starting where they were and celebrating that level of reading. When a child is able to see them self as successful, they can build upon it. From there, most of my students developed a love of reading because they knew I believed in them and that was my goal – for them to love reading.

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    1. doctorsam7 Post author

      You’re really cutting into the heart of the matter. Motivation and in your words “knowing how to tailor the teaching to their specific needs”. Just as writing teachers need to let their students see them as writers, you are letting your students see you as a reader and to also see the genuine love of reading you have. Well done/well said! This Friday I’ll be talking about my proposed “evolution” and part of that evolution is to allow teachers like yourself the freedom to teach to those specific needs and to also make sure the next generation of reading teachers is knowledgeable in a wide range of ways to help their children. Thanks for following and thanks for the insightful comments. Be sure to check out this Fridays post, would love to hear you opinions on what I hope can become an evolution in the teaching of literacy.

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      1. authorlaurablog

        I’m not minimizing the importance of having deep knowledge of pedagogy, I just know making reluctant, below grade level readers learn to love reading takes personal relationships with each student. That was always my “secret weapon.”

        Liked by 1 person

      2. doctorsam7 Post author

        I’d love to quote you on that!!! I’ve done many a presentation to future teachers talking about the “head” part (pedagogy) and the “heart” part (helping them to want to read). You seem to have a great handle on the “heart part”. Also for any of my readers who haven’t visited your site, I’m already using some of the wonderful scenes you’ve captured on your blog to give my kiddos something to write about. I often use “language experience” with my reluctant readers, especially the older ones and that works wonders partly because it lets them read and write about things they really care about!

        Liked by 1 person

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