After spending a quarter as an education intern at a local museum, I have to sound off on something I’ve seen plenty of times in my many education-related roles, including when I was a student learning to read so many years ago. I’m a firm believer in many things relating to education: that discovery is one of the best ways in which to learn a topic; that memorization is essentially useless to truly understanding material; that people learn in many different ways while doing different tasks; that informal learning sites are just as integral and important as classroom learning–and sometimes actually more effective; and that literacy is a fundamental piece to learning that can not and should not be taken lightly. This final piece is what motivated me as I stood in front of a classroom of 4th graders and helped them learn their civic responsibilities, what drives me as I wander through galleries with a group of 3rd-graders, what will continue to shape my practice as a future educator in museums.
I will continually fight for literacy, as I feel it is a human right. Without the ability to read, how can one be informed about the world around them? How will our children (or adults, for that matter) create a better future for tomorrow without being able to read about science, about history, about the political structures around which the world exists? How can one discover new people and places, both real and imaginary, in the pages of a book without being literate? How can one appreciate one of life’s simple joys when they cannot read a sentence? Literacy is essential to so many facets of our human existence, we cannot deprive anyone of the ability to communicate in these ways.
While literacy is so important and essential, it is not something that is taught easily; it requires time, energy, and patience on the part of the instructor, the more-knowledgeable other (to borrow from Vygotsky’s ZPD and to appeal to my more academically-inclined friends). These are the very things I see lacking in educational environments with regards to the developmental years of literacy. I see parent chaperones or other student group members correcting and “helping” reading-challenged students through difficult words while they attempt to read labels in the galleries by simply telling them how it is pronounced instead of letting them sound it out. I see fellow students snicker at their classmates who read sentences–or even words–more slowly than themselves. I see teachers who will not allow everyone to read in class, calling on their more reading-inclined students, because they want to get through the material at a more rapid rate. While, certainly, the child may eventually be able to memorize word patterns if given the pronunciation “answers” (much like young toddlers memorize their favorite picture book’s story and “read” it to their parents or guardians), they will not have the experience of sounding it out and going through the struggle of understanding the pronunciation themselves. Without this experience, literacy learners are not independent, struggling to figure out the pronunciations of other words without an instructor there to provide them the answers.
Beyond this, however, it is important that a sense of confidence is instated in the budding reader. Providing them the appropriate guidance yet allowing them to figure it out for themselves (and not shutting them down when they are not “fast enough” of readers) offers students a level of confidence in their literacy that will carry with them for a long time. Shutting them down deprives them of this confidence, making them insecure in their abilities for years to come. I cannot count on one hand how many of my fellow students during undergrad were anxious about reading aloud, possibly from some traumatic experience reading aloud as a young student. With a little literacy confidence, students will likely practice reading more and will not have as many negative feelings towards it–and that’s certainly not a bad thing!
On Tuesday of this week, I had a related experience at my internship. I encountered a student who declared to me, “I do not know how to read or write!” which stirred in me a twinge of sadness–this was an upper elementary class after all. But instead of considering all of the reasons why this student had a difficulty with reading, I elected to slow down and spend a little extra time helping him sound out words. We didn’t get to understand the full point of the lesson, but we did figure out how to spell “airplane” with a lot of trial and error. To me, seeing the student beam with excitement after finishing spelling that word (only a small part of the greater lesson plan) was enough. The student left feeling a little more excited about his reading ability and truly excited to explore the rest of the museum–and see a few model airplanes. It is only my hope that more people who interact with this student take the time to help on the journey to a more confident literacy.
So, with regards to literacy: take the time, let them sound it out. It might slow down your lesson plan or keep you in the galleries longer, but it will provide budding readers with a learning experience that they will carry with them for years to come.
Have some thoughts on literacy learning? Share them in the comments below–let’s help make education a more collaborative, community-driven field!