“The bottom line is clear: a rich range of course offerings isn’t a nicety. It’s a vital part of a thorough education and a crucial element of social justice.” – Dr. John King, Jr., US Secretary of Education, April 15, 2016.
I’m always on the literacy story, and the Secretary of Education, Dr. John King, Jr., is clearly on the same page. On April 15 of this year, he called for the school system to ensure that all children get the knowledge-rich, awe-inspiring education that is essential for literacy, curiosity, and lifelong learning. In fact, he in his statement he argued against the current shift in reading instruction that takes time away from art, science, and other “non-essential” courses. How does that make sense?
One of the top reading researchers in the country explains, “Perhaps the greatest obstacle to improving primary-grade reading is a short-term orientation toward instruction and instructional reform. When the aim is to show reading improvements in a short period of time, spending large amounts of time on word-reading skill and its foundations, and relatively little on comprehension, vocabulary, and conceptual and content knowledge, makes sense…. Yet the long-term consequences of failing to attend to these areas cannot be overstated.”
In other words, reading comprehension is largely a reflection of a child’s overall education. If we provide children with a rich education in science, social studies, and the arts, we are ultimately helping them gain reading comprehension skills.
Dr. King mentioned low-income families and minority groups as the children who are most affected by this shift towards reading instruction at the expense of other courses, but how can we implement these important ideas into our schools?
Create rich, abundant libraries with consistent access. The exposure to exciting and relatable books is an important piece of the literacy puzzle. When surrounded by books on a range of topics from science fiction and World War II to graphic novels and deep sea exploration, students will uncover a thrilling and electrifying world. Keeping the library open throughout the school day so that students can wander in and pick up a book will also enhance the pleasure of reading. This contact with books that are not inherently for reading instruction will make them more likely to be invested in reading in the future.
Encourage principals to make time for all subjects. Even though your goal might be better literacy, research shows that piling on the literacy instruction does not necessarily lead to gains. Therefore, petition the school to keep the curriculum varied. Children should do science experiments, learn about historical movements, and listen to Beethoven’s “Symphony #9.” Students who are invested in their own learning will ultimately be more committed and better readers in the future.
Schedule varied extracurricular activities during the lunch hour. While we all know elementary students have tight schedules and need recess to play and give their minds an academic break, schools can also use lunch periods as a way to entice students into extra learning. Students, even in first or second grade, might be interested in eating their lunch while working on an art project or listening to music. Students in the higher grades might enjoy eating their lunch while working on interior design or learning about the history of Jewish athletes. The goal is to create a rich learning environment – and also to engage in learning for learning’s sake. When we do this, we spark creativity and curiosity.
Read all genres of books at home. I cannot stress enough the importance of reading to your children even as they get old enough to read to themselves. This time with your children not only allows them to gain a closeness with you (and associate reading with pleasant time with a parent), it also exposes them to rich vocabulary and new ideas. Choose books from all genres – non-fiction, fantasy, and even almanacs. Your children will learn more words and more worlds.Rifka Schonfeld