A Child’s First Teacher – The Parents

If you – and your students – were lucky you were blessed with either good or literate (or both)  parents. Good parents will provide a safe and loving home. They will nurture us physically, emotionally, and intellectually.

Some of your students will have come from homes that have given them a head start in terms of literacy development. With these kids you must follow the educator’s Hippocratic oath: First, do no harm. If you’re reading this, it’s a pretty safe assumption that you aren’t the kind of teacher that takes a book-loving child and turns them to the dark side.

The materials you’re forced to use might though if you’re not careful. (Helping kids choose appropriately-leveled texts is another topic.) Most of your literacy teaching time is probably devoted to the kids that haven’t necessarily yet come to the conclusion that reading is important, much less fun and doable.

New Zealander Don Holdaway wrote a book in 1979 titled The Foundations of Literacy. The only part of it that stays with me to this day is his description of a good home literacy situation and what made it good.

A parent sitting with their child – probably in their lap – reading along with the parent tracing the words with a finger as they both read aloud. What a powerful way to model literate behavior! The child “got” that literacy is important and valued by an important role model. The stories showed that reading was fun, and repeated readings of predictable text showed to the child that they were a “reader” too!

The way Holdaway suggested that teachers could replicate this experience with a small group in a classroom was with something called a “big book”. The book was placed on an easel with children gathered around as the teacher followed the words with a pointer.The strategy was Shared Reading, followed by Guided Reading where up to six students had their own small copy of the book, and finally Independent Reading. See also this post on Early Childhood Education.

With apologies, I don’t remember where I heard or read this but it makes perfect sense: “WE DO WELL WHAT WE LIKE TO DO.” That’s why it’s so important to do our best to not only teach reading – no matter our content area – but get kids to like it. If kids LIKE to read they will CHOOSE to read and if they choose to read they will have a better life.

No pressure teachers, right?

Another New Zealander – you can see where a lot of my influences came from -, Leanna Traill, wrote a book: Highlight My Strengths that made the point that we shouldn’t spend so much time remediating weaknesses but rather spend some of that time highlighting strengths.

If we spend most of our time asking children to re-visit what they don’t like and have difficulty doing, it’s a longer and harder journey to get them to arrive at the place where they like and choose to read.

Steven Layne relates a story in some of his talks about a young male student that was struggling.  The boy was a sweet kid that wanted to please but was having trouble. Through conversations, Steve learned that the boy would go on endlessly about his favorite topic – Navy Seals. Dr. Layne went straight to the bookstore after school to get the boy some books he would enjoy. After combing through every animal book in the store a kind employee directed our hero to the section containing books on military topics.

The boy read every book cover to cover several times and will no doubt hold a special place in his heart for Dr. Steven Layne, as I do. Moral: Books that interest an individual kid can be more important than just the reading level.

Why Should the Kids Have All The Fun?

Whether you are a primary, middle school, or secondary teacher it’s important that you, as the adult role model in the room demonstrate the importance of literacy in your own life. This is totally consistent with the examples above beginning with birth.

Take advantage of the social nature of humans to your students’ benefit. We like to mimic the behavior of the groups to which we belong. All classrooms should have some reading time, with the teacher not only participating but showing sincere enjoyment of what literacy brings us – a connection to the world at large.