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What Matters

by Jill Macchiaverna, graduate student

I’ve noticed when people disagree with someone, the first reaction seems to be to question the intelligence of the other party. They must not have all the information I have, or they must not have processed the information correctly, we think, because surely anyone with all the information would come to the same conclusion that I have. And we feel like we’re being generous for questioning their intelligence because we don’t jump to assuming they are evil. Perhaps there’s another option. Perhaps we could dig deeper, keep calm, and ask mindful questions to illuminate why we have differences of opinions that seem so insurmountable; try to understand, if not necessarily agree. If I believe all of our citizens should learn to do this, primary literacy education has a role to play.

Primary literacy education helps our new and emerging readers make the transition from learning to read (and write) to reading (and writing) to learn. It’s a crucial time in a child’s life and education:

  • They are cognitively developing more logic and less magical thinking.

  • Everything they learn now is the foundation for what they will learn in the future.

  • If they are taught something incorrectly, it will be twice as hard (though not impossible) for teachers to help them relearn the concept properly when the students are older.

  • Children at this age are very sensitive to issues of fairness.

  • They are simultaneously learning sociocultural norms in a variety of environments: home, school, and wider communities.

When children learn to read, they are learning to make meaning from what they see on the page. Not just the words, but the images that go with the text. If I believe that all of my students have a right to an excellent education so they can grow up to participate in our democracy, then I will bring diverse reading materials into the classroom. Whatever the method we’re using, the materials we use to teach our youngest readers is crucial for helping them feel confident that they are a welcome part of our society. The books and other texts used to help students learn to read will simultaneously teach them what our society values: what goals, what stances, which skin tones, what systems, which languages, what distribution of wealth, what distribution of body fat, which cultures. All of these indicators are in every piece of material we bring into class.

Can there be love -- even love of reading -- without trust? Primary literacy education is the first extensive experience with books for some families. If I believe that every student should be heard, then I will teach for multiple intelligences during primary literacy education. Some families place more value on oral history and storytelling and songs than they place in printed words. Children need to be able to see positive reflections of themselves and their cultures in the reading so they can trust the material and so they can love learning to read. Teachers must use materials that represent the students in their class, and also materials that accurately represent children whom their students may never meet, in order to give children an understanding of how different the human experience can be from one person to another.

Many books -- even some really good ones -- do not meet this criteria. They show cultures or characters in a stereotypical or derogatory light. Many older books are downright cringeworthy in how outdated or out of touch they are and many newer ones by how much they pander to the already powerful. If I believe students can learn a great deal about reading and about society through multiple perspectives, then I will share some of those cringeworthy books with students, so we can talk about why those books spark strong feelings and why and how things have changed since those books were written. We will talk about how the authors are positioning us as readers and how that makes us feel.

We can teach children to read and write using part-to-whole or whole-to-part methods. After much argument for years about which method is better, most teachers now agree that the best way is to teach using both methods. Part-to-whole teaches letters, sounds, and words independently of larger texts and without context. Whole-to-part teaches by reading larger texts to children and then calling attention to letters, sounds, and words that can be highlighted within the context of the reading. Use only part-to-whole, and you could raise readers who don’t understand what they’ve just read. Use only whole-to-part, and students may never understand how to communicate with impeccable grammar.

Teaching children using multiple methods creates nimble readers that can question the text. Students learn strategies to revisit text that doesn’t make sense. Is this fact or opinion? Did I make a reading error? Is there a factual error? Did the author make an intentional error? If I believe that all of my students have a right to an excellent education so they can grow up to create sustainable jobs, then I will bring authentic examples of reading into the classroom. We will use (age-appropriate) news articles to talk about current events. We will use circulars to look at how much food costs and how it is marketed to their families. We will look at the forms their parents and guardians have to fill out and talk about why that data is being collected. Only if we teach about the real world can we hope for children to one day dream up solutions for our real problems.

Primary literacy education is a way to prepare students at the most foundational level to love reading, to think critically about everything they read, and to respect other views. I’m heading into a graduate class this semester that teaches primary literacy instruction, so it will be interesting to see how my thoughts change and/or refine over the next few months. That’s the fantastic thing about developing life-long learners: there’s always room for improvement. Wonder and improvement.

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