The act of reading is, in some ways, the most invisible of arts. We can’t see others’ minds at work; their engagement with words can be mysterious to the outside eye. But when we read aloud to one another, we bring the joy and connection of reading to the surface; we illuminate its power.
Reading aloud is my favorite way to create community and joy. A profound, magical connection forms between reader, text, and listener. Through the books we choose and the people we read with, we deepen relationships and create memories that will last a lifetime.
In 2007, my colleagues and I created World Read Aloud Day (WRAD) through LitWorld in response to one little boy in a classroom who yearned for more time for his teacher to read aloud. This year WRAD falls on February 16.
WRAD is a soaring global, grassroots movement that shares the power of words and stories and has created a connected community of caring people who come together as a positive force for love and learning and celebrate something beautiful and good.
I had the honor of participating in a podcast (which will go live on WRAD) with our partner Scholastic on the profound resonance of the read-aloud—and the connections that are made—along with actor, comedian, and author Nick Cannon; renowned author and editor Andrea Pinkney; and esteemed researcher, author, professor, and literacy expert Ernest Morrell. Hear Scholastic’s full podcast on February 16, including an excerpt from Cannon’s new book of poetry, Neon Aliens Ate My Homework: And Other Poems.
I loved listening to Cannon talk about his favorite memories of reading growing up and how the sound of language changed him—how authors such as Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss “had a cadence or a rhyme.” He said he loved to share, read, and perform those words aloud. Now, as a father, he passes along the power of the read-aloud to his children, which included The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, a book that celebrated the tender moments of a small child experiencing the joy of a winter day.
Pinkney read aloud to us from her new book, A Poem for Peter, about the author of The Snowy Day, Ezra Jack Keats. I love how the link between Nick and Andrea was completely coincidental: Nick’s revering this classics book and Andrea’s writing the story of Peter, the boy in the book. Each one’s “lineage” of reading intersected in that moment of honoring the power of children’s books to change lives.
Ernest and I talked about the formative impact reading aloud has had on our own lives and with our families, and Ernest pointed out that the research shows how important the read aloud is to the learning life of every child.
I invite you to make your own connections to favorite books, both old and new, on this World Read Aloud Day. Bring your professional community together for dinner and read to each other. Read poems, jokes, news stories, magical fiction, and love stories. Find a a community center that really needs the care that the read-aloud brings and take time to share that on this day.
Join WRAD for 24 joy-filled hours! Visit us at litworld.org/wrad to find resources and on our Facebook page to see (and post!) photos from all over the world in the days and weeks that follow. Remember to use the tag #WRAD17 to share your experiences with everyone!
Pam Allyn is the founding director of LitWorld, a global literacy initiative serving children across the United States and in more than 60 countries, and LitLife, a cutting-edge consulting group working with schools to enrich best practice teaching methods and building curriculum for reading and writing.
This summer my great aunt told me, “I have a theory about how psychic energy flows between plants and people.” And over a beer this fall, a buddy laid out his theory on why his girlfriend broke up with him. Although these two said they had a theory, what they really had was a belief, confident thinking not necessarily supported by facts.
Big deal, you might say. What’s wrong with using theory when you mean belief? In late November, a friend, who is a literacy coach, told me she was struggling to reach a certain group of worksheet-loving teachers. “I tell them how important it is to have their kids read for extended amounts of time. But they just don’t believe that will make children become better readers.”
“How is that possible?” I exclaimed, jumping up and down and waving my arms. “The connection between reading amount and reading achievement isn’t something you choose to believe or not. It’s a fact!”
In science, a theory is not a belief. A description of what it actually is can be found in a New York Times article. In it, Kenneth R. Miller, a cell biologist at Brown University, says, “A theory is a system of explanations that ties together a whole bunch of facts. It not only explains those facts, but predicts what you ought to find from other observations and experiments.” In the same article, Peter Godfrey-Smith, author of Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science, suggests we think of theories as maps, “To say something is a map is not to say it’s a hunch. It’s an attempt to represent some territory.”
I love this analogy: Facts are to a theory as features are to a map. Likewise, a geography map is to a territory of earth as a theory map is to a territory of science. The best maps—derived from decades of observation, experimental confirmation, and replication—are highly descriptive and strongly predictive. Thus, they are tremendously useful. Well-established maps provide paths of action, enabling us to solve problems, alleviate suffering, and plan for the future. Germ theory helps us to stay healthy, plate tectonic theory helps us plan for disasters, and climate change theory shows us how to fix the environmental mess we are creating.
We teachers are fortunate to have strongly predictive maps at our disposal. Reading is probably the most extensively studied subject in the field of education. The many facts that describe and demarcate its territory include the following: orthographic, syntactic, and semantic processing systems at work when we read; metacognition helps readers comprehend; fluency influences comprehension.
Likewise, we are blessed to have a map of instructional theory that is increasingly realized. We know, among other things, that instruction should be direct and explicit at times, that positive reinforcement molds behavior, and that providing feedback both during writing and reading and while commenting on behaviors leads to greater learning.
We are living in a time when policies and positions supported by facts are under siege. A countering move is to strongly and actively stand up for the well-established maps of reading theory and instruction theory. And we must say that teachers have an ethical duty to follow them. When teachers follow the maps of reading and instruction, they always have an excellent chance of leading their students to the destinations of competent reading and writing. But when teachers dismiss the maps, they are wandering in the wilderness and so are their students.
Powered by talk radio, internet misinformation, and unfair and unbalanced news reporting, the trend of making decisions based on beliefs and feelings rather than facts has been gathering steam for more than two decades. Now it is common to see people calling the theory of anthropogenic climate change a hoax, saying the theory of evolution is just a secularist’s whimsical idea, and, in the case of the aforementioned teachers, treating the theory of reading as a notion that one is free to believe or not.
Rather than allowing folks to dismiss our maps, which we have gained through great effort and are of immense value, we should be standing up for them. My new reading coach pep talk is “Use the map! Use the map!” Using and promoting the maps of reading and instructional theory are actions counteracting a backward slide into a dark place, where personal beliefs trump scientific enlightenment and critical thinking.
Mark Weakland is an educator, consultant, and author of books for teachers and children, including Super Core! Turbocharging Your Basal Reading With More Reading, Writing, and Word Work.
Have you ever had a moment where you felt overwhelmed by professional reading? Or challenged by assigned reading for professional learning communities? Do you feel like the demands of the classroom can be so daunting that time to read about teaching is forsaken for other necessities like Individualized Education Program reports, grading, and meetings?
I know this might sound foreign in a world full of readers, but have you ever faced that moment where you just couldn't deal with professional reading anymore?
When I read professional texts, a sense of vigor, courageousness, and creativity emerges. I recall reading books like Beck, McKeown, and Kucan’s Bringing Words to Life, McGregor’s Comprehension Connections, and Fisher and Frey’s Text Complexity and then feeling like I could set my classroom on fire with invigorated instruction. I’d read The Reading Teacher and Reading Research Quarterly almost religiously. Ideas for my classroom would spawn in my head. I’d return to the classroom every day, with more excitement than the day before.
However, I can think of two periods of time when I embraced an extended pause in my professional reading. Over three years, I’ve taken a really hard look at the circumstances behind my choice to divest myself of professional reading and what I’ve needed to do to resurrect my passion.
Have you ever had one of those days where the stress and anxieties of the workplace, classroom, or meeting overpowered your ability to think? I’ve faced many of these days. Somehow, I associated a bad day in a meeting or the classroom as an indication of my teaching. Slowly as I deteriorated as a teacher, I found myself less and less willing to read, to invest in my profession. Thus, as I struggled to find myself as a teacher, I turned away from professional reading to avoid any further self-contempt spawned from my shortcoming. After all, authors are experts; I obviously was not.
After a low period when I did not fill my teacher soul with intellectual nourishment, I reflected on four key areas that aided a recovery of sorts and reignited my passion to read professional texts.
I am sure every teacher has faced a spell of turmoil in the classroom and reluctance when picking up or reading professional texts. Motivation to read can become stagnant. We can even question our values as teachers. Yet, even in those trying times, reaching out to explore may be just the spark we are looking for to create hope for a fresh start.
Justin Stygles is a fifth-grade teacher at Guy E. Rowe Elementary school in Norway, ME. He has taught for 13 years at the intermediate level and in various summer program settings. He is currently working on a book with Corwin Literacy about self-conscious emotions.
After 25 years in the education “business,” I’ve learned that visionaries are rare. I’ve also worked with resume-padders, limelight-grabbers, and narrow-minded ninnies. Some were more concerned about their own personal agenda than about personnel.
When you do find that visionary with whom you connect, it’s best to listen, learn, and trust as you absorb as much of their vision as you can. Visionaries look at the big picture and delegate ideas, suggestions, and concepts to the team. The strength of the vision should be in the trust that the work will be done. That trust becomes contagious as we all work together for the commonality of the vision.
Although we appreciate that our school has come a long way in creating a common belief system, we also realize it is just the beginning of our journey. To become the school we want to be, we need to ask ourselves, “Are we working for the covenant, or are we working for the contract?”
The covenant is the promise we make in our mission/vision statement to our colleagues, our parents, and our students that we will do what we say we are going to do and that we will be held accountable for the sake of the greater good. We will support colleagues so they develop into knowledgeable and compassionate professional educators. We will respect and communicate with parents to form partnerships that are enduring and trustworthy. Finally, we will create authentic opportunities for learning that give our students the hope they deserve and the consideration they need. In short, the covenant keeps all of us working together to cultivate the best educational experience for our peers, our parents, and our students.
When the covenant becomes too demanding or when the vision has not been made clear to all stakeholders, it is inevitable that the contract will become the purpose. If teachers don’t envision themselves growing, if parents don’t value the relationships, and if students become disengaged, our practice suffers, our relationships deteriorate, and our children fail. It is that simple.
Standing up for the covenant begs the question, what do you stand for? When you are able to answer that confidently and with purpose, you are on your way to building a better school. Become a visionary who develops a confident team of teachers, a thankful legion of parents, and a considerate class of students.
Peg Grafwallner is an instructional coach with Milwaukee Public Schools.Learn more about Peg on her website.
After two years of working as an AmeriCorps volunteer in an adult literacy program in Philadelphia, I continued my work with adults as a newly minted reading specialist. Having initially used a phonics-based reading curriculum, I was highly influenced by my whole language training at University of Pennsylvania and my professor, Morton Botel, a past president of the International Reading Association (now the International Literacy Association; ILA) and creator of the Pennsylvania Comprehensive Reading/Communication Arts Plan, which designated five critical literacy experiences. One and only one of the five critical experiences addressed phonics and structural analysis competence or structured language competence. I was excited to bring more whole language into the adult literacy program. Some students did well with the combination of phonics and whole language, but not all instruction was effective for all students.
In the early 2000s, I had moved to Vermont. The middle school where I was teaching was focusing on metacognition and other comprehension strategies including incorporating “deeper” as opposed to “broader” reading, read-alouds, and using multiple texts on the same subject. What was not occurring at my middle school, however, and what I could not do much about, was offering help to my seventh graders who could not decode or spell outside of this structure.
After a summer of teaching at a reading clinic in Vermont, I took a full-time position there and learned how to teach dyslexic students. I was required to take courses on assessment and instruction in phonemic awareness, speech sounds, articulation, and how multisensory instruction impacts literacy acquisition. I learned the linguistical principles upon which the Orton–Gillingham approach is based. My effectiveness in reaching difficult students began to improve rapidly, and I was having more and more success teaching formerly unsuccessful students. I became equally enthusiastic about teaching to my students because some were now able to read good literature! I recall a middle-school girl who started out as a nonreader, and who, after quite some time with learning structured language skills, read an abridged copy of Little Women. She was overjoyed to discover this story of four sisters and compare their personalities, as she herself was one of four sisters.
ILA leaders challenge us to keep delving, investigating, and advocating for our students. In ILA’s Research Advisory Addendum on Dyslexia, they say “optimal instruction calls for teachers’ professional expertise and responsiveness and for freedom to act on the basis of that responsibility.” Although the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) does not agree with this statement, I think I understand. It implies teachers get too much latitude if they have freedom. At the same time, I believe freedom and responsibility are crucial to reaching all students of all ages, not only those with reading difficulties. I do think IDA would agree that structured language instructors need the freedom to do what the National Reading Panel asserts: The best approach to reading instruction is one that incorporates explicit instruction in phonemic awareness, systematic phonics instruction, methods to improve fluency, and ways to enhance comprehension. Structured language instructors must incorporate these approaches—that is their responsibility. They often have precious few hours a week to do their work, and to deviate from those approaches compromises the purpose, integrity, and the effectiveness of the instruction. They must follow the sequence and design, which is based in neuroscience, to train the brain to process written language. At the same time, it is also true that overall literacy education needs to include a variety of approaches and more or less of the structured piece depending on student needs. I agree, as Mathes et al. state and the ILA addendum quotes, “Schools and teachers can be granted some latitude in choosing an approach to providing supplemental instruction.”
Currently, I am the literacy specialist for the Community High School of Vermont (CHSVT). Our students are in the custody of the Vermont Department of Corrections. We teach adult students in correctional facilities and at probation and parole sites throughout the state. After meeting, assessing, and teaching many CHSVT students, I can see many are not dyslexic as defined by what I learned and observed in students as far back as my time in Philadelphia and, more recently, during my tenure at the reading clinic. But, at the same time, some of them do present as highly challenging cases.
At CHSVT, we are using a variety of assessments to help the literacy needs of our enrollees. I am happy to have latitude and a strong team when developing the best approach(es) for our students. We will continue to proudly follow the research and guidance of our colleagues and mentors from both ILA and IDA.
Jeanne H. Smith is a literacy specialist at Community High School of Vermont and a correctional educator with St. Albans Probation and Parole.