National Literacy Month is here!
We cultivate literacy skills all year long at Clarke,* and are eager to join in the efforts each September to help increase awareness of the importance of developing literacy skills from a young age. We know the need persists; according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, more than one in three children in the US go to kindergarten lacking the language skills they’ll need to learn how to read.
What is Literacy?
While many think of literacy as the abilities to read and write, the definition of literacy has evolved significantly to now encompass a complex and dynamic set of skills. UNESCO, The United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, writes that literacy “is now understood as a means of identification, understanding, interpretation, creation and communication in an increasingly digital, text-mediated, information-rich and fast-changing world.”
Strong literacy skills are essential to becoming an active member of society. For all students, learning to communicate effectively across various digital media and changing cultural norms is a complicated process. Students who are deaf or hard of hearing face additional challenges in establishing a strong foundation in literacy, since, for example, their hearing loss can impede phonological awareness (the ability to understand different sounds in words) and they may miss out on incidental learning (information and knowledge gained from overhearing).
One tip we consistently share with families is to read with your child daily.
“Reading aloud to children is a critical component in the development of language comprehension (in addition to word recognition); which, in turn, is essential to skilled reading,” says Dr. Stephanie G., EdD, of education at Westfield State University in Westfield, MA, and Clarke’s professional partner in our multi-year literacy initiative.*
All forms of reading material count! Graphic novels, recipes, maps, board books, nonfiction, ghost stories, pamphlets at the doctor’s office — whatever interests your child is worth checking out.
However, consider the content. “Children should be immersed in a wide range of texts that both reflect the broader world and mirror their world,” says Stephanie. “Points of connection and disconnection, new and expanding knowledge and aesthetic responses should be discussed and explored throughout the read aloud.”
How Do Your Books Stack Up?
“Children should be immersed in a wide range of texts that both reflect the broader world and mirror their world,” says Dr. Stephanie G., EdD, professor of education at Westfield State University.
Try this sample exercise at home or in your classroom and see what you discover:
1) How many books focus on non-human characters?
2) How many books focus on human characters?
3) Among these stories about human characters, divide them by the various identities represented. Suggestions include:
Create a list of topics that would help expand your library’s diversity. Remember that the staff at your local public library is eager to help research and request books on various subjects. Clarke educators have also compiled diverse book recommendations for teachers and families here.
And consider this an ongoing project; you don’t need to address all the gaps overnight.
Representation in Students’ Reading Materials
While reading on a regular basis is paramount, we encourage caregivers and educators to take a closer look at the substance of these reading materials. To learn more about this, we connected with Geeta, Clarke teacher of the deaf, and member of Clarke’s AID (Anti-racism, Inclusion & Diversity) Committee, who recently conducted a “bookshelf audit.”
Clarke Speaks Up: What prompted you to look more closely at the books you’d been reading with students?
Geeta: As an immigrant and a non-white person, my perspective of education in the United States is different from the norm. I try to use books depicting different kinds of people and places that are spread all over the globe.
I also thought back to an article by Rudine Sims Bishop titled “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass doors.” I was amazed at the simplicity with which she had captured the importance of diversity in children’s literature and lives. It prompted me to think about my own literary choices and practices in the classroom.
At that time, I was researching books to use for a Valentine’s Day theme, and over 80% of the books that I found were about different animals. Very few had human characters. I realized that this was true of most of the themes I had used in the classroom in all my years of teaching. That had me dig for research on whether using books featuring talking animals and objects versus books featuring people achieved the same learning objectives. I was not surprised to find research showing that children learn more effectively from books with human characters than from books with non-human characters.
Then I found several diversity bookshelf audits on the internet. So, I created a simple questionnaire to help me understand my classroom literary resources. The audit showed me proof of what I already knew – most of the books on my shelf were about non-human characters. And of the books featuring human characters, more than two-thirds featured white characters. That led to the realization that my classroom library was not a good collection of mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors! I needed to act urgently to provide my students with books that meet their needs to see themselves and others. And if my library is a good representation of the other classrooms and schools, then imagine how much work needs to be done by all of us!
So, in response, and with Clarke’s support, I’ve been adding books to my classroom library which help to amplify a diverse group of authors, illustrators, and characters—including those discussed by our AID Committee and recommended by Clarke educators and Clarke support team members.
CSU: What are your top five resources for supporting the anti-racism, inclusion and diversity work of educators?
Geeta: Some of the resources I like to use in the classroom are:
*In fact, Clarke has embarked on a three-year literacy initiative benefitting students from preschool through high school. In fall 2022, we roll out the evidence-based Hochman Method to help students build the skills to be competent writers, readers, communicators and thinkers. We are also introducing the Heggerty curriculum for phonemic awareness to complement our reading series. Phonemic awareness (the understanding that words are made up of individual sounds, or phonemes) is one of the best early predictors for reading success. Our preschool and early education programs will embrace the use of the Pearson’s Work Sampling System which is a curriculum-embedded performance assessment for teachers to use in evaluating young students’ development in multiple domains. Training is underway.