Harry by the Sea, by Gene Zion, was the very first book I ever borrowed from a library. I remember watching the librarian type my name on the library card, and then telling me I could pick out any book I wanted. I remember the delightful sense of power and joy of being able to choose any book. And despite the fact that I hadn’t yet learned how to read, that first book was the beginning of long love affair with books, libraries and reading.
I started thinking about my early library experiences while I was attending a recent Changing Results for Young Readers (CR4YR) session. A truly transformative initiative, CR4YR is all about improving life chances for kids through literacy – by helping each child learn to read and develop a joy of reading.
Through CR4YR, kids in primary grades are successfully growing in their reading skills. They are supported by their passionate and engaged classroom teachers, who are in turn supported by a committed team of educators in their school district, who are in turn supported by an amazing provincial resource team – all grounded in pedagogical underpinnings and led by the inimitable Maureen Dockendorf. It simply would not be possible to gather together a more stellar group of incredibly talented and wise mentors to lead and support the initiative! To spend time in their presence is an inspiring and energizing experience.
Faye Brownlie, one of those wise mentors, reminded us that engaging the child with text is what makes the difference. The easiest entry point to engagement is about choice. Every child reads something that s/he chooses. Whether the child is drawn to the pictures, the book size, or a colour or a favourite letter of the alphabet, the simple act of choosing ensures an initial natural connection with the text.
And that, after all, is the point, right? To draw the child into reading. To engage and support the child in the learning. To help them be successful in learning to read. And ultimately, to foster a joy of reading that will last a lifetime.
And that’s what got me thinking about Harry the dog and his trip to the seaside. I don’t recall what attracted me to the book, but I know the experience made a lasting impression. Simply selecting that first book gave me the desire and confidence to begin to learn to read, and a degree of comfort around books and libraries.
As Faye says, pushing the skills before the learning does not create engaged readers! The skills are not more important than understanding the content. Connection and engagement trump readability levels and skill acquisition. So it doesn’t really matter whether the child selects an appropriate book every time at the library; what matters is that the choice is up to them. And the librarian supports that choice with a view to opening doors to the world for the child. Engagement leads to learning.
That’s not to say there is no place for categorizing books by reading level. Faye says, “levelling counts some of the time, but not all of the time”. Balance is needed and there is a place for both: reading at an appropriate level and reading for the sake of enjoyment. It’s okay to read some of the time at a level that’s too easy, or too hard, or to read with a partner. The important thing is to read and read.
And here’s where the role of the library comes in. With a welcoming and open culture and a depth and breadth of collections, there’s something in the library to appeal to every child.
Beyond that, there’s a librarian – whether a children’s librarian in a public library or a teacher-librarian in a school library – whose mission is to be open and caring and facilitate the child’s use of the collection, without judgement. To encourage, support and nurture the child in learning. To fiercely protect kids’ right to access information. To facilitate their knowledge creation. And to support and enhance the sense of community and context of the child’s classroom.
Librarians have a unique opportunity to connect with each child, as the library provides a different learning context. And magic happens when that role strengthens the work of the classroom teacher and nurtures the sense of community of that classroom. The librarian’s sensitivity to the child’s learning context and personal perspective supports development of social and emotional skills as promoted by another wise CR4YR mentor, Kimberly Schonert-Reichl. The world is definitely a better place with librarians to support learning!
Miss Flowers, my elementary school librarian, supported my reading choices and borrowing habits. Mr. Martin, my secondary school librarian, always cheerful and helpful, ensured I had easy access to the library materials I needed or desired. Throughout my childhood, the library was a welcoming place that supported my learning and interests. Some things never change.
Librarians have a vital supporting role to play in supporting Changing Results for Young Learners and improving life chances for kids. Whether the setting is a public, school or academic library, libraries are about engaging learners and supporting personal choices.
See also previous blog post:
Changing Results for Young Readers