The Art of Literacy

Literacy is more than a set of skills, it is an art.

This goes against everything we’ve been taught. We are told that literacy consists of knowing sight words and decoding longer words. It means having a good vocabulary and understanding idioms. It sometimes requires prior knowledge. And we believe what we are told because it makes sense. But in our hearts we know there is something more. And we don’t teach that something when teaching our children to read.

Just after starting this blog I got sick. It was pretty bad and required hospitalization. Before I knew something was wrong I stopped being able to read. I did not lose any of the skills listed above and my eyes worked normally. But I could not make sense of the stories unfolding on the pages. I barely managed to get through the first nine reviews I had planned before giving up and listening to podcasts and books on tape. I wondered if I would ever be able to return to the activity that defined me for so much of my life.

A lot of people I know have gone through this at some point. It usually coincides with a drop in creative energy, which makes sense. Reading requires creating people and places. We create sights and sounds and even touch and smell from nothing more than squiggles on a page. It is just as creative as drawing a picture or performing a piece of music, but the art is for ourselves.

Understanding that there is an art to reading is vitally important to parents and teachers and librarians as we teach our children. Charlotte Mason, the 19th century British educator, understood this. She recommended reading a single page from a story each day so the children could fully focus on what was read. Because they were not given the end of the story along with the beginning they could spend time developing their creative reading brains as they imagined what might happen next. Homeschooling parents influenced by Mason report that their children will often come to them several times a day to discuss what is being read.

This level of engagement is not possible with the predictable, formulaic books that publishers love because they are easy to sell and educators love because they fit neatly into reading levels. If we are going to teach our children the art of reading they need complex stories in which the characters do unexpected things. We need to ask our children what they might do before getting to the end of the story. We need to share what we feel when we enter the story.

Don’t think I am opposed to teaching the technical aspects of reading. I am all for teaching phonics and grammar and vocabulary to give children the tools they need to become skilled readers. I am even a rare defender of Direct Instruction as a method of teaching technical literacy. But as teachers of the next generation we have to remember the most important lesson of all, the one we learned from Reading Rainbow. We have to teach our children why to read. And we can only do that if we teach them to connect reading to their hearts and to how they navigate the world.

I have fortunately recovered from my illness, both physically and creatively, and will be returning to this blog with new reviews each Thursday.

See you next time!

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