Believing in Children as Readers, Learners and Teachers

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by Carol Otis Hurst.

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These are exciting times in which to be educators. Teachers are being urged to depart from textbook teaching and take back control of curriculum materials and methods within their learning communities. Empowering teachers in turn leads to empowering learners. It cannot be otherwise if we are to provide the conditions for language learning that Brian Cambourne and others' research supports: immersion, demonstration, expectation, responsibility, approximation, employment and feedback. Each of those conditions requires equal parts of teacher and learner commitment.

Although we would like to believe otherwise, most of the children presented to our schools for learning have been raised with television as their storyteller. Children are used to passive language experiences. There are children coming into our classrooms who have never had a book read aloud to them. A few lucky children have been read to since birth and have experienced a thousand books before sitting in our classrooms. The difference between those children is immeasurable. It is the teachers job to begin to make up the difference.

The following two pieces of writing are from two boys in the same beginning second grade class in suburban Baltimore. The children are of approximately equal intelligence and economic class. They were asked to write about a favorite book and both chose Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Putnam, 1981 ISBN 0-399-20853-4.)

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Student #1:

This is about a hungry caterpillar that ate alot of stuff and turned into a butterfly. It is a nice story. I liked it.

Student #2:

This is a story that I've heard all my life. Probably they read it to me when I was a tiny baby. And I still like it. So does my mom.

It's about a caterpillar that eats all kinds of food. Most of it is good for you, but it just gets more and more. I'd think he'd pop or at least have a stomach ache. Instead he turns into a butterfly and he has the colors of the food he ate in his wings.

My sister thinks that green leaf he ate on the last day made him change. I'm bigger and I know he was supposed to change. They all do.

It's sort of magic. My teacher says there's magic all around, like me turning from a baby to a kid.

Eric Carle's pictures are neat. They are mostly cut and paste -- collage -- and when he uses tissue you see through the top one to the others. He's written a huge pile of books. Very Quiet Cricket is special and ends with a surprise.

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Few of us would have trouble picking out the "thousand book kid." Not only has that second child had books read to him, probably "all his life," he is used to talking about what he has read. He is used to getting and giving feedback on his reading. Such insights (I never noticed the colors in those wings being the same as those in the food, did you?) do not come overnight. That child has been given a start into literacy that is invaluable. We need to help other children get that kind of experience.

Engaging children in the dialogue of literacy requires more than reading aloud from a book during snack time. The read aloud program has taken its rightful place as the core of the language arts program in the elementary school. This means that teacher and children must become co-learners in the effort to bring meaning to and take meaning from print, evaluate it and make it part of their lives.

Books can no longer be taken in isolation. Bridges can and should be made between books. At first those bridges must be built by adults, but increasingly such bridges come from the children. Reading many of Eric Carle's books and pointing out things you've noticed, asking children for their observations, making grouchy ladybugs, busy spiders, and quiet crickets part of the classroom "in-jokes" and references, are making bridges between books and between readers and writers. We must immerse learners in print.

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In a kindergarten classroom on the first day of school, I saw a teacher seat the children in a circle in the middle of which was a pile of picture books. She said, "It's reading time," and reached over to pick up a book. She then sat back in her place and began to look at the book, turning the pages and reading silently. One kid said, " Aren't you going to read it to us?" She said, "No, but there are other books there for you." Another kid said, "We can't see the pictures." She said, " I know that. There are other books you can read." Some kids picked up a book and began to look at it. Others talked or wandered away. Still others just watched the teacher as if she'd lost her mind. At the end of three minutes, she closed her book and said, "That was the neatest story. It was all about a bear who visits Goldilock's house." They then went on to another activity., but look at her demonstration. She showed them how the act of reading is done by real readers. Children who have not seen reading done except by the classroom teacher may think that reading is standing up in front of the room and reading aloud. Or, even worse, they may think that reading is filling in the blanks in a workbook. With a minimum of effort she demonstrated that reading is done by careful examination of a page and that one gets meaning from that examination. Such a good demonstration.

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In a second grade classroom, the teacher had curtained off one corner of the room. Behind the curtain was a large rocking chair which held a large teddy bear, on a nearby table was a tape recorder and a large basket of books. On the wall was a sign which said, "QUIET! READING TO BEAR." A child would pick up the bear and a book, turn on the tape recorder and begin reading. Sometimes the words were improvisational; other times the words spoken were the same as those printed on the page, but the expectation was there. The children could and would read and bear and the teacher by proxy would listen. Approximations were cheerfully and uncritically accepted.

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Neither of these techniques were complicated. The teacher didn't spend all night cutting and pasting to make it work. There was no pile of boring papers to fill in or correct. Cambourne's requirements were met with simple and honest interactions between and among learners and print. Immersion, demonstration, expectation, responsibility, approximation, employment and feedback are increasingly evident in classrooms as teachers and learners are empowered and engrossed in the experience of learning. Belief in children is evident. Joy is in the classroom where it belongs.

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