Books in the Reading Classroom

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by Carol Otis Hurst. This article first appeared in Teaching K-8 Magazine.
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The best thing about whole language is that it's fun.... for the learner and, maybe even more importantly, for the teacher. And it's teachers who are discovering whole language and the joy of working with literature and kids' books in the classroom, not as supplements to a basal reading program, but as the program itself, perhaps supplemented by the basal.

Most of us have been traveling in quite another direction for the past few years. It seemed so logical to say that, since reading and writing were extremely complex endeavors, we could and should break them down into their smallest possible sub-skills. If we then devised strategies to teach and drill those sub-skills, children would be able to read and write with competency. This notion was further strengthened by the fact that basic skills tests used such a structure and it made sense to teach the children in the way in which they would be tested. Bookkeeping was complicated but could be set up efficiently: skill pre-tested, skill introduced, skill taught, skill mastered, skill tested.

Unfortunately for all that analysis and effort, children aren't interested in skills. Basically our language may well be a phonetic one, but most of us who consider ourselves good readers and writers know that we learned to read knowing the basic consonant sounds and knowing long and short vowels but without ever even knowing what a schwa was. The finer points of our phonetic language, most of us will confess, we learned about in college courses. Ignoring our own reading methods, most of us taught children one basic strategy for reading and that was phonics. In our attempts to organize things by breaking them down into small components, we took the joy out of reading and writing and out of teaching reading and writing. We became assigners and correctors of endless drill sheets, workbook pages and activity cards. We listened to children struggle through inane sentences and we tried to motivate the reading of pointless "stories". Maybe they could read and write, but they didn't.

The kids who were read to from birth knew what reading ought to be. At home they were still being read to. They knew you could laugh and cry and, most of all, care what happened next in a real book. Many of those children just hung on until they were allowed to start reading the good stuff. Their sense of reading and the knowledge that there was pleasure to be obtained from books was strong enough to last through the drills. But how about those other kids who knew nothing more about reading than they were taught at school, whose parents didn't read much and certainly didn't read to them? Those children got worn down by those tiny bits of knowledge. They groaned and struggled on and learned to hate reading and writing. And we struggled with them. Many of them would never know what reading could be and, for most teachers, reading and writing became drudgery as well.

Then came the exciting research by Durkin, Clay, the Goodmans and others. Research that showed that if children are taught to read with short, choppy sentences and frequently repeated one syllable words they write that way and, conversely, that if children are read aloud to from good books using fluent language, they read better; that, if we can somehow supply those children who missed the reading-aloud experiences at home with school experiences that approach it in intent and mood, their reading and writing improves. With this realization that kids learn to read and write better when good books are used from the very beginning, teachers began using real books; teaching became fun and classrooms become full of energy and books again. Whole language was here.

Whole language isn't a method, it's a philosophy wherein good books are read aloud to the children, good books are used for reading materials by the children, children are given time to read in class, reading and writing are commingled and, children are given ownership of their reading and writing subjects and materials in increasing amounts. Direct teaching is done to individuals or in small or large groups to those children whose miscues show that they need another tool to unlock meaning.

Whole language has elements in common with many teaching methods of the past: children write and use their writing as reading materials in a way that is somewhat similar to the language experience process; they frequently choose their own reading materials as they did in individualized reading programs; many of those reading materials are collected around a theme of work which is a bit like the unitary procedures of years ago. All that is true, but don't dismiss whole language as the same old stuff recycled. To say, "Oh, we did that years ago" is to sell whole language short. You need to attend workshops about whole language. You need to read many of the currently available fine professional books on the subject. Whole language makes a lot of sense and people who have used it in their classrooms can't imagine going back to their previous teaching methods.

Besides learning the philosophy and methodology of whole language, you need to become very aware of the books available for your children. If you are going to be a book-pusher, you need to know your product. Your classroom needs to overflow with books. A person standing in your classroom should have no doubt that reading and writing are going on here. You need books on a wide variety of subject and ability levels: classics like Big Red, The Incredible Journey and The Wind in the Willows for those good and ambitious animal-loving readers in the classroom, and John Bellairs' haunting mysteries to grab the kids who think you can only be scared by a movie or television show. Everybody should get a chance to know Anastasia Krupnik by Lois Lowry. Anastasia's parents do understand her which makes a nice contrast to some of the "problem" books available and her humor and inventiveness make her a real treasure. There are many Anastasia books and one book of her antics and thoughts is never enough. Let the less ambitious or able readers try Banana Twist or Banana Blitz by Florence Parry Heide and learn that you can laugh out loud while reading a book.

What do you do with the books in whole language? You get multiple copies of some of them; have a group or the whole class read it simultaneously and talk about it as they do so, trying to figure out the author's motivations and techniques, analyzing the characters, plot and sub-plots, arguing and working together to figure out the many layers of meaning in a good book. Learning to read as a writer and write as a reader is one of the aims of whole language. After finishing a book together, children often branch off in various related readings or other books by the same author, coming back to the group to discuss their findings. They write about their reading and others, including you, but not exclusively you, react to their writing and reading.

Reading aloud is not just a pleasant activity you sometimes do for the children during snack time or when, if ever, you have a spare fifteen minutes. In whole language reading aloud is a vital, integral part of your program. Keep one going all the time. Read books like Bones on Black Spruce Mountain by David Budbill and then let the kids find other wilderness books to share. Try reading aloud one of the stories in Listen Children, edited by Dorothy Strickland or do the play in the book as reader's theater. Read aloud one of the awful scenes of racial violence in Roll of Thunder, Hear by Cry by Mildred Taylor and then watch the kids fight over who gets to read it next.

Books become the vehicle for much of the activity in a whole language classroom. It isn't enough to tell the children that reading is wonderful. Elaborate bulletin boards and reading contests aren't enough either. In our current society children get many messages which say that reading and writing are unnecessary. Seldom do they see their role models reading or writing. If we really believe that reading and writing are exciting, vital parts of the human existence, we must show the children that it is so. Hunt for good books to share with the children. Get excited about what kids books can be. Grab a book and start reading!

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