Libraries are for reading…aren’t they?

Picture found here

I don’t hate the READ posters.  In fact, I actually kind of love them.  I think there is a definite need to emphasize the awesomeness of reading.  But I’ll get to that in a minute.  What I don’t necessarily like is that when these posters are placed in libraries, the implication is that libraries exist to promote literacy in a very narrow, traditional sense, when in fact, literacy today is so much more than the ability to read and write.

Before I came to Syracuse, I taught 4th grade.  The demographic makeup of the area in which I taught meant that the majority of students at my school were low-income, second language learners.  Most of my students spoke a language other than English outside of school, had parents who did not read English, and often entered the school with no experience in English, formal or informal.

I’m not trying to discount in any way the value of their native languages.  But reading was a definitely a struggle for the majority of students I taught.  Most of them came to me, at the beginning of fourth grade, about 2 grade levels behind where they should have been in reading.  This presented a number of obstacles.  Fourth grade textbooks (not to mention fourth grade standardized tests) are written for students who are at a fourth grade reading level (the same is true, obviously, for third grade textbooks, and so on).  In addition to this, textbooks feature a lot of really specific vocabulary that makes them even harder to read.

This was our social studies textbook. I was the teacher, and I didn’t want to read it either.

These students, therefore, came to me with some pretty negative experiences with reading.  They couldn’t read the textbooks to understand the content, they were forced to read things that didn’t interest them, and as a result of these things, they thought reading was hard and boring.  Why on earth would they want to keep at it, when they could just play a video game or watch tv?  (I mean, not in school, obviously…but you get my point.)

I worked really, really hard to create an environment that celebrated reading of all kinds, and to help each kid find books that were appropriate for his or her level and that were on interesting topics for that particular kid.  I spent a lot of time and money on my classroom library, filling it with books from all genres, all levels, fiction and non-fiction, comic books, magazines, WHATEVER I thought my students would read.  And here is where the read posters come into the picture: 4th graders are heavily influenced by popular culture.  I was doing everything I could to get my students to read, and if I thought that a poster featuring a celebrity reading might help me, then that poster was absolutely going up on my classroom wall.

The thing is, though, that I didn’t want my kids to learn to read simply because I believe in the joys of reading for pleasure (I mean, I do.  But that’s another topic entirely.)  I wanted them to be readers because reading is a skill that is vitally important to the acquisition of information, and I knew that if I didn’t help them to become proficient readers, they would be cut off from so many things.  They would struggle with doing research for school, finding jobs, reading books AND finding information online, to name just a few things.

This was one of the main reasons I wanted to pursue a career as a librarian.  I’ve always known, on a theoretical level, that literacy is important, but as a teacher, I saw firsthand that students are not getting the literacy instruction they need, and that we can no longer define literacy in the traditional sense of reading and writing.  I want to help improve the literacy of students, and by this, I don’t just mean teaching them to read.  I mean showing them that knowing how to read can open up so many other avenues of information for them, from the joys of Wikipedia to using databases for scholarly research.  I also mean helping them to learn about credible sources, collaboration, crediting others for their work, and the risks that inevitably come with such expanded access to information.  Students need instruction in information literacy as much as they do traditional literacy.

So I don’t hate the READ posters; I think they can serve a purpose.  But I would agree

Our own version of a READ poster (personal photo)

that in a library, which is so much more than a place for reading, a different campaign would be appropriate.  Professor Lankes suggested ASK.  I don’t think it needs to be limited to one particular word.  I would offer INVESTIGATE, or CREATE, or COMMUNICATE, or even IMAGINE.  The point is that libraries can and should promote literacy, but literacy these days is so much more than just reading.

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