Top 5 Things I Learned About Kids and Literacy

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Over the past eight weeks, I've had the honour of being a summer literacy facilitator at my local library. This big fancy title basically means that I worked with kids who struggle with reading. Whether this was due to lack of technical ability or simply reluctance to read, my job was to make reading fun and interesting for my students. My summer was absolutely amazing, and I learned a few things that are definitely share-worthy.  

1. Picture books are harder than you think. 

When you think of children's literature, the first thing that probably comes to mind are picture books.  Obviously, if they're for kids, kids should be reading them on their own, right? Wrong. If you take the time to look at the text in the average picture book, you'll see that it can have some pretty difficult vocabulary. Picture books are made for parents to read to children, not for children to read by themselves. If you want to encourage your child to read independently, the best place to start is easy readers. They only have a few sentences on the page, and their vocabulary is a lot simpler than all that complex rhyming and alliteration in picture books. You can even find easy readers about TV characters, like Curious George, Scooby Doo and Spongebob. 

2. Reading doesn't have to be boring. 

 Literacy means knowing how to read books, right? Well, that's certainly a part of literacy, but it's not all of it. Sessions with my students had just as many scavenger hunts, board games and pokemon crafts as they did books. This may seem a little bizarre for a reading program at first glance. However, you'd be amazed at how much reading you can sneak just with instructions and written prompts. Trivia cards? Reading. Craft instructions? Reading. I even bowled with my kids and got them to think of different words while we played. We want children to read in the first place because of its relevance. It's not just books - it's communicating with friends, playing, and understanding directions. Literacy skills are needed to do just about everything, and for that reason, it's easy to motivate children to read in one way or another. 

3. There is a book for every child, trust me. 

No matter how reluctant a student was, I was eventually able to find a story they enjoyed. One of my most disinterested students ended up falling in love with Curious George easy readers. I had one fidgety boy who would stop and focus every time I put a book about turtles in front of him. A frustrated reader couldn't get enough of Mo Willems, and my shyest student really loved reading Herve Tullet's interactive books.  Whether it's comic books, non-fiction or scripts, there is a book out there somewhere that your child will love. I promise.  

4. Skill level ratings are never as reliable as your local librarian.  

Publishers like to have level 1, 2 and 3 stickers on their easy readers to help parents gauge how difficult a book is to read. However, there's no true consistency in the grading. Over the summer, I saw Level 1s that had anywhere between one sentence on a page to a whole paragraph. If you want accurate advice about which books to pick for your kid, it's better to consult your local librarian or bookseller about what will work for your child's skill level.

5. Choice is everything. 

I had a very simple philosophy when I was starting to structure my sessions and create activities for this job: choice. I gave my kids three to four crafts, games and books each to choose from in every session, and my only requirement was that they read a book at some point in our forty five minutes together. As a child, I had resented the pointless rules that were a part of most of my summer camp experiences, and I was determined to give my students plenty of autonomy. This ended up being the main reason why my sessions worked.

My students lit up when given the opportunity to choose an activity, and it became easier to know how they learned and what they liked by letting them pick. They listened to my rules, too, because there was always a reason for the boundaries I set. By the end of my time as a facilitator, I got plenty cards and hugs, and had seen a lot of improvement. A girl who avoided reading as much as possible in our first session was falling in love with Harry Potter in our seventh. One of my ESL students was finally comfortable enough with me to ask more detailed questions about certain vocabulary words and phrases. A seven year old boy who said he couldn't read the first time I met him was one of my most accomplished readers by his last session. In order to reach my students, I just needed to let them choose for themselves and follow where their interests led. Doing those two things opened up whole new worlds for me as a teacher. 

This summer has been amazing, and I wouldn't trade my facilitator experience for the world. What have you been up to this summer?
Submitted by Emma, August 2013.  You can follow her ongoing blog at www.bookingthrough365.com or on Twitter @SekritEmuSister