All You Need Is Love (In The Time Of COVID-19)

This post is part of our series entitled Teaching and Learning During a Pandemic, in which we invite guest authors to reflect on the challenges of the Coronavirus pandemic for teaching and learning. Our guest today is Susan B. Neuman, Professor of Early Childhood & Literacy Education, Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, & Human Development at New York University. Other posts in the series are compiled here.

I know this is a strange title at a time of crisis. But as the Beatles would say, “There’s nothing you can do that can't be done,” and with that spirit in mind, sometimes a crisis, or in this case, crises can give us a fresh perspective, a new way of thinking about an old topic.

The topic I refer to is reading, which is the subject of an excellent series of articles in the American Educator, the AFT’s magazine. In this series there are articles about the importance of educator knowledge, choosing the right texts for children to read, building background knowledge, bilingualism, and the research base of reading. All important topics. And all related to what is now described as the “science of reading.” The notion is that if we teach the right skills, at the right time, and give children the right books in the right language, then children will read and achieve, right?

I wish it were so. But after years of pendulum-shifting this way and that way, from skills-based, whole language, scientifically-based, balanced, and now the science of reading, we have made strikingly little progress in closing the reading gap, particularly for those come from economically distressed communities. Today, our children are in more danger of learning loss than ever before, and with the understanding that “nothing you can make that can’t be made,” it’s time to consider a fresh perspective about reading.

That there are important skills to be learned in reading development is without question. The National Reading Panel Report and the earlier Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children highlighted five: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. The presumption is that if you teach these five skills, children will become readers. It assumes that reading is cognitive activity, a skill to be developed, almost like learning the scales on the piano. Once they’re developed, as the saying goes, children will transition from “learning to read to reading to learn.” 

This quip is attributed to Harvard professor Jeanne Chall, who had a long and stellar career in the field of reading. But although right so often, this time she got it wrong. Teaching reading, as though it were only a skill to be learned, apart from any meaning or purpose, is a mechanical process. While many children will go along with us, going through the tough task of learning to read, others will rightly say, “why bother?” “What purpose will this accomplish for me?” This question reminds me of John Dewey’s distinction between “effort” and “interest-based learning.” According to Dewey, external attempts to make something matter lead to only temporary effort, developing habits that may lack any purpose or personal worth. In contrast, interest-based learning is directive; it has a propulsive effect, based on specific topics, tasks, and activities that have meaning to the individual.

Our children will be eager to learn when we are allowed to go back to our classrooms.  They will want to learn more about the extraordinary events in the past year, yes, the pandemic but even more, the issues of racism, inequality, and social justice. If we merely send them to book materials that are “right” for their level, or some pseudo-scientific notion of lexile levels, then we will miss the critical moments when children at all levels can begin to understand the real purpose of reading.

For reading is not just a cognitive activity. It is a social and cultural activity as well. It is an activity that helps us build knowledge, become good citizens and develop character. It is a form of cultural knowledge that brings people together, participating in a range of activities that involves reading and writing. Furthermore, it is tied to specific relationships and specific social contexts and activities. This will mean that we cannot begin to teach reading as if these past events haven’t happened, or by merely pushing the restart button. We need to do things differently.  

It will require a more expansive view of reading, one that takes to account the science of learning and development—a reading science of the future. Here are some things to consider:

  • Giving children a purpose for reading.  Most adults read for a purpose. It might be to learn, to relax, or to get something done. It’s rarely done for its own sake. Are children learning to read because we are telling them to? Or are we giving children examples and opportunities to understand why they might want to develop this skill for their own benefit? Learning to read and write is a difficult, and for some children, an arduous process. They need to see a reason to do it, tied to something useful and meaningful in their lives. 
    This means that we need to understand their environment better, their communities and family and friendship networks, all of which are significant contexts for children’s learning. Especially now. Recognizing that learning crosses institutional boundaries, we should seek collaborations with the public library, community centers and parks and recreational programs to expand our understanding and maximize children’s learning.  
  • Understanding the role of affect in learning to readClosely tied to its purpose, a new learning ecology recognizes that affective and motivational resources often drive students’ learning. They mediate effort, attention and a desire to engage in learning. Too often, interest and motivational factors are seen as an afterthought, a “soft-skill,” something that tags along with other activities. We need to see it as more centrally located in our program design and in our instructional materials.

    Young children are great mimickers. They often do what others do. Let’s use their desire to establish friendship networks and peer groups as a strategy for reading promotion. These social networks are all units of learning as well as significant contexts for learning.

  • Un-leveling readingIrene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell are well-known for the phrase, “level the books, and not the child.” This phrase refers to the common practice of “leveling books,” or grading books on the basis of sentence length, vocabulary difficulty and number of syllables, among other factors. But it’s really a not-so-subtle way to place children into reading ability groups. 

    Leveling books has stymied the reading process through a complicated set of metrics that draws children to the technical aspects of a book instead of its content. Now, more than ever, we need children to read books based on their interests, guided by their own desire to learn.  

    Given the recent series of events, it is more imperative than ever that children take part in our nation’s dialogue, reading materials that can inform, enlighten, and address the cultural legacies of our country. It will be especially important for them to have a classroom library filled with a rich and diverse collection of books. Using the metaphor of mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors, Rudine Bishop describes how multicultural books can act like mirrors or reflections, while others may invite readers to step through and inhabit other people’s lives. Never have these words been more salient in our country today.

Perhaps as the Beatles say, “There's nowhere you can be that isn't where you're meant to be,” a moment in time to develop a reading science of the future that is more expansive and more aware of the sociocultural nature of reading. But I doubt “it will be easy.” I’m afraid we’ll need more than love to make it happen.