Why do teachers make us read old stories?



Teachers often assign older books.
vovidzha/Shutterstock.com

Elisabeth Gruner, University of Richmond

Curious Kids is a series for children of all ages. If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, send it to CuriousKidsUS@theconversation.com.


Why do teachers make us read old stories? Nathan, 12, Chicago, Illinois


There are probably as many reasons to read old stories as there are teachers.

Old stories are sometimes strange. They display beliefs, values and ways of life that the reader may not recognize.

As an English professor, I believe that there is value in reading stories from decades or even centuries ago.

Teachers have their students read old stories to connect with the past and to learn about the present. They also have their students read old stories because they build students’ brains, help them develop empathy and are true, strange, delightful or fun.

Connecting with the past and present

William Shakespeare wrote plays in the 1600s that are still read today.
Martin Droeshout/Yale University, CC BY

In Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” for example, teenagers speak a language that’s almost completely unfamiliar to modern readers. They fight duels. They get married. So that might seem to be really different from today.

And yet, Romeo and Juliet fall in love and make their parents mad, very much like many teens today. Ultimately, they commit suicide, something that far too many teens do today. So Shakespeare’s play may be more relevant than it first seems.

Additionally, many modern stories are based on older stories. To name only one, Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” has turned up in so many novels since its original publication in 1848 that there are entire articles and book chapters about its influence and importance.

For example, I found references to “Jane Eyre” lurking in “The Princess Diaries,” the “Twilight” series and a variety of other novels. So reading the old story can enrich the experience of the new.

Building brain and empathy

Reading specialist Maryanne Wolf writes about the “special vocabulary in books that doesn’t appear in spoken language” in “Proust and the Squid.” This vocabulary – often more complex in older books – is a big part of what helps build brains.

The sentence structure of older books can also make them difficult. Consider the opening of almost any fairy tale: “Once upon a time, in a very far-off country, there lived …”

None of us would actually speak like that, but older stories put the words in a different order, which makes the brain work harder. That kind of exercise builds brain capacity.

Stories also make us feel. Indeed, they teach us empathy. Readers get scared when they realize Harry Potter is in danger, excited when he learns to fly and happy, relieved or delighted when Harry and his friends defeat Voldemort.

Older stories, then, can provide a rich depth of feeling, by exposing readers to a broad range of experiences. Stories featuring characters from a diverse range of backgrounds or set in unfamiliar places can have a similar effect.

Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ has been retold many times.
John Tenniel/Wikimedia Commons

Reading can be fun

Old stories are sometimes just so weird that you can’t help but enjoy them. Or I can’t, anyway.

In Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” there’s a character whose last name is “Pumblechook.” Can you say it without smiling?

In Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” a cat disappears bit by bit, eventually leaving only its smile hanging in the air. Again, new stories are also lots of fun, but the fun in the older stories may turn up in those new stories.

For example, that cat returns in many newer tales that aren’t even related to Alice in Wonderland, so knowing the cat’s history can make reading that new story more pleasurable.

I won’t deny that some old stories contain offensive language or reflect attitudes that we may not want to embrace. But even those stories can teach readers to think critically.

Not every old story is good, but when your teacher asks you to read one, consider the possibility that you might build your brain, grow your feelings or have some fun. It’s worth a try, at least.


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Elisabeth Gruner, Associate Professor of English, University of Richmond

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Ten ways teacher librarians improve literacy in schools


Margaret Kristin Merga, Edith Cowan University

Australian schools constantly strive to improve the literacy outcomes of their students. Supporting literacy achievement for struggling readers is particularly important because these readers have their disadvantage compounded: capable students develop “richer” skills through continued exposure to reading, and the gap between them and struggling readers widens.

The number of Australian students deemed “low performers” in reading literacy proficiency has been rising over time. Our percentage of high performers is shrinking – nearly one in five adolescents are in the low performer category.




Read more:
Six things you should do when reading with your kids


With school about to start for the year, we should consider how we can optimise support for struggling readers. Young people’s literacy attainment significantly shapes their academic, vocational and social potential. More than seven million adult Australians have their opportunities limited by their literacy level.

Research suggests the presence of qualified library staff in school libraries is associated with better student performance in literacy. But until now, little was known about what specifically they do to achieve this. My new research gives us insight into these key practices.

What do they do?

In 2018, I visited 30 schools in urban and rural sites as part of the Teacher Librarians as Australian Literature Advocates in Schools project. I interviewed teacher librarians to explore a range of questions, including the role they play as literacy educators.

For some children, silent reading time is the only time they have to read.
from http://www.shutterstock.com

There are 40 recurring literacy support strategies used by teacher librarians. But my recent paper focuses on ten strategies that have a particularly strong link to supporting struggling readers:

1. Identification of struggling readers. Teacher librarians support the timely identification of struggling readers through the data they collect on student performance. The sooner struggling readers are identified, the sooner the school can help them.

2. Providing age and skill-appropriate materials for struggling readers. Teacher librarians match students with age-appropriate materials they can manage and topics and genres they prefer. The more a student enjoys and is interested in reading, the more likely they are to keep it up.

3. Teaching students how to choose books they like. Both children in primary and secondary schools have suggested they would read more if it were easier to choose books that appeal to them. Teacher librarians teach students how to do this.

4. Support for students with special needs and readers at risk. For example, Hannah, a teacher librarian, described working with “a young boy who is dyslexic, and I was reading to him and made a dyslexic error, and went back and explained what I’d done and he said, ‘Yeah, I do that, too.’” She then connected him with age and skill-appropriate materials, and he went on to read “an enormous amount”.

5. Matching struggling readers to appropriate books for their skill level. Research suggests when struggling readers have texts matched appropriately with their ability and personal interest, they are more persistent, invested, and use more cognitive skills. Teacher librarians show expertise in making good matches.

6. Promoting access to books. Access to books is positively related to reading motivation, reading skills, reading frequency and positive attitudes toward reading. Teacher librarians make their books accessible. Francesca described regular use of a pop-up library:

We take [it] out into the wilds. And you know, kids will come up and go, ‘oh, what have you got, what have you got.’”

7. Making books and reading socially acceptable. Where young people believe books are socially acceptable, they’re more likely to read and have a positive attitude toward reading. Reading frequency is associated with literacy benefits, so this is ideal. Teacher librarians use a variety of strategies to enhance how books are viewed socially in their schools, including facilitating peer recommendations.

8. Reading to students beyond the early years. Reading aloud offers a range of benefits in the early years and beyond, including an increased enjoyment of reading and increased motivation. Libba described reading aloud to the teenage boys in her classes as a wonderful experience that was very well received. One boy even stated: “that was beautiful”.




Read more:
Research shows the importance of parents reading with children – even after children can read


9. Facilitating silent reading time. Though opportunities for silent reading at school may be limited, for some struggling readers, it’s the only book reading they do. Teacher librarians act as keen advocates for silent reading in their library and more broadly in the school. And something is better than nothing, especially for readers who struggle.

10. Preparing students for high stakes literacy testing. Achievement on high-stakes literacy tests is essential for graduation in Western Australia, a controversial move which has seen graduation rates slide. A similar initiative has been explored but rejected in NSW.

Teacher librarians supported struggling readers to achieve this essential academic goal through a range of initiatives. For example, teacher librarian Stephanie supported students to use practice online testing programs in her library, which gave students the practice they needed to sit both NAPLAN and online literacy and numeracy assessment (OLNA) tests.

Why does this matter?

Teacher librarians in Australian schools are a valuable resource often taken for granted. They have faced significant budgetary cuts in recent times, despite a 2011 government inquiry into school libraries. Teacher librarians noted they play an important educative role in our schools.




Read more:
Six things you can do to get boys reading more


Recent findings suggest teacher librarians’ morale and related sense of job security may be low. If schools and policy-makers wish to improve students’ literacy outcomes, they should invest in school libraries and our dual-qualified teacher librarians.The Conversation

Margaret Kristin Merga, Senior Lecturer in Education, Edith Cowan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.