Nancy was in her sister’s kitchen chatting with Kerri as she prepared a ham for cooking. Kerri put the ham in a large roasting pan and Nancy interjected, “Don’t forget to cut the ends off.” Kerri replied, “Oh right. When we were kids mom always cut the ends off.” They looked at each other and said almost simultaneously, “Why did she cut the ends off?” A call to their mother cleared things up. Mom’s roasting pan back then was too small for a full-sized ham.
When we grasp the WHY or purpose of some action, it positions us to contemplate it and make it our own. Even if we are brand new at something, if we get clarity on the WHY of a skill or strategy, we can begin to explore and experiment with our new-found knowledge. An understanding of WHY empowers us to act with intention. It allows us to enlarge our repertoires of personally logical responses to the world. The absence of knowing WHY leaves only rote learning.
Having to learn something complex, something in which children (or adults) haven’t found personal value, can be painful. But when children are enlisted in their own learning, both teaching and learning are so much easier. If children are told and helped to grasp the WHY— if a connection is made to each child’s reality—learning becomes relevant, logical and fun.
Now let’s apply this to my favorite subject: literacy!
Rotely mastering complex skills and strategies associated with reading and writing, and then carrying them out appropriately can be very difficult. However, understanding the WHYs of reading and writing puts a learner in the driver’s seat and facilitates growth toward refinement and mastery.
To grease the wheels of reading skills instruction, I argue for the identification of education and parenting goals that explicitly focus on children’s understanding the WHY of books and literacy, namely…
To share feelings, information and ideas with those around us, in other locations or in the future.
The point here is that when parents and educators want children to become proficient, avid readers, they tend to focus upon the obvious and easily measured skills, strategies and conventions associated with reading. But easily measured skills, strategies and conventions frequently don’t communicate WHY one should want to read.
To teach the WHYs of reading, we must do more than simply read children a story and then kiss them goodnight or send them off to the cafeteria or recess. Rather, we must lead children in:
- Talking about the author/illustrator/photographer—the book’s focus, the impactful language and artistic decisions.
- Reflecting thoughtfully about everyone for whom the book may have been written and why the author might have decided to write this particular book
- Reflecting upon the partnership of text and illustration
- Providing writing and art materials and encouraging book composition
- Delivering children’s creations to their valued audiences.
To value and understand the WHY of books and literacy, children must see themselves in the roles of author and audience. This will ensure that otherwise rote skills lessons stick, luring kids down the surest path to a fully literate life.