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Forty-some years ago I joined the International Reading Association (IRA), a huge collection of reading educators from all over the world. I also joined the National Reading Conference (NRC), which was a rather small organization of reading researchers. Members of these organizations met to share what they’ve been up to and plan how to move the needle in reading instruction.
Both of these venerable organizations have changed since then. The IRA has recently become the International Literacy Association (ILA), and the NRC is now the Literacy Research Association (LRA). These changes reflect the decades of constant work by each of these organizations to advance what we have learned about reading. One is focused on the classroom and the other on depth of knowledge about the broader realm of literacy.
The change isn’t just names, however. It reflects a recognition that what we knew as true years ago has evolved into a fuller understanding that reading is only a small part of the much larger enterprise of literacy development, an inseparable part of literacy. The 1907 song, “School Days” celebrated “Readin’ and ‘Ritin’ and ‘Rithmetic, Taught to the tune of the hickory stick.” That rhyme indicates how far literacy education has come. Now for example, we no longer beat children into submission with a stick, and the content of literacy basics lessons has changed dramatically.
Consider mathematics. Learning “sums” and multiplication tables and long division back then was just about the entirety of the typical mathematics curriculum. Mathematics hasn’t changed. We just know more about mathematics now than we did. Yet now, mathematics is described as the study of “Patterns and Relationships.” No more carrying, goes intos, or bring downs. How children learn to think mathematically now includes arithmetic concepts that supplant those rote lessons. Today, mathematics is wider and deeper than even educated people understood many years ago.
Teaching children to read also is more complex and intertwined with related ways of sharing meaning that children must master to communicate effectively in the 21st Century. There have been dramatic waves of growth in the teaching of writing, of language acquisition, and of making sense from an expanding range of print and digital documents. Literacy includes substantially more diverse and sophisticated media than those found in historical grade-leveled materials. Infographics, hypertext, videos and mixed media also must be embraced to become part of each child’s repertoire for understanding and being understood. It all requires learning how to communicate in new ways. It also requires teachers, parents, and of course librarians, to link arms to help our ever-brilliant children develop the literacy strengths they will need to flourish in their ever-expanding futures.