It seems that these days every news or scholarly article about literacy development contains the word “skills.” Reading and writing skills, to be exact. We want to teach children to read and write, but instead we teach reading and writing SKILLS.
What’s up with that?
I believe it’s because skills are easier to measure than lifelong learning habits. Skills get attention because we have piles of disappointing data about them gleaned from decades of measuring them through standardized tests. Skills are things that a student begrudgingly can be trained to do without learners having much of an idea about WHY they are doing it. The result is too many kids who can perform the skills minimally, but don’t want to, so they don’t get any better. That’s an important distinction, one that doesn’t serve the learner or schools well.
The why of learning anything is critically important to success. That’s where the personal drive to get better at that thing comes from. Children will work hard to become good readers and writers after they understand the personal benefits of those capabilities. If kids look us in the eye and tell us that they don’t like books or reading or that they hate having to write, there’s something missing…and it isn’t SKILLS.
Why do they learn to ride their bikes? (It’s fun!)
Why do they learn to tie their shoes? (It’s like being grown up.)
Why do they learn to carry on lively conversation around the dinner table? (Their opinion is valued.)
They dive in and work at getting better because they see the benefits as they watch others enjoying doing it and being fulfilled. Before they know it, they’re pretty good at it because they want to be.
In literacy development, it’s up to avid readers and writers to SHOW kids that books, reading and writing are beneficial and great fun. That is followed in no particular order by the need for showing them other WHYs, like:
Writing notes to people they care about is rewarding.
With a library card they will never run out of delightful books that suit their fancy and their desire for inquiry, exploration and delight.
No matter how challenging reading a particular book is, they can get something they seek out of it simply by not giving up.
The more they read what they choose and write for those they care about, the better they read, and write, and understand.
And on and on it goes.
Once children understand the WHYs of reading and writing, they’ll demand that we help them figure out the HOWs—the SKILLS. The bonuses here are: 1. That teaching kids what they WANT to know is some of the most fun that adults can have with them… and 2. there will be improved test scores, evidence that first clearly showing the WHY for skills is a good idea all around!