In primary grade-classrooms teachers help children understand what are called the Concepts of Print. This pyramid shows many of the building blocks for understanding literacy. Literacy is the idea of sharing important meanings (e.g., ideas, feelings, memories) between people through printed symbols, gestures and images.
This image illustrates a cornerstone of what educators teach about how print works and why literacy is the underpinning of all formal and self-education.
But wait! There’s a problem. Something critical is missing from the pyramid.
We must teach children the invisible foundation that holds up all of the ideas about literacy represented in the pyramid. It’s the basic concept that undergirds all literacy, namely…
We also must teach children that print is just one kind of literacy. In my humble view, however, print is the most important one, serving as the glue that allows us to reach out to each other with written words or symbols across the world and even across centuries of time.
For example, I recently read a book called “Eye Witness to America” by David Colbert (1997, Pantheon). It is a collection of writings by the people who were actually there when important historic events occurred in U.S. history. It begins with Christopher Columbus’s initiation of what became the centuries-long invasion of the prehistoric lands of Native Americans and ends in the late 1990s. I selected this book to read the day after the end of President Trump’s second impeachment trial, an historically important event that will be in American history books forever.
Similarly, the poem “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” was written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 90 years after that event happened. Growing up, Longfellow had read the history of that event and it clearly left an impact on him. His prose creates wonderful images and feelings about what was a terrifying time back when the U.S. was merely colonies of the British Kingdom, seeking to be our own country.
The tension between Longfellow’s amazing bit of rhyme and the actual history of that previous time showcases the most important concept of print that too rarely gets taught. Print is a message placed on paper (or on the cave wall) created for someone who isn’t there. The message can be for a relative, for an unseen or hoped for audience, or even for future unknown others.
Longfellow was born 30 years after Paul Revere rode his horse into history, but Longfellow benefited from stories he heard as a child and what he read as he grew older.
Learning this simple concept about the WHY of print and its use is essential for children to become fully effective, lifelong readers and writers.