Why Use Books to Teach Literacy?
“A book is a dream you hold in your hands.”—Neil Gaiman
Why Books Are Important for Teaching Literacy
EL Education believes that—in contrast to literacy programs that teach reading skills in isolation using short, disconnected texts—sustained engagement with a worthy topic is both a more exciting way for students to learn and more effective at helping students become confident readers and thinkers. In our approach to literacy, the key to maintaining students’ interest through this sustained engagement is the central text, a high-quality, authentic piece of writing created for a real-world audience: a beautifully crafted book.
How EL Education Uses Books to Teach Literacy
The EL Education Language Arts Curriculum is built around books. Each module of the curriculum has at least one book that becomes the centerpiece of students’ learning: the central text that all students read in order to engage them in the module topic by giving it real-world meaning. The central text can be a novel, narrative nonfiction, or other mode of writing, but it is always chosen for its powerful use of language and connection to an important topic that will hold students’ interest. The curriculum then layers other, shorter texts—articles, poems, excerpts, video—around the central text to build students’ fluency with the topic, its context, and vocabulary, to deepen their understanding of the topic and the central text. In the universe of the resources students interact with in the course of a module, the central text is “like the sun: all the other articles, poems, maps, charts, and other forms of text circle around this one text.”1
How Students Work with Books in the EL Education Curriculum
To understand what this book-centered learning looks like, consider the human rights module at the beginning of fifth grade. Students read the novel Esperanza Rising, following the character Esperanza’s coming of age in 1930s Mexico and California as her family goes through trials and hardships in search of a better life. Layered on top of this literary text, the class studies selected articles from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, using the experiences of the fictional characters to make sense of the formal language of the declaration, coming to understand the urgency of the ideas beneath the complex prose. The experience of reading together is a powerful driver of learning, and it becomes an act of joy in its own right: students get attached to Esperanza and her family, and many have asked to keep their books after the module is finished.
In the primary grades, the reading looks different—with more teacher-led “close read-alouds” and two or three picture books serving as central texts—but the guiding principle of engaging in important topics through books is the same. First graders start out the year learning about different kinds of tools and how these tools help us do work. Their close read of the nonfiction text Tools helps them work toward a definition of what a tool is. They then dig into less tangible qualities like collaboration, initiative, and perseverance in the stories The Most Magnificent Thing and The Little Red Pen and understand how those qualities help the characters work together and accomplish tasks. Reading together, going back to the same texts over and over again to understand them deeply, gives students with different backgrounds and reading levels access to the stories. The characters, expressive illustrations, and rich vocabulary give students a common language to talk about how to work together.
Why Books are Important to Learning
High-quality books are engaging. Good books excite students. As readers, they become immersed in the plot, invested in the characters. They feel ownership over the books they read, recognizing the cover on shelves in libraries and bookstores and striking up conversations with other students they spot holding the same title. When studying a new topic, there is nothing like a compelling narrative to light up their curiosity.
High-quality books are challenging.
Rich stories and ideas give students ample material to grapple with as they delve into new areas of learning about a topic, the world, and themselves. Difficult questions with no single correct answer foster student inquiry and deeper conversations in the classroom and in written work. Nuanced ethical considerations in books written for a real-world audience offer students an opportunity to engage with thorny dilemmas in a safe and supported classroom setting. Should a family stay and try to hold onto their home, or leave the life they know in search of a better future? Should a girl follow her family’s expectations, or join the fight against inequality? Students explore the choices individuals make and the reasons for those choices and develop their own opinions about the right thing to do when presented with a difficult question or situation.
High-quality books offer a model of excellence. Compelling storytelling, rigorous argument and exploration of ideas, skillful use of language to persuade and delight—there are no better models for the excellent writing and thinking we know our students to be capable of producing than the high-quality texts they study as they build their expertise.
Rich engagement with books promotes equity.
- When all students share the experience of reading the same book, it provides a common ground where they can discover and discuss a topic together, regardless of the level of background knowledge or prior experience they bring. Sustained engagement as a class with the same book gives students a shared reference to return to and look for evidence in the text, develop their understanding of the topic, speak about their learning with peers, and support their ideas in writing.
- The interplay of literary narrative with complex informational books and articles builds students’ content knowledge about the module topic and develops important comprehension skills for reading expository text—crucial across all subject areas, especially for struggling readers. As students develop expertise in their topics, they simultaneously build knowledge and reading skills.
- Studying book-length text gives students the opportunity to learn aspects of narrative craft and structure that are not possible to learn from scattered articles or excerpts. These include how point of view affects the course of a story, how characters develop in response to events, and how scenes or chapters build toward a whole. Lack of access to books and the enriching learning experiences surrounding them, such as read-alouds and stimulating interactions around stories, is predictive of poorer school readiness and reading achievement. Giving students opportunities to read and interact with high-quality, authentic books in primary education helps address these inequities in accessing books.
Studying books written for a real-world audience gives students opportunities to engage as scholars and citizens with the wider world outside of the classroom.
The ability to understand and analyze different kinds of stories and ideas, the skilled use of language, and the empathy and curiosity that students explore through books are essential to their becoming ethical people who actively contribute to making the world a better place. Engaging with books that are published for a wider audience connects classroom work with debates occurring beyond the school walls. This gives students the opportunity to participate in, and affect the outcome of, those broader conversations.
Students who become curious and engaged readers grow into lifelong learners.
Reading books for pleasure correlates with more reading, and engaging in more complex reading, over decades into adulthood. Students who see themselves as “participants in a community that views reading as a significant and enjoyable activity,” and who see other readers enjoying books, are more likely to grow into lifelong readers. Lifelong readers are lifelong learners, continuously acquiring new vocabulary and knowledge about the world.
Books are the secret ingredient in learning that can turn a classroom of students into a community of passionate thinkers and readers. The depth of discussion, rigorous thinking, and joyful engagement with stories that books enable are irreplaceable as students journey from tentative readers sounding out words to confident citizens ready to take their ideas out into the world.