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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

What Can Librarians Do to Support Student Literacy?

July 24, 2015

From a reader:

Any thoughts on top 2 or 3 literacy concepts on which you would focus librarians? Grades 4-8?

My response:

Let me say how happy I am that you are available to students and teachers. As I make my way across the country I find fewer and fewer school-based librarians. Unfortunately, you appear to be part of a disappearing breed. Here are a few ideas.

Content

Basically, I think one of the biggest things school librarians can do for teachers is help them and their students to find resources. As teachers are trying to emphasize content and informational text to a greater extent, helping them to identify relevant and appropriate books and articles on that content can be of great value. When I taught third grade, I could inform my school librarian what my subject matter would be for the month — in social studies and science — and she would provide me with a box of materials from her shelves that I could use to extend and improve what was available in my classroom. These days that could also include providing links to certain kinds of online materials, too.

Part of this help may include letting the teachers know the levels of the available books. More and more publishers and knowledge bases are providing Lexile levels and librarians can be a valuable conduit to that info. That way, if a teacher wants students to read several texts on a topic, they can array them so that the easier texts serve as a scaffold for taking on the more challenging ones.

Research

Librarians can be the first line of instruction on how to conduct library research and how to use various reference works. Most teachers don't do much with this; nor do literacy programs, though research is stressed in all state standards. However, knowing how to use dictionaries, encyclopedias, almanacs, yearbooks, including online resources like Google or Yahoo is hugely important, and yet few teachers have much expertise in those areas. Instead of just having kids come in to get books (which is more than a mere "just," I know), librarians should have an actual curriculum to deliver that supports the accomplishment of their state's research standards.

With younger students, those resources are probably not that different from what I taught as a third-grade teacher. However, as students move up through the grades it is important that students that they learn to use more specialized resources. For example, for a 9-year-old, teaching the dictionary — print and/or electronic — is a great idea, but by eighth grade, kids should be learning how to use scientific and historical dictionaries so that their research is appropriate to the disciplines that they are studying. Similarly, many states provide EBSCO subscriptions or subscriptions to other knowledge bases; students — and their teachers — should be learning how to use those and let's face it, that kind of expertise is usually right on the mark for a good librarian.

Encouraging Reading

Finally, providing a positive, encouraging environment in which students can find books that they want to read or where teachers can find books that they can share with students is hugely important. Many teachers are concerned about whether their students are going to love reading, but they rarely have time to work this into their curriculum. Creating a positive environment with lots of encouragement and support for students' extra-curricular reading can be a big contribution. I know some school librarians who set up reading clubs and who host various displays and activities aimed at getting kids involved with books.

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"The things I want to know are in books. My best friend is the man who'll get me a book I [haven't] read." — Abraham Lincoln