This Writing Business: Nurturing the Literacy Habit in the School Library

This writing business. Pencils and what-not. Over-rated, if you ask me. —A.A. Milne, Eeyore, in Winnie-the-Pooh, 1926

At its best, education is about transformation and those who readily enter the story world are true believers of the transactional power of text (Rosenblatt 1978). As we blithely read and write, we exercise our membership in that club of clubs, the literacy club, in sheer abundance on a daily basis (Smith 1988). We participate in the grand conversation, we move through our lives confident that we may travel wherever is necessary to achieve the goals we have chosen for ourselves, and, if desired, are in touch with unanswerable philosophical questions of our culture. The circumstances from whence we have come matter less and less on the level playing field as we continue to pass milestones and savor accomplishments.

We want our students to enjoy this privileged experience because we know that it is the key to their living productive lives in our society. Toward this goal, we model, read aloud, cajole, and celebrate literacy in all its many forms. We foster reading engagement and diverse reader response to literature and informational texts, broaden the scope of the availability of alternative reading materials, and highlight the reading and writing connection, all the while promoting literacy as a habit of mind through the school library program. Education scholar Frank Smith posits that children learn by participating in literate activities with people who know how and why to do these things. People write with them and read with them—any of the routine “literacy events” of daily life in which the child can share (Smith 1988, 9).

Research Findings

The 1990s and into the early 2000s found school librarians from many states responding to survey questions regarding scheduling, staffing, educator collaboration, age of materials in the library collection, facility usage, and the accessibility of educational technologies (Scholastic 2008). The last of the “state studies” was the Illinois study which was conducted in 2003 and represented 657 schools. Sponsored by the Illinois School Library Media Association in partnership with the Illinois State Library, the report resulting from the study, Powerful Libraries Make Powerful Learners, was published in 2005. While reading scores associated with quality school library programs are impressive, the accompanying writing scores are dramatic:

  • Schools with higher staffing levels in school libraries average over 17% higher elementary writing scores, over 18% higher middle school writing scores, and over 4% higher high school ACT scores.
  • Schools with newer collections in school libraries average almost 11% higher fifth-grade writing scores, and almost 13% higher eighth-grade writing scores.
  • Schools with flexible scheduling in school libraries average over 11% higher elementary writing scores.
  • Schools with more library and library-connected computers average almost 11% higher eighth grade writing scores.
  • Schools that spent more on school libraries average almost 10% higher elementary writing scores, almost 13% higher middle school writing scores, and almost 7% higher ACT scores (Scholastic 2008).

As reading goes, so goes writing. There is a decidedly strong reading/writing connection regardless of the emphasis in recent reforms on reading to learn almost in isolation from other modes of communication. Curriculum directors and administrators seize upon prepared programs and packages that they anticipate will best suit their school learning community demographic. However, there are a few Über-strategies that have the potential to be integrated within the school library program and across the curriculum. Writing as process is widely accepted along with journal writing, discussion, and portfolios as major elements within the process approach to writing.

Reading/Writing Connection

As stated in the International Reading Association/National Council on Teachers of English (IRA/NCTE) core understandings about reading, “Reading and writing are reciprocal processes; development of one enhances the other. Research shows that writing leads to improved reading achievement, reading leads to better writing performance, and combined instruction leads to improvements in both areas” (Braunger and Lewis 2006, 64). In both processes, learners establish their purpose, activate prior knowledge, and construct mental images.

Reading and writing are both engaged in communication and are interdependent; readers think about the writer and writers think about the reader. Effective literacy instruction makes the relationship between reading and writing explicit for learners. Critical pedagogue Paulo Freire, in the following quote, considers more than just the ability to read and write the definition of acquiring literacy:

To acquire literacy is more than to psychologically and mechanically dominate reading and writing techniques. It is to dominate those techniques in terms of consciousness; to understand what one reads and to write what one understands: it is to communicate graphically. Acquiring literacy does not involve memorizing sentences, words, or syllables—lifeless objects unconnected to an existential universe—but rather an attitude of creation and recreation, a self-transformation producing a stance of intervention in one’s context (1973).

While there is no guarantee that competence in reading or writing results in competence in the other, the skills are related and research suggests that instruction in both reinforces the other. Recommendations strongly support the integration of teaching these skills. Indeed, the integration of all the language arts including speaking, listening, reading, and writing are recommended, especially as students move into learning through the disciplines for improved learning in each of the content areas. It seems unlikely that there is a more accommodating learning environment in the school than the library to integrate the learning of these skills with authentic resources that lend themselves to inquiry learning.

The following discussions include aspects of the reading/writing connection that comfortably fit within the auspices of the school library program. While some fall into the “this is being done already” category, others might give cause to consider new possibilities to enhance writing instruction through the school library.

Writing as Process

As most educational reform movements go, writing is no exception. It seems that the 6+1 Trait* model is the curriculum administrators’ choice du jour. School librarians are finding books at all grade levels that represent and support conventions, ideas, organization, sentence fluency, voice, and word choice (NWREL 2009). The major change that has come about in the recent past is the shift in focus from writing as a product to writing as a process.

Formerly, writing was taught as a subsidiary to reading and emphasized the correctness of the mechanics of writing. Slowly research was identifying four activities within the act of writing including planning, drafting, revising, and editing. Following the critical 1985 National Institute of Education report Becoming a Nation of Readers, attention was now paid to writing scholars such as Donald Graves who contend that, “the writing process is anything a writer does from the time the idea came until the piece is completed or abandoned.... If you provide frequent occasions for writing, then the students start to think about writing when they’re not doing it. I call it a state of constant composition” (Nagin 2003, 23). The complexity of writing lent itself to a connection with higher order thinking skills that mirror the information search process. Writing is viewed as a form of inquiry. The inquiry strategies identified with information literacy are also recognized by writing scholars as embedded in the writing process.

Journal Writing

School library scholar Dr. Violet H. Harada conducted a research study in 2001 that engaged upper elementary students in journal writing as they progressed through the information search process. One unit focused on ancient world civilizations while the second unit covered heroes and heroines through the ages. In their journals, students explained their topic selection, their research questions, their research process, evaluation of their work, and then were “invited to describe the information search process to a new researcher” (Harada 2002). The school librarian participated in the writing aspect of the study in two significant ways including responses to students’ journal entries and also weekly logs. Both the students and the school librarian found that the journal writing process enhanced their self-reflection and metacognition. Harada reported in her conclusion that “they found themselves paying more attention to the affective aspects of teaching and learning... they recognized the need for students to participate knowingly and actively in the meaning making process” (2002).

Writing to Learn through Discussion

Writing to learn strategies that are identified as discipline-specific are gaining attention as discipline scores are increasing; writing becomes the communication of choice to elicit metacognition (Pugalee 2001; Conley 2008). National assessment findings suggest the incorporation of critical thinking and inquiry skills into writing to learn within content areas. These findings offer school librarians an entry into collaborative conversations with teachers who emphasize discipline habits of mind such as “researching like a historian,” “experimenting like a scientist,” and “reading like a writer.”

Activities such as short, impromptu writing exercises for self-assessment purposes lead to educator-student discussions that are found to be effective writing to learn strategies. Nagin states, “A positive relationship was evident between teachers talking with students about what students were writing and students’ writing scores; at grades 8 and 12, students whose teachers always spoke with them about their writing outperformed their peers whose teachers sometimes spoke with them about their writing” (1998). In school libraries, writing to learn activities might simply take the form of an “Exit Ticket” after a period of research; a question might be posed about the direction the research process is taking. Or it might be used within the context of response to read-aloud activities.

Collaborating with teachers to develop a combination of writing to learn strategies that best suits the students and the content area benefits students more than relying on a single activity constantly repeated. Brief discussions held as whole classes, small groups, or individually, regarding writing responses to writing to learn strategies, is recommended to deepen the learning process and reinforce metacognitive habits of mind. These recommendations for writing to learn strategies seem well-suited to the learning environment in school library programs at all grade levels and across the curriculum.

Power of Portfolios

Portfolios are de rigueur in education and writing about portfolios for writing has a decidedly redundant feel. However, the approach to the portfolio is important for achieving the most learning from the process. Student choice is key to the effectiveness of the portfolio. Choices themselves are great fodder for discussion-why a student finds more satisfaction in one selection over another, how they might revise another draft of a particular piece to bring it up to “portfolio” quality, what they dislike about a particular activity that resulted in a less than stellar outcome, how they might recommend to the teacher to re-design a lesson or a unit with the intent to produce a higher quality writing artifact.

Portfolios allow for differentiation including all variation of student abilities, interest, and learning profiles as students are independently making choices that reflect their individual progress over the course of the project or school year. Many teachers include self-reflections as culminating assessments to be included in the portfolio; they look for discrepancies between self-efficacy and achievement, between evidence of understanding and demonstrations of “doing school.”

Portfolios take many shapes and most teachers have found their favorite iterations of this assessment. Teachers who regularly use portfolios might welcome a collaborative partner who relishes the opportunity to conference with students about their selections. Whereas few teachers will surrender complete control of writing to learn discussions for fear of losing a sense of their students’ writing achievement, they might welcome the suggestion that additional discussions might be appropriate within the library learning environment—discussions between peer editors and between the librarian and the students. Learning about the power of portfolios as both formative and summative assessments and approaching potential collaborative partners can broaden the opportunities for students to write, self-assess, and learn.

Conclusion

School libraries are finely honed learning environments that invite reading. No one within earshot would argue with that statement. How about inviting the silent literacy partner, the writing connection, into the fold? As with all big ideas, we seek to take small steps to move forward, or to continue to move if you are already on the path. Let us not deny our students the school library as a place for the many facets of the life of the mind including both reading and writing among others. Over-rated? We beg to differ.

References:

Braunger, J., and J. Lewis. Building a Knowledge Ease in Reading. 2nd ed. International Reading Association, 2006.

Cohen, J. H., and R. B. Wiener. Literacy Portfolios: Improving Assessment, Teaching and Learning. 2nd ed. Prentice-Hall, 2002.

Conley, D. T. College Knowledge: What It Really Takes for Students to Succeed and What We Can Do to Get Them Ready. Jossey-Bass Education, 2008.

Freire, P. Education as the Practice of Freedom. Continuum, 1973.

Graves, D. H. A Fresh Look at Writing. Heinemann, 1994.

Harada, V. H. “Personalizing the Information Search Process: A Case Study of Journal Writing with Elementary-age Students.” School Library Media Research 5 (2002).

Illinois School Library Media Association. Powerful Libraries Make Powerful Learners: The Illinois Study. Illinois School Library Media Association, 2005.

Milne, A. A. Winnie-the-Pooh. Methuen, 1926.

Nagin, C. Because Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in Our Schools: National Writing Project. Jossey-Bass, 2003.

6+1 Trait® Writing. NWREL, 2009. http://www.thetraits.org/index.php (accessed July 31, 2009).

Power, B. M., and R. Hubbard. Literacy in Process. Heinemann, 1991.

Pugalee, D. K. “Writing, Mathematics, and Metacognition: Looking for Connections through Students’ Work in Mathematical Problem Solving.” School Science and Mathematics 101, 5 (2001): 236-245.

Rosenblatt, L. The Reader, the Text, the Poem. Southern Illinois University Press, 1978.

School Libraries Work! Scholastic, 2008.

Smith, F. Joining the Literacy Club: Further Essays into Education. Heinemann, 1988.

WAC Clearinghouse. http://wac.colostate.edu/index.cfm (accessed Online July 31, 2009).

Gail Bush

MLA Citation Bush, Gail. "This Writing Business: Nurturing the Literacy Habit in the School Library." School Library Monthly, 26, no. 2, October 2009. School Library Connection, schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2193905.

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Entry ID: 2153759

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