Libraries and literacy: Public, school libraries hook new readers for life
Published: Tuesday, September 06, 2011, in the Oregonian
By Jim Scheppke
The Oregonian has done a good job of calling our attention to the fact that thousands of members of the class of 2012 are at risk of not graduating next year because they have not demonstrated that they are proficient readers.
When this happens, there will be many asking why. How could a child complete 13 years of schooling and not become a good reader?
This question was addressed by Prof. Stephen Krashen when he delivered a commencement address to the graduates of the Graduate School of Education and Counseling at Lewis & Clark College in June. Krashen is an emeritus professor of education at the University of Southern California and one of the nation's foremost experts on the subject of how all children can become good readers.
It has been well documented that poverty is at the root of all our problems in education, Krashen said, but until we can solve the problem of poverty, we must do several things to mitigate it. One of the most important, Krashen said, is to give at-risk children much greater access to books, beginning at birth and all through school. What makes books the answer?
After decades of researching how children learn to read, Krashen has come to a very simple conclusion: "When children have access to interesting and comprehensible reading material, they read. Reading for pleasure, self-selected reading, is the major cause of literacy development."
"Without it," Krashen said, "literacy development is impossible." If Krashen is right, then public and school libraries are a big part of the solution when they provide at-risk children with access to books and with the motivation to read for pleasure.
Public libraries in Oregon are already doing their part. They have plenty of books and story-time programs for parents and children of all ages, even babies. They have summer reading programs that are designed to motivate students to keep reading when school is out.
The Oregon State Library supports this with our Ready to Read Grant program, which funds these programs in every public library. School libraries are another story.
School libraries with adequate book budgets that are staffed by teacher-librarians are no longer the norm in Oregon. In 1980 we had 818 teacher-librarians working in 1,284 schools. Today we have fewer than 300 teacher-librarians working in about the same number of schools.
When students in the Salem-Keizer School District start back to school, they will find no teacher-librarians in any of the elementary or middle schools. In what will prove to be a terrible decision, they were all laid off last spring to help balance the district budget. Our children deserve better.
They deserve strong school libraries and strong public libraries. The evidence is clear. If we want all our children to become proficient readers and earn their high school diplomas, we must do everything possible to fund both public and school libraries that can put books in the hands of all our children, beginning at birth.
Jim Scheppke is the Oregon state librarian and works at the Oregon State Library in Salem.