Hardly a week goes by that I don’t read about a school, library, or other organization having a literacy festival, fair, night, celebration–whatever they want to call it. You know the event. Adults go to extreme lengths to dress up like book characters. There’s often games and food. It’s a regular carnival to promote and encourage reading.

But does it work? Can it work? In my opinion, no, it doesn’t; it’s money and carnival1time poorly spent. These events, while well-intentioned, border on the manipulative. Children are not stupid. Would you read more just because a teacher wore the Cat’s hat?  My hunch is that these events make adults feel good, make adults feel like they are “doing something” to promote reading. But truth be told, they really aren’t because they because they do not take into account how humans learn.

Pleasure, fun, and enjoyment do help reinforce behaviors. Positive emotions do help learning. Modeling litearcy behaviors especially by men does build literacy. And enjoyment, positive emotions and modeling can take place at a literacy event.

But often even if this things happen,  the efforts go to waste. Why? Because the enjoyment, positive emotions, and modeling are not connected to reading. Just because you dress reading up in carnival clothes does not mean that learning connections are being made (the same principles apply to and often happen with educational software as well).

Events need to be planned around reading behaviors. Are the children being read to? Are the children reading? Are there activities such as talking about a favorite book, drawing pictures about books, acting out stories, recreating new endings to old stories, even just looking at books? Are books and activities selected that children will be interested in? (One program I read about had teachers variously dressed up as Wizard of Oz characters and Mary Poppins. Why? While the books are classics, very few children, especially if they are still learning or are struggling with reading, are going to pick those books up.) Teachers and librarians know many, many ways of helping children participate and get involved with stories and books. These need to be the core of a literacy event.

Then the costumes and the “fun stuff” make sense. They reinforce a behavior we want repeated. They encourage reading. You have to pair up a desirable behavior with the enjoyment and positive emotions if you want to increase the behavior.

Which means we must start with the behaviors first when we plan these events.

Finally, by getting the horse in front of the cart again, we also move away from trying to make reading into entertainment in a razzle dazzle Hollywood sense. (I use the word “entertainment” as opposed to “leisure activity”). Reading can and does become its own reward in an internal sense when it is taught and encouraged on its own terms. It is not a movie, a video game, or an MP3. But it does not need to be either.

Sounds like a topic for a future post, huh?

Food for thought!