A Literacy Lesson from China: What an Exuberant Culture of Reading Can Teach Us

The objective of a dynamic literacy initiative in some Chinese schools is not to raise reading scores but to develop positive reading attitudes that inspire children to read more at school and at home—and therefore to read, write, speak, and spell better throughout their lives.
An elementary school in Shanghai.

An elementary school in Shanghai.

It was a long, cold ride at 7 a.m. from central Shanghai to a rural elementary school in Hefei. I had come to China to visit seven schools participating in an innovative literacy program, the Stone Soup Happy Reading Alliance (SSHRA), funded by the Hong Kong-based Chen Yet-Sen Family Foundation.

Accompanied by three members of the foundation’s executive board, I knew this rural school would be different from SSHRA’s colorful, multistoried urban facilities we had already visited. Our choppy ride brought us through sparse farmland to a winding dirt road and an austere, one-story school.

Book fairs encourage students to pursue their reading interests and share titles with each other.

Book fairs encourage students to pursue their reading
interests and share titles with each other.

We visited a few small, spare classrooms devoid of decoration and technology. Yet, despite the poverty and the lack of heat, this modest facility shared the same features and spirit as SSHRA’s more sophisticated programs: a school library—freshly painted, in this case; an exuberant love of literacy; and wooden shelves in the one-room library filled with paperback books.

The program’s objective is not to raise reading scores but to develop positive reading attitudes that inspire children to read more at school and at home—and therefore to read, write, speak, and spell better throughout their lives.

American educators have much to learn from SSHRA’s literacy model. The central concept of the Common Core State Standards establishes the priority of a literacy-centered education. The SSHRA schools share this goal but pursue it differently—and in some ways more effectively.

Despite the strictures of Chinese society and education, the kids in these schools are growing up with a love of books and reading. While a literate population will help secure China’s position in the global economy, that is not SSHRA’s major incentive. The initiative also acknowledges the importance of the emotional and personal dimensions of reading.

The three pillars of a reading culture

My journey to China began with a visit from Tina Chan, executive director of the Chen Yet-Sen Foundation founded by Hong Kong businessman Chen Yet-Sen. Tina wanted to share SSHRA’s innovations with the Center for International Scholarship in School Libraries (CISSL) at Rutgers University, where I held the position of associate professor and codirector. Since my research includes supporting emerging literacy in school libraries, I was invited to observe the project and to present it to teachers and administrators.

James Henri, Australian consultant to the Chen Yet-Sen Family Foundation, gives Shanghai students the “high five” for reading.

James Henri, Australian consultant to the
Chen Yet-Sen Family Foundation, gives Shanghai students the “high five” for reading.

I learned that elementary schools in China are large, housing 700 to 800 children in grades one through six. There is often one floor for each grade, and all classroom doors open to verandas running the length of the buildings. This design facilitates the movement of book carts that flow between library and classroom. The school libraries vary from a single room to a multilevel facility, many containing titles both in Chinese and in English.

The culture of reading in these schools stands on three pillars: a collaborative infrastructure of principals, teachers, and parents; time allocated for reading; and access to reading materials.

This three-tiered approach was inspired by the ideas in The Power of Reading: Insights from the Research (Libraries Unlimited, 1993) by Stephen Krashen, who visited the foundation two years prior to my visit. American educators often resist Krashen’s idea that free reading fosters and supports student literacy. Instead, they favor direct instruction as the dominant method for teaching reading and for remediating struggling readers. In addition, American students’ literacy development is often constrained by strictly enforced lexiles and the leveling of books to specific grades.

By contrast, Chinese SSHRA students can follow their interests in books, and principals and teachers recognize that children’s reading improves through reading. They embrace the idea that children’s free choice of materials correlates with increased motivation, engagement, and diverse reading interests, along with breadth and depth of reading. When readers experience sustained immersion, comprehension follows.

Reading aloud and peer-led groups

Unlike the U.S. approach, the SSHRA schools do not have reading specialists. Every teacher is responsible for developing positive reading attitudes and good performance. School principals are actively involved in reading every day. They read aloud to all-school audiences and create professional development events for teachers and parents.

SSHRA school libraries are centers for literacy development, helping students create their own reading lives.

SSHRA school libraries are centers
for literacy development,
helping students create their own reading lives.

A spirit of evidence-based practice fosters accountability and continuous improvement in three ways. First, SSHRA’s research into reading and literacy provides the groundwork for their focus on the elements of motivation and reading engagement. Second, teachers are encouraged to gather evidence about how their teaching strategies work for each child and revise their method based on student progress. Lastly, teachers prominently display student work—colorful drawings and descriptive writings—that captures the children’s responses to what they read.

Visiting a first-grade classroom, I watched the teacher point to a label on the cover of the book she was reading aloud. The label noted that this book was for smart children, and the students sat up in their chairs and beamed. More than once I heard teachers say, “We want reading to be like eating and sleeping”—a feature of each day.

Reading aloud is a staple of this literacy program. Teachers read to classes of about 50 students daily, using a microphone while the kids view a large, flat-screen TV showing the pages of an ebook. The teachers’ enthusiasm is contagious. They pose simple, open-ended questions to the kids, such as asking them to choose their favorite aspect of a book cover. While these queries serve to check comprehension, they are intended to engage the audience and sustain interest. Teachers also use these lessons to introduce reading strategies such as questioning the author and using contextual clues. These techniques are known in the U.S., but they are not the dominant form of instruction. In fact, many administrators frown upon having trained professional staff for reading aloud. In the SSHRA program, reading and questioning is considered “the reading lesson.”

Children also talk about books in peer-led groups. In the United States, such child-centered reading lessons do take place, but they are often overshadowed by drills, work sheets, reading kits, and reading materials that may not interest young people.

Talking books

Another underpinning of an SSHRA education involves “talking books,” or theatrical dramatizations of books during which principals give teachers and students the freedom to produce mini-plays complete with sets, costumes, music, and art. These performances are another illustration of how SSHRA teachers do not rely on extrinsic motivation and rewards commonly used in U.S. schools, such as competitive reading contests, quizzes, point systems, and prizes. Instead, they nurture intrinsic motivation, love of story, and aesthetic response.

These events usually take place outside in large, open areas, though some libraries also have performance spaces. While U.S. teachers have a similar practice known as “readers’ theater,” this type of activity occurs on a much larger scale in the Chinese schools I visited—happening daily, elevated to ritual, and involving the entire school.

The talking book performances give all students the opportunity to become storytellers, authors, singers, dancers, and actors, even before they can read. They also preserve the oral tradition, helping young children make the transition from the spoken word to the printed one. Self-efficacy and self-confidence are evident as the youngest students engage in discussion, reporting, recitation, joint reading, and more. Performers from the community also join the classrooms to connect music with reading.

Making time to read

SSHRA schools make sure that adequate reading time is set aside within and beyond the school day. For example, school principals lead weekly community reading sessions in large outdoor spaces. Children stand during these events and respond in chorus to the principal’s questions.

Local musicians bring music to the reading experience during a celebration at an SSHRA school.

Local musicians bring music to the reading
experience during a celebration at an SSHRA school.

During 30-minute silent reading sessions in the classroom, students read from the three to four books they keep in their desks. This activity looks a lot like Sustained Silent Reading (SSR) or Drop Everything and Read (DARE), U.S. initiatives that have fallen out of favor in recent years, despite evidence that they boost reading scores within three years when consistently used.

An additional reading lesson involves the teacher reading a book aloud twice and acting as a model reader for the students. Teachers check for their prior knowledge and understanding of a subject, as they prompt students to make predictions, draw conclusions, summarize, use contextual and visual clues, and question the author. While these reading strategies are also used in the United States, they are not part of a school culture of reading that is explicitly acknowledged every day in every classroom.

Parental involvement

Parents of students at SSHRA schools also attend teacher workshops, where they learn how to deliver engaging “reading lessons” to their kids. Like most parents, Chinese mothers and fathers want a voice in their children’s education. Visiting a workshop, I listened to the questions Chinese parents raised: How can I find the time to read to my child? Where and when should I read? Teachers encouraged them to read anywhere, even at a bus stop, and to read anytime and each day.

Adults read aloud to students every day in classrooms and at school assemblies.

Adults read aloud to students every day in
classrooms and at school assemblies.

The sessions aim to educate parents on the larger benefits of reading. Teachers emphasize that reading will positively impact their children’s moral growth, behavior, and problem-solving skills. Parents learn that reading strengthens memory and deepens concentration, while also enabling children to construct, imagine, and predict.

In this intense culture of literacy, the reading-writing connection begins in first grade. In addition to creating art and writing about what they read, students also make their own books, which are kept in the library.

To get a sense of how their schools are performing, SSHRA principals meet regularly to plan and compare notes. Schools with strong reading cultures partner with weaker schools to support one another.

Access to materials and librarianship

Despite restrictions and controls placed on reading materials in China, free choice is encouraged at school and books clearly have a high profile in SSHRA schools. They are everywhere, not just in classrooms and libraries. You’ll find books in corners, hallways, and lobbies. Any place is a reading place, and students are often responsible for monitoring book areas and keeping them tidy.

Teachers organize regular book fairs and festivals, and children donate books to these events. When I entered the outdoor book festival at one school, a student ran up to me waving a book and exclaiming, “I love to read!”

SLJ1401_FT_CHINA_P1100042rWhile educators in these schools view school libraries as critical for access to reading materials, concepts of school librarian certification, information literacy, and self-directed inquiry learning have not taken hold here. Without a system for tracking acquisitions and organizing books, only one library of the seven SSHRA schools is automated for circulation, and none offers students Internet access. One school has devised a floating book system: Every book is in constant circulation, with each student responsible for one title and for sharing it with others.

Though they are not typical of schools in China, the SSHRA facilities I visited are making big strides in the teaching and support of literacy. My takeaway question: Can what I observed in China happen in the United States?

You may be thinking, “We do this! Our schools have book fairs, silent reading, and readers’ theater.” But do we have consensus among administrators, teachers, and parents about what a culture of literacy in schools looks like? Are our teachers and parents reading models for our children? Do our schools provide adequate time for reading activities? Are we as successful as we can be in helping both struggling and proficient readers become enthusiastic lifelong ones?

Is our system working as well as it could, despite our shared goals? Confucius would say, “When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.” The Common Core presents an opportunity for school librarians to step up as advocates for free voluntary reading and as leaders of alliances for literacy. In order to create a literate society, we need to create a healthy culture of literacy in our schools.

Dr. Carol A. Gordon, recently retired from Rutgers University’s School of Communication and Information, consults in the areas of school and academic libraries, inquiry- and information-based learning, emerging literacy and transliteracy support, action research, and language arts education.

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