Perspectives on Whole Child Literacy

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Promoting Literacy Equity through School Librarians

Categories: Audiobook Library, Education & Teaching, Educators, General, Teacher Best Practices, The Digital Age

This blog highlights a 2022 Literacy Leadership Brief, "Clarifying the Role of School Librarians," published by The International Literacy Association with authors:

  • Dr. Molly Ness, Coalition for Literacy Equity and V.P. of Academic Content, Learning Ally

  • Margaret K. Merga, University of Newcastle, Australia

  • Julia E. Torres, Denver Public Schools, Denver, Colorado

  • Susan J. Chambre, Marist College, Poughkeepsie, New York

Dr. Molly Ness as a child in her school library.What Librarians Mean to Me

I had fond memories of my elementary school librarian, Mrs. Ritter. As a third grader, I looked forward to our weekly class trips to the library, where she helped me locate books by my beloved Cynthia Voight, Carolyn Haywood, and Beverly Cleary. In fourth grade, she helped me embrace my inner geek as I joined the school’s audiovisual club - responsible for advancing 1980s film strips and replacing lightbulbs on the overhead projector (insert photo below). In fifth grade, she boosted my knowledge of world geography by launching a schoolwide game of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. Mrs. Ritter was just as important in my development as a reader as my classroom teachers. Mrs. Ritter was clearly well-trained and used as a powerful resource in the school. However, this is too often not the case, as there remains confusion on the role of school librarians (a/k/a media specialists or teacher librarians). 

As demonstrated in a new brief from the International Literacy Association, school librarians are much more than mere keepers of books – they serve as powerful literacy partners with teachers through collaborative instructional planning and resource curation (Crary, 2019). Librarians play many important roles, including the following:

  • Curate culturally relevant materials and support students with various learning needs

  • Stock various texts and genres, such as manga, graphic novels, and novels or picture books addressing current social issues.

  • Facilitate the use of schoolwide technology and provide tech support

  • Promote, develop, and foster culturally relevant and responsive environments by curating collections that represent the ethnic and linguistic diversity of the student population

It’s no wonder that students are better readers and writers in schools that value well-trained school librarians; nearly three decades of research shows positive correlations between high-quality library programs and student achievement (Gretes, 2013; Lance & Kachel, 2018; Scholastic, 2016). 

Understanding the Role of School Librarians

With their sophisticated knowledge of databases and digital tools, school librarians support teachers’ and students’ information literacy skills. They teach students how to evaluate the accuracy of online content and to develop research and critical thinking skills necessary for assignments and to be responsible global digital citizens. Just as Mrs. Ritter did for me, they help develop students’ identities of themselves as readers; a school librarian sees text through the lens of the student, not via a level, label, or district-approved curriculum. Providing texts that reflect students and their lived realities—Alfred Tatum’s (2010) idea of “enabling texts”— empowers students to see the fullness and richness of their identities on the page. 

Advocates for Literacy Equity and Access

At Learning Ally, we are committed to supporting students in need of additional support; so too are school librarians. Qualitative research provides valuable insights on how school librarians draw upon their skills and knowledge to enhance student literacy learning, particularly for those falling behind in reading attainment (Cremin & Swann, 2017; Merga et al., 2021). They are flexible and adaptive to the ever-changing needs of students; during the pandemic, school librarians quickly shifted to e-book platforms, which enabled students to browse book collections online and virtually check out titles. They partnered with community libraries to support access to local and state collections and assisted students in virtual applications for library cards. These innovative approaches demonstrate a deep commitment to foster literacy growth and the joy of reading.

School librarians have the power to transform school communities; they promote cultures of literacy, propel students toward lifelong reading habits, and establish transformative learning spaces rich with print and digital resources. Whereas school libraries of days past might have been quiet study spaces, today they are vibrant learning spaces that often serve as the cornerstone of a school community. 

Equitable access to school libraries and librarians is an issue of social justice, as schools in the poorest and most racially diverse communities have the least access to library services (Lance & Kachel, 2018; Pribesh, Gavigan, & Dickinson, 2011). At Learning Ally, we believe that all students deserve the right to a well-funded school library, staffed with full-time certified school librarians committed to meaningful collaboration with educators, and to advance students’ basic rights to read. 

A picture containing applicationDescription automatically generatedRead the entire “Clarifying the Role of School Librarians” Brief by the International Literacy Association. 

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