What is a culture of literacy?
The answer to this question really depends on understanding the meaning of the word culture. It’s a powerful word. A highfalutin word – but one with a wealth of meaning beneath it.
Culture is an anthropologist’s word. We use it to indicate or describe an entire pattern of behavior – customs, styles of life, ways of living, the way a people interact with each other, traditions…
So what is a culture of literacy?
At Read to Them, we use this phrase to describe a home in which families share and experience literacy together. Families that share customs and habits that involve reading. Books are not only present in the home – but a source of common interaction and shared experience.
It describes a home with books in it – a home that values books and knows how to procure them. It doesn’t matter if you get ‘em from Amazon, or Barnes and Noble, or Target, or the Library – there are books in the home.
It’s a home where reading is shared. Where brothers and sisters pass down favorite books or even read them together. A home in which a growing family prizes time to read together – making time, carving out time, reserving time – to read picture books to infants and chapter books together to growing children.
It’s a home where children might read a passage or chapter out loud to a parent chopping salad ingredients. Or a home where everyone waits for breadwinner #2 to get home before sharing and reading the nightly OSOB chapter together.
Ideally, it’s a home where children see parents set an example by reading the newspaper or magazines or books. And also see parents put their phones down or turn the TV off to do so.
A culture of literacy is practiced in three main ways…
a) Books and text are valued and conspicuous. Books are saved and preserved – and on display. There is always new text coming in. A library demonstrates a culture of literacy. At Read to Them we like to help homes without a culture of literacy start to build one by starting a library. We hope that every family’s OSOB title will be saved and once it is read put out on the shelf – the beginnings of a library marking the beginnings of a culture of literacy.
b) Books are consumed conspicuously. Nobody put it finer than former First Lady, Barbara Bush who’s literacy mantra was: “Let your children see you read.” They already see you cook and set the table and make the bed. They probably see you use your phone. To build a culture of literacy, they must see you read. Actions speak louder than words. Teachers and parents alike exhort children to read. But nothing will silently demonstrate that reading is normal, enjoyable, and what grown up people do – than seeing your big brother or sister, your Mom or Dad, your aunt or uncle or grandparent sitting and smirking and laughing engrossed in a book. It’ll make you want to know, ‘What’s so funny? What’s in that book?’
c) Books are shared. Once you learn to read, you mostly read by yourself. Your first novels. The news. And now on your phone. That’s not going to change, but once upon a time, when the first Bibles were printed, the stories and lessons of the Bible were shared at the family hearth, one parent reading, the family listening. In modern times, with the advent of the novel, families have shared stories together to enrich their children’s imaginations – from Charles Dickens to the Swiss Family Robinson, and from Little House on the Prairie to Harry Potter. In a home w/ a culture of literacy, these traditions are still practiced. Parents – or siblings – read Dr. Seuss together. And then they read Charlotte’s Web together.
It doesn’t have to stop there In a home with a culture of literacy, anything can be shared. An editorial in the newspaper. A story in Sports Illustrated. A quiz or column in Seventeen. Older students can even share what they’re reading with their parents – without having to commit to the whole novel. Families with a culture of literacy understand the spell that is cast when everything slows down and you give your attention over to the author or narrator and the pace and tone of the story or passage or chapter being shared. You let the author in the room – and you share a prized moment of connection.
Connection is fleeting in today’s digital lifestyle. Teenagers share memes and YouTube videos and social media on their phones. Adults do, too. But it is becoming increasingly well understood that these sorts of connections are not the same as connecting over the dinner table or at the drugstore or the soda fountain counter or at a café or bar. Those are the connections we all seek – consciously or unconsciously. And homes with a culture of literacy know that sharing a text together – a chapter in a novel – or even a poem! – have a secret weapon – an age-old, tried and true means of connection – a lost art in our digital age.
If your home has these customs and habits – books on display, books shared together, books prized – then you probably have your own anecdotes to share. But you also know, and probably care, that there are homes in America that don’t have or practice these habits and customs. At Read to Them, we think that if more families did practice a culture of literacy, it would help solve a slew of challenges and make our nation a better place. It would help children value stories and prepare them better for school, help them succeed in school, make them better students, and prepare them to be more successful citizens. It will help or families – and schools – and communities.
Our mission is to help foster and implant this culture of literacy – in every home. Our family literacy programs help families take that first step – sharing a novel together. Read that first book together – and the habits and customs come next.