We are worried about reading. Parents and grandparents, librarians, pediatricians, teachers, school boards, college administrators, employers, museum educators, and avid readers, are worried about children being ready to read at earlier and earlier ages. We worry about the word gap becoming a reading gap becoming a stubbornly persistent achievement gap. We worry about the presence of reading material in homes and about boys not connecting with books. Each summer we worry about summer reading loss. Around 3rd and 4th grade we worry about the transition from learning to read to reading to learn. Every year there’s worry about reading test scores and grade-level reading at the end of 3rd grade and graduation rates. We worry about children, youth, and adults wanting to read. We worry about reading in short bursts on small devices. In museums we worry about visitors reading text panels and way-finding signs
Given what we know about the far-reaching impacts of reading on success in school and throughout life, this concern is not misdirected nor is it exaggerated. Every important social issue is affected by low literacy: poverty, education, employment, social justice. More than merely a single set of skills for sounding out letters and printed words, reading is intimately related to writing, listening, speaking, and thinking. It is through sounds, words, stories, books, and ideas that we explore, understand, and navigate the world starting in infancy. Limited early experiences with language, interactions with others, and access to books can change the life-long trajectory.
Moreover, reading is pleasurable and empowering–something everyone deserves to enjoy.
Our worry about reading is expressed in many and varied ways and at different scales and is clearly not only the domain of schools. Because early language development is early literacy development, campaigns like TalkingIsTeaching, Providence Talks, and the Thirty Million Words initiative are spreading through communities across the country as programs, billboards, and bus sides. Basic literacy is one of the 21stcentury skills highlighted by IMLS. Libraries, schools, community centers, and homeless shelters offer programs and camps to slow summer reading slide and build reading skills. Newspaper articles offer parent tips on encouraging teen reading year round. There are apps for reading, rhyming, and spelling.
How do museums fit into addressing this pervasive challenge? Museums don’t teach reading. It’s hard to find an interactive experience that attempts to explore punctuation, spelling, or transitive and intransitive verbs. Museums, however, do share information and tell stories. As places where people gather and connect and explore objects, artwork, ideas, and fascinating slices of the world, museums combine the conditions that encourage language and literacy development, build an interest in words, and inspire readers of all ages.
As they greet visitors, sell a membership, lead a tour, answer a question, write label copy, museums can, and do, deliberately and actively engage children and adults in speaking, listening, reading and writing; in thinking and making connections, and in deepening enjoyment with ideas and interests. In the exhibits they develop, text they compose, programs they offer, resource centers they house, partnerships they form, authors they present, and in the book clubs they host, museums have a vital role to play in our becoming a nation of readers. Some of the ways this is happening are highighted in the following posts.
The connections between literacy and learning are strong and striking. These interconnections underscore the impact of literacy on learning throughout life, not just in the early years. When museums shape experiences for learning, they also have opportunities to shape experiences that engage and enhance language skills.
Museums are settings rich with fascinating objects, tools, processes, and materials to explore, describe, point to, and play with. They are also social settings explored with family and school groups, people to talk with and listen to. This combination of talk and play is the foundation for literacy.
Playing with the sound, shape and meaning of words is an important part of how children learn language and learn to read and play. From knock-knock jokes, to Pig Latin and riddles, playing with words and language, sounds and meaning stretch their language skills. Joyful experimentation doesn’t stop with childhood; adults are often eager punsters, rhymers, and neologists.
Imaginatively decorated, Little Free Libraries dot lawns, parks, and stores responsive to a passerby’s sudden urge to read or find a bedtime book. In museums, book nooks and reading areas in galleries and exhibitions make it easy for visitors to relax and dig deeper into a topic. Even branch libraries serve visitors in museums.
Books children and adults love and remember, whether childhood favorites or world classics, carry information about the world, stimulate conversation, and offer wide access to literacy tools. Whether walking into a book’s illustrations or acting out a story, children and adults immerse themselves in books through active exploration, sharing favorite parts, engaging in pretend play, and inventing stories.
Reading may not be strictly required in book arts, but the expressive possibilities of the book form inspire and empower both new and accomplished readers. Book arts integrate aspects of literacy–letter shapes, words, images, and layout. Experimenting with these elements involves direct experience with the book and its parts and invites constructing new meaning from them.
Words and language help illuminate ideas, deepen a visitor’s understanding, and broaden a view of the world. This is precisely what museums do, do well, and can do more of.