When it comes to “essential questions” asked by educators and families, here’s one that is surely high on the list: What practices most help all students flourish as readers, thinkers, and communicators?
Teachers, schools, and districts rightly devote much time and many resources to teaching students to read because, more than almost anything else, mastering this complex skill makes such a difference in their future lives. Children who successfully learn to read are then able to use reading to continue to learn, in school and far beyond.
Yet despite decades of research and the dedicated efforts of educators, too many students still fall short of proficiency in reading,1 a situation exacerbated by the disruptions of the pandemic. In recent years, renewed attention has been paid to ensuring that the latest “science of reading” is being utilized by teachers to best serve all students as they learn and practice this complex skill throughout their education.
What Is the Science of Reading?
The “science of reading” emphasizes what is known about how the brain works, about the best ways for students to be supported as they learn to decode text,2 and about the necessity of ensuring that all students learn to read proficiently. Explicit phonics instruction, phonemic awareness, and vocabulary and knowledge acquisition are especially important for emerging readers and those who struggle to decode grade-level text, as well as being the basis for strategic instruction at all grade levels and across the curriculum.
Reading, of course, is so much more than decoding;3 comprehension depends on many factors, including vocabulary and background knowledge. We know that students can discuss and learn to interpret texts before they can fluently decode, which then reinforces their interest in and understanding of why reading is so important. Classroom community is transformed when students share experiences with rich literature and well-written texts that inspire wonder about our world. Oral language, reading, writing, and critical thinking mutually develop as students engage in learning from one another, and are coached and supported by their teachers.
How Shared Inquiry Can Help
The Junior Great Books® program functions as one component of this high-quality language arts curriculum, and particularly addresses objectives in the areas of reading comprehension, fluency, critical thinking, speaking and listening, writing, and social-emotional learning. Research (both supporting and direct) shows that all students benefit from Junior Great Books and the Shared Inquiry method of learning.4
Complex texts about essential questions, such as those in Junior Great Books, invite students into deep conversations, building oral language skills and classroom community, while they are putting into practice their reading skills. All students have unique insights to share on these texts, and all are supported through the sequence of interpretive activities that form the backbone of each JGB unit.
In each Junior Great Books unit, students engage in sustained interaction over multiple readings with the text, using:
- Prereading and close reading activities
- A focus on interpretation
The emphasis is on reading for meaning. In the core activity of Shared Inquiry discussion, students:
- Develop claims about the meaning of the text
- Support their ideas with textual evidence
- Respond respectfully to the ideas of their classmates
Throughout the process, teachers find opportunities to support social and emotional learning,5 both directly and indirectly. Curiosity, for example, bridges academic learning and social emotional learning. In Shared Inquiry™, students’ questions inform the work on each selection, enabling them to learn to monitor their own comprehension, build vocabulary and acquire background knowledge, and in the process become confident lifelong learners. Student questions provide valuable insights to help teachers determine how best to support and differentiate further instruction for each reader.
The Teacher’s Unique Role
Teachers also share their own authentic questions about the texts students read in Junior Great Books, especially open-ended questions where answers can be backed up with evidence. In their unique role as leaders of Shared Inquiry, teachers model curiosity and coach as needed to help children develop the habits of proficient readers and critical thinkers. Professional development, built on sound principles of adult learning,6 supports teachers as they shift to emphasize skillful questioning and student-centered learning as one of the instructional strategies in their toolkits.
Combining the science of reading with opportunities for students and teachers to engage in Shared Inquiry learning from outstanding complex texts provides a win-win solution. Prepare the learners of today with the 21st century capabilities they need as problem-solvers, creators, and collaborators by providing a wide variety of high-quality literacy experiences through the continuing efforts of highly trained, dedicated educators.
Get in Touch
Contact the Great Books K–12 partnership manager for your state to learn more about Junior Great Books programs and how they can benefit both students and educators! In addition to high-quality literature anthologies with selections of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, the Foundation has sustained professional development support to start teachers in inquiry-based instruction and coach and consult them as they hone their skills.
- Dana Goldstein. “It’s ‘Alarming’: Children Are Severely Behind in Reading.” The New York Times, March 8, 2022.
- Rebecca Burgess. “Why It’s Not Enough to ‘Teach Reading.’ ASCD, October 5, 2022.
- Linda Farrell, Michael Hunter, Marcia Davidson, Tina Osenga. “The Simple View of Reading.” Reading Rockets, accessed January 11, 2023.
- The Great Books Foundation. K–5 Research, accessed January 11, 2023.
- Danielle Martin. “How You Can Integrate Academic Development and Social Emotional Learning.” The Great Books Foundation, September 8, 2022.
- Teri LaLiberte. “How Great Books Professional Development Aligns with Piaget’s Principles.” The Great Books Foundation, November 9, 2022.