3 Activities That Build Literacy Bridges

Building literacy bridges. What do I mean by that? I’m using that term in today’s post to describe ways in which we can connect students’ out-of-school literacy practices with their in-school literacy practices. We live in a literacy-rich world, and students are practicing literacy everyday outside the walls of their schools. They play games, they create crafts, they experiment with everyday objects, they solve problems. Those activities often go unrecognized as valid literacy practices.  But they most certainly are! And I believe it is our job as librarians to help build bridges between what they do outside of school and what they do in school.

I’ve come up with three activities that can be used to start the literacy bridge-building process. Here they are:

Activity #1: How many languages do you speak?

Language and literacy go hand in hand. And language exists beyond country and culture. For example, I speak the language of music. I read it. I write it. I understand the culture of it. Painting. Soccer. Gaming. Texting. Each one of those activities has its own language and culture, and to fully participate in those activities you need to become literate in them (i.e. understanding the rules, the lingo, the acceptable practices). That’s literacy.

Activity 1 is a reflective activity that can be used as a way to introduce the concept of academic literacy.

  • Ask students to write down all the activities they participate in that require special knowledge and practice. Use question prompts to get them thinking. (e.g. What are their hobbies? Do they participate in sports? Do they belong to any clubs?). This should take no longer than 10-15 minutes.
  • Discuss their activities. Have students share their special knowledge (e.g. soccer terminology).
  • Explain how those activities are really literacy practices, and use that analogy to segue into academic literacy. You may want to stick to terms like “research skills” or “using the library.” Demonstrate your own special knowledge about the language and practices of library research.
  • Build your bridge by drawing parallels between the learning process of becoming literate in painting or soccer or music or whatever (but use their examples) and becoming literate in library research.

Activity #2 Inquiring Minds

We live in a world of information. Everyday is an exercise in information literacy.

Activity 2 builds a bridge between the everyday information literacy that students are already practicing and academic information literacy.

  • Ask students this question: How many questions do ask on a daily basis? How many information problems do you solve?
  • Give examples to prompt thinking: What will the temperature be today? I don’t recognize that phone number, I wonder who called? How do I get to the restaurant?
  • Divide students into groups of 3-4. Have them create a list of as many questions and/or information problems that they can think of that they encounter on a daily basis. If you like, you can hand out a prize to the group with the greatest number of questions/problems. This should take 10-15 minutes.
  • Discuss the results, as well as how they would go about answering the questions or solving the information problems, and where they would look for the answers.
  • Build your bridge by explaining how they are already information consumers in their everyday lives. Then introduce the idea of consuming academic information (again, you might want to use different terminology). Demonstrate what it means to be an academic information consumer by showing them library resources.

Activity #3 Get Your Game On!

Complex video games may very well be the ultimate literacy tool, since they require multiple literacy practices (i.e. digital, media, information, critical, multimodal, etc…).

Activity 3 builds a bridge between the critical thinking required in video games and the critical evaluation skills required for academic information literacy. While this makes for a great learning activity in the classroom, supporting recreational game play in the library will further support the bridge you are building here.

Equipment needed: PC, projector, projector screen, PC game – Gone Home (you will want to play this first or find a walkthrough; if you are a gamer, feel free to use any other videogame that is exploratory in nature).

This activity will take approximately an hour, but can also be continued over multiple sessions.

  • Ask your students: how many of you have ever played a videogame? You should expect that most students will raise their hands.
  • Ask your students: what kinds of decisions do you have to make when playing a videogame? This is a broad question, and answers will be dependent on the types of experiences students have had with different videogame genres.
  • Introduce the videogame, Gone Home. You will be exploring it as a class. (You can give students opportunities to take turns and navigate.)
  • Talk about the game as you play through it. Begin by pointing out every example where decisions have to be made, or information has to be analyzed. Slowly, turn that task over to the students. They will begin to recognize each critical thinking task.
  • You don’t need to play through the whole game, just enough to get students thinking about critical thinking (this is a meta-cognitive task).
  • Build your bridge by drawing parallels between the analysis required in the game and the kinds of critical thinking skills required in academic research. You can use research scenarios to demonstrate the similarities.
  • You know your students best, but I recommend this activity for upper high school and college students in particular.




How Well Do You Know Your Students? How Well Do They Know You?

This past week, I came across an article in The Atlantic that discussed a recent study about the importance of student-teacher relationships. When students and teachers find out they share interests in common, the entire educational experience improves.That got me thinking about the impact of librarian-student relationships on library and research skills.

How well do you know your students? Do they know you? From my own experience, I suspect there is quite a bit of room for improvement in that area.

This is what I know. When I asked my daughter about the librarian at her elementary school, she said, “you mean that lady who reads us stories?” Now that she’s in middle school, I’ve asked her about the librarian there. She doesn’t know the librarian’s name, she is not even sure what the librarian looks like (“is it the lady that checks out my books?”). This coming from the daughter of a librarian. This is not good.

I also know this. In my experience working as an academic librarian, the protocol for librarian-student interactions tended to be very business oriented. Not a lot of small talk. Even then, instinct and observation told me that was not a good thing. I always admired the way the circulation staff chatted up the students. Guess where the students tended to go to ask reference questions? Not the reference desk! I think the students were less intimidated to approach the circulation desk because of that friendliness.

I wonder, if librarians took the time to make small talk with students, were less business as usual, less “lecture-y” (there’s always that one librarian that enjoys the soap box), would more students be compelled to ask for help when they need it? Would they become more information literate as a result? This would make for an interesting research study. If it turns out that a correlation does exist — that librarian-student relationships play a central role in both literacy and information literacy development — then the entire trajectory of library space design might be turned upside down. It might even serve as a compelling argument to keep old library traditions, like the reference desk (alone or in combination with other service desks).