Literacy skills for a new world

The mainstream way in which we teach our kids to read and write has changed very little in several centuries. It is, perhaps, the only teaching practice that remains unchanged as time goes by – or the one that has changed the least.

Yes, there have been some strikes of innovation here and there – but at the end, we end up doing practically the same things that have been done for ages: we teach the letters, their sounds, and the way they interact with each other. We start at six, sometimes a little later or a little earlier. We follow the same steps with all children. We make them drill and repeat. Until they can read. Or not.

Some might say, if this method is still being used across centuries, it must be tried and true. It means it works, and therefore we should keep teaching that way. Right?

Wrong. I believe our traditional systems are somewhat successful in teaching kids to read and write. But they are an absolute failure in creating readers and writers.

There is a difference between being able to read and being an avid reader.  UNESCO reports that the world literacy rate is nowadays around 86%. In my country, México, as it is in the United States, almost 100% of people 15 years old and older are literate. However, in México, 55% of the population in this group did not read a single book last year. The same is true for almost a third of Americans. At the same time, UNESCO reports that 6 out 10 children “are not learning a minimum in reading and math”

The world is changing rapidly. Our students need to become life-long learners if they are to keep up the pace with the challenges that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is already presenting them.

If you want life-long learners, then you need life-long readers.  It is that simple.

What are we doing wrong?

I believe that our education systems are teaching our kids too little, too late and too badly – at least regarding early literacy instruction.

For centuries it has been believed that tiny children cannot, and should not, be taught to read. Many have warned us against the perils of teaching a child who is “not ready”. But children are born with brains primed for language. And reading is language.

Instead of taking advantage of the powerful and plastic brains of tiny kids, we make them wait six longs years before giving them the gift of literacy. We wait until their brains are no longer as eager for language as they were on their first years of life. We allow the window of easy, meaningful language learning to fade away.

Of course, if we tried to teach a 3-year old to read in the same fashion that we have been teaching our 6 year olds, he would most certainly hate it. This is because the traditional techniques for reading instruction break apart language, presenting letters –devoid of meaning- instead of words within a context. By the way, I do not believe that we should teach the six year old this way, either.

What should we do instead?

Babies begin to learn to talk at birth – reading should not be different. We can expose tiny children to lots and lots of words, oral and written. We speak to our babies in high pitch, with lots of intonation and color. We should present reading words the same way, in large print, very brief sessions, and with great enthusiasm. When kids are young they are able to absorb huge amounts of information easily if presented properly.

We should begin early, exposing our children to a rich vocabulary within their context, enjoying language. Reading and playing are not opposing terms. They are not mutually-excluding activities. Reading is a gift and a privilege, not a task or a punishment.

Early reading could also be the answer to inequity, a way to reduce or even eliminate achievement gaps. Poor kids are lagging behind their affluent peers by the time they enter school. First grade is already too late for them to catch up.

Before becoming a teacher, I taught my own kids to read at home, at a young age, following the programs of The Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential. The easy and joyful learning I witnessed made me fall in love with teaching.  I the following 20 years, I have taught, directly or indirectly, hundreds of little kids to read way before the age of six – and watched in awe as they became avid readers.

Last month I began a project that will last a couple of years: I will travel to as many countries as possible, visiting schools and talking to teachers, to learn how little kids are learning to read around the world, and write a book about those experiences.  Finland is, according to UNESCO, the most literate country in the world – and the place where I decided to go first.

Here is an excerpt of my interview with a very experienced Finnish teacher, Kirsti Savikko (in English, with Spanish subtitles)

New literacy practices need to be generated in our schools – and I believe that will happen somewhat soon, as brain research and innovative technologies evolve. Whether on a book or a screen, those who read will be able to rise above the uncertainties ahead. The world, now more than ever, will belong to readers.


As part of C.M. Rubin’s Top Global Teacher Bloggers, this is my response to this month’s question: To what extent do you believe the literacy skills required for a new world will be more or less the same as they were before? Will new literate practices need to be generated and does that mean that new literacies be required?  If so, what do you think these new literacies will be and how can they be learned?

The curriculum that changes itself

Every ten years or so, a new curriculum for basic education is published in my country, México. Usually, the document, hundreds of pages long, is announced with great fanfare.

It’s hard, if not impossible, to keep up with the pace of our world nowadays. Unfortunately, even before the ink of the newest curriculum dries, it is already outdated, irrelevant, or both.

If I had the unlikely power to change the school curriculum, I would try to design the curriculum that changes itself.

The curriculums I have known are completely sequenced, lineal and mostly fixed. There is very little room, if any, to take exciting detours towards student’s interests.

My curriculum would be based on passion projects, aimed at gaining knowledge and abilities, but also at discovering whatever fires a student’s heart. Enlightening the mind would be hand in hand with caressing the spirit. Each child or teenager would have the liberty and responsibility of choosing his or her own educational path. The passion projects would give them the basics of many subjects, from reading to math to arts to science, and tease them to come get more. Instead of the lineal ladder, we would see a capricious web with many lines, different for each student. All would start at the center, the core of the web, but move outwards in many directions, even taking jumps and turns.

The curriculum would be huge, but only to accommodate the diversity of student’s interests. It would not be expected from anyone to cover it whole. You could easily go in depth to a subject that called you and cover the ones which did not in a more superficial way.

Four core elements would guide the flow, but they are not to be confused with “subjects”: Technology, Global Citizenship, Thinking Skills and Reading.

Technology would be the platform, the rocket that carries content. It would not be the teacher or the content itself. Technology – even great technology – will not replace teachers, good or bad. But it will certainly change the way we teach.

As we continue to evolve into a kind of worldwide school, Global Citizenship is a must to guide our students into the hyper connected and multi demanding society we are already immersed in. Religious tolerance, gender equality, inclusion, respect for diversity, responsible use of our resources, and yes, knowledge and caring about the world’s most pressing problems –both global and local- are far more important than, say, memorize the date in which Columbus arrived to America (something Dr. Google could easily drop in).

That brings us to critical thinking skills. Knowledge remains being very important – but along with it, the ability to tell the truthful from the inaccurate. Google indeed has all the answers: including many wrong or biased ones. You don’t need to know everything, but you must know where and how to find the reliable information you need.

Tomorrow, children will have to constantly reinvent themselves to keep up with the challenges of this fourth industrial revolution. Therefore, autodidacts are in demand. If you want lifelong learners, you need lifelong readers. Our school systems have been somewhat successful in developing people that can read – but not into developing readers. There is something completely wrong about that – and we need to find solutions now.

Is this proposed curriculum a utopia? It might well be.

But hey, I’m just a teacher.


As part of C.M. Rubin’s Top Global Teacher Bloggers, this is my response to this month’s question: Do you believe curriculum needs to be more relevant for a 21st century world?  If you had the power to change the school curriculum, what would you change?


Photo credits:

Copyright: rawpixel / 123RF Stock Photo

Copyright: attaphong / 123RF Stock Photo

Cultivating Young Readers

This article was originally published by CM Rubin in “The Global Search for Education” –click here.2016-05-27-1464386425-7543159-cmrubinworld_TGTB_YoungReadersTitle

Summer is coming. Book lists are already online. As a parent, I was determined to cultivate a love of reading in my children. Reading is something I love to do and so I was committed to ensuring that my kids appreciate and understand the power of language to convey and express concepts. Language is the ultimate tool of humanity.

Our Global Teacher Bloggers are pioneers and innovators in fields such as technology integration, mathematics coaching, special needs education, science instruction, and gender equity. They have founded schools, written curricula, and led classrooms in 13 different countries that stretch across every populated continent on earth. These teachers empower and enrich the lives of young people from nearly every background imaginable.

Today in The Global Search for Education, our Top Global Teacher Bloggers share their answers to this month’s question: How do we do a better job of cultivating young readers?

Rashmi Kathuria (@rashkath) from India recommends a method used by Anita Chadha, a teacher of English at Kulachi Hansraj Model School. She asks her students “to dramatize a particular scene or situation they read in the story.” Rather than read silently or aloud one student at a time, she has her students read the story as if it were a play. “…to my wonderment I discovered young actors and actresses.” Additionally, students are encouraged to write scripts and create dialogues in their own words. Reading becomes something active and enjoyable rather than boring and passive. Read More.

“We do not have a library at my school,” says teacher Dana Narvaisa (@dana_narvaisa) from Latvia, “but it has never been an excuse for us to avoid reading.” Dana notes that it is important to give students both a wide selection and chance to read during the school day. She says, “regular reading is essential and to make it a priority, we need to find time for it every day.” Read More.

Natacha Scott (@natacha_scott), Assistant Director of History and Social Studies for the Boston Public Schools, was recommended by Adam Steiner (@steineredtech) this month. Natacha emphasizes that understanding the perspective and the experiences of students is key to choosing the right book. “Before the journey can begin, teachers must take the time to get to know their students. Truly understanding their background, questions, and interests will allow access points for establishing connections to different content.” Read More.

“Through language we control our lives,” notes Maarit Rossi (@pathstomath) from Finland. “A man without words does not solve math problems, explicate his existence, let alone feelings.” And of course, we learn language by reading. This month, Maarit joins Finnish literacy teacher Jaana Lindfors and librarian Pia Rahikainen to follow their 7th graders book talk and find how they work together to keep literacy vibrant. Read More.

Elisa Guerra (@ElisaGuerraCruz) from Mexico cuts to the chase: “Let’s be straight,” she notes. You will never turn a kid into a reader if he does not like to read. You might get him to read – just to make the grade, avoid punishment or elude embarrassment. He might try to trick you out of reading by making excuses, whining or cheating. As soon as he gets the chance, he will ESCAPE…….” If Elisa’s observations resonate with you what should you do? Read More.

“Cultivating Young Readers in Communities of Poverty” is the title of Nadia Lopez’ (@TheLopezEffect) inspiring blog on “getting children who struggle with phonics and comprehension to become excited about reading.” Yet “with a little hope” and 10 key strategies, Mott Hall Bridges Academy is creating a culture of literacy. Read More.

“I was 19 when I completed Catcher in the Rye, my first full book,” says teacher Richard Wells (@EduWells) from New Zealand. This “unread college boy” brings a lot of personal experience and expertise to the challenge of cultivating the love of reading in his own classroom today. Don’t miss Richard’s 3 ideas for encouraging boy readers. Read More.

Shaelynn Farnsworth (@shfarnsworth), based in Conrad, Iowa, was recommended this month by our Blogger at Large Beth Holland (@brholland). Shaelynn notes there is no “silver bullet” which will motivate every student to read and that it’s often a blend of different strategies. She believes that “a well-informed and observant teacher can focus their instruction and differentiate content to meet the needs of all students.” Shaelynn shares 3 reading motivations to target for cultivating young readers: Interest, Dedication, and Confidence. Read More.

Parental involvement is absolutely critical, says Vicki Davis (@coolcatteacher) from Camilla, Georgia. Vicki shares a wonderful story of how she ignited a love of reading with her own children. “I would yawn, stretch my arms, and say, you know what? I’m really tired. I would hear howls from the backseat…..So, I would turn around and say…” Read More.

In Sierra Leone, Miriam Mason-Sesay (@EducAidSL) is creating a culture of story-telling by conveying reading as an adventure. None of the 17 different local languages in her country are traditionally written. This means that children do not grow up with books. Engagement with the written word has to be very carefully and methodically cultivated. “Success is pointed out and celebrated. Exciting books are read to the children and they are then encouraged to read them together in small groups on their own again later. The children use Inge Wilson’s ‘Tales Toolkit’ to tell each other exciting stories and then write them up…” Read More.

Todd Finley (@finleyt) in Greenville, North Carolina emphasizes that while reading alone is very important, reading together is crucial. “Reading is a social experience. We read because important members of our community model the practice and make it a priority…. Ultimately, writes C.S. Lewis, ‘We read to know we are not alone’.” Read More.

Craig Kemp (@mrkempnz) in Singapore shares his 2 easy ways to cultivate young readers but emphasizes that teachers should be role models. They should not only teach reading but engender a love of literature by way of example. “If we want our students to love reading, we need to love reading.” Read More.

The Top Global Teacher Bloggers is a monthly series where educators across the globe offer experienced yet unique takes on today’s most important topics. CMRubinWorld utilizes the platform to propagate the voices of the most indispensable people of our learning institutions – teachers.

For more information.

(Photo is courtesy of CMRubinWorld)

2016-04-27-1461770496-930595-cmrubinworldtopglobalteacherbloggers_headshots5001.jpgTop Row, left to right: Adam Steiner, Santhi Karamcheti, Pauline Hawkins2nd Row: Elisa Guerra, Humaira Bachal, C. M. Rubin, Todd Finley,
Warren Sparrow
3rd Row: Nadia Lopez, Katherine Franco Cardernas, Craig Kemp,
Rashmi Kathuria, Maarit Rossi
Bottom Row: Dana Narvaisa, Richard Wells, Vicki Davis, Miriam Mason-SesayGSE-logo-RylBlu
The Global Search for Education Community Page

C. M. Rubin is the author of two widely read online series for which she received a 2011 Upton Sinclair award, “The Global Search for Education” and “How Will We Read?” She is also the author of three bestselling books, including The Real Alice in Wonderland, is the publisher of CMRubinWorld, and is a Disruptor Foundation Fellow.

Follow C. M. Rubin on Twitter: 

Reading, interrupted: How do we do a better job of cultivating young readers?

Let’s be straight: You will never turn a kid into a reader if he does not like to read.

You might get him to read –just to make the grade, avoid punishment or elude embarrassment. He might try to trick you out of reading by making excuses, whining or cheating. As soon as he gets the chance, he will escape. He will never read unless he absolutely has to.

Conversely, it would be just as difficult to convince a passionate reader to stop reading.

The key to become a passionate reader is to enjoy reading.

How do we achieve that? There’s no simple way, but mostly it has to do with how teachers approach reading:

  1. Reading should be easy – you need to understand what the book is whispering. Many children –and adults- can decode the written symbols and translate them into language, but a great deal can’t make sense of complex texts. Reading becomes boring and frustrating.  It’s time to rethink when and how we teach our children to read. Judging by the results, it’s evident that we are teaching to little, to badly and too late.
  2. Reading is not an exercise – children should not do it like a workout or a diet. We read for two reasons only: to attain knowledge or to derive pleasure. Children should read, from the very beginning, for the exact same reasons, and preferably both.
  3. Reading is not a school subject. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (2011) – and others (Doman, 1971, Norton & Doman, 1982) it is a brain function. Given stimuli and opportunity, all children could be readers. Special needs children will require increased intensity, duration and frequency of stimulation, but they can also learn to read.  If reading is not a school subject, we should question why we teach it at age six, when school begins, and how we teach it: tearing comprehension away by crumbling written language into tiny, meaningless pieces, and then encasing them into teachable units. We would never do that with oral language. And reading is language.
  4. Reading is a choice –not an obligation. That goes not only for the act of reading itself, but for what children actually read. Forget about graded reading lists, but don’t abandon the kid: bookstores and libraries are overwhelming forests for the unexperienced reader. They need guidance to sort their way. Teachers and parents should become personal book curators for each child, for not two of them (books and kids) are alike.
  5. Reading is not the antithesis of play. When we have suggested that tiny children should learn to read, voices have raised to condemn early reading in favor of playtime. But reading is not a chore that robs the child of joyful freedom. Reading is not a punishment. To read or to play? No need to choose, as one does not exclude the other.

For the passionate reader, reading is the greatest game ever invented.

Watch my Teacher Masterclass on Early Reading and Early Childhood Education at the Global Education & Skills Forum, Dubai, March 2016:


Doman, G. (1971) How Brain Injured Children Learn to Read. In “Conference on Child Language” preprints of papers presented at the Conference, Chicago, Illinois, November 22-24, 1971, p. 433-460. Recuperado de

Norton, R., & Doman, G.. (1982). The Gifted Child Fallacy. The Elementary School Journal, 82(3), 249–255. Retrieved from

Silver, L, y Silver, D. (2011) Guide to Learning Disabilities for Primary Care.   American Academy of Pediatrics. Recuperado de