The Literacy Legacy of Books That Were Left Behind: The Role of Children's Literature and Concepts of Free Reading in NCLB

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As education priorities in the United States continue to be debated and legislated, perhaps this is the best time to examine how the very influential piece of legislation known as No Child Left Behind (U.S. Department of Education, 2002a) has influenced U.S. schools, teachers, and students. In looking forward to future legislation and possible reiterations of NCLB, it also might be instructive to look back to the beginnings of the NCLB legislation. First, the National Reading Panel (2000) worked to examine and synthesize effective elementary reading instruction and released their findings to include five basic building blocks or pillars, upon which all reading instruction would be based. Then, legislation based on the National Reading Panel's findings was introduced, leading to President Bush signing into law the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 on January 8, 2002. As the authors considered this background and the law's implications, they pursued the following research question: How often were concepts related to "books, free reading, or children's literature" considered in developing this important legislation? This study focused on the role of children's literature and the concepts of free reading in the development and implementation of NCLB.

The NCLB legislation has been considered the most sweeping education reform since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) (U.S. Department of Education, 1965). In many ways, NCLB continues to redefine the federal role in K-12 education. It is based on four basic premises: stronger accountability for results, increased flexibility and local control, expanded options for parents, and an emphasis on proven, research-based teaching methods.

Why Consider Children's Literature When Establishing Reading Mandates?

When one considers the impact of the NCLB legislation, which included the states' Reading First mandates (U.S. Department of Education, 2002b), one expects that ideas about real books and real reading would be included throughout the discourse. We were interested to see how these ideas related to children's literature, as opposed to simply instructional materials, and how free, voluntary reading, as opposed to the goal of a grade-level standardized test score, was treated within this influential document.

Content analysis should help stakeholders realize that consideration of children's literature and real books is imperative in future education legislation and reading mandates. We must ensure that teachers are knowledgeable about and have access to children's books, and are knowledgeable about the positive impact of free reading. Given the NCLB legislation and the Reading First programs, school districts began seeking valuable information about integrating literature and reading into every subject area, from music to physical education and mathematics (El-Hindi, 2003; Lake, 1993; Pappas, Keifer, & Levstik, 1995; Strickland, 1994-95; Tunnel & Ammon, 1993; Van Middendorp & Lee, 1994). In a changing political environment, teachers and other constituents will want to stress the importance of including real literature in reading programs, so that children might grow into lifelong readers.

Of course, effective literacy instructors must critically evaluate how they use children's books. Teachers must know their students in order to match them with appropriate children's books. Otherwise, what's the point of learning to read? Surely, reading and children's literature must go hand-in-hand, and so we were interested to discover if NCLB reflected that connection.

Children's Literature, Real Reading, and Books in NCLB Legislation

The highly regarded booklet Every Child Reading: A Professional Guide (Learning First Alliance, 2000) emphasized that all reading instruction must include five basic building blocks, often referred to as pillars. Based on the research findings of the National Reading Panel the pillars are: phonemic awareness instruction, phonics instruction, fluency instruction, vocabulary instruction, and text comprehension instruction. …