Jill Eisenberg, our Resident Literacy Expert, began her career teaching English as a Foreign Language to second through sixth graders in Yilan, Taiwan as a Fulbright Fellow. She went on to become a literacy teacher for third grade in San Jose, CA as a Teach for America corps member. She is certified in Project Glad instruction to promote English language acquisition and academic achievement. In her column she offers teaching and literacy tips for educators.
My students and their siblings were often alone or spent a lot of time with each other. For some, siblings were the only constant in their lives. Fittingly, siblings and close-in-age relatives held powerful sway and influence over each other.
I found that brothers, sisters, cousins, and neighbors saw each other’s success as their OWN success. One of my third-graders danced in the middle of the carpet for twelve minutes after he heard the intercom announcement that his fifth-grade sister would be the new school president of the student council. What if I could channel that excitement towards literacy?
Brothers and sisters WANTED to see their siblings succeed. Sure, when one of my third-graders struggled to translate from English to Spanish that she hadn’t turned her homework in for a week at the parent-teacher conference, her older sister was delighted to impart the correct information to their mother.
In addition to using siblings for accountability and parent-teacher bridges, siblings became an incredible reward and relationship in my classroom. When my students, especially the struggling readers, made it to a new level, aced an assessment, or turned in excellent high-quality work, I wrote laudatory notes and let those students deliver them to their siblings in another classroom.
This system turned out to be just as powerful as a celebratory phone call home to adults, but I was recognizing the child in real time and recognizing the strength of the family presence at school. And it went further: the younger or older sibling was able to celebrate my student in their classroom and admire them publicly amidst their peers for academic achievement. There are not enough Dollar Tree prizes to compete with that kind of reward.
Beyond my school, psychologists have noticed the effect older brothers and sisters can have. In fact, NPR explored the positive and negative consequences of older sibling influence in a segment called, “Big Sibling’s Big Influence: Some Behaviors Run In The Family.”
At Arlington Elementary in Arlington, Tennessee, The Jackson Sun reported how teachers are recruiting older students to read to younger students in their Big Brothers, Big Sisters Reading Club every morning before school. More advanced students can relate to struggling readers and explain strategies in a friendly, non-high-stakes atmosphere.
In Carmel Valley, California, the Read To Me Project is an early literacy program that builds school readiness by engaging elementary brothers and sisters to read to their siblings. So far, 350 participating older siblings are reading to 443 young children across four school districts.
For Dr. Seuss’ Birthday last year at my school in the Bay Area, our kindergarten teachers invited the third-graders to read to them. Everyone was ecstatic to read to their brother, sister, cousin, or neighbor. My scholars had the opportunity to show off the chapter books they were tackling and feel like experts as they helped the kinders decode and recognize sight words. The kinders, in turn, received extra reading time, exposure to high-quality texts, and an opportunity to show off how remarkable their older sibling was.
One of my students who was an advanced learner, but had a very unstable home life, was very, very protective of his three younger brothers. His active kinder brother had refused to read with any third-grader, hiding each time another class of third-graders came throughout the day. Not until the last period arrived and his third-grade brother, my student, finally appeared did this kinder cuddle up to read. Even though my student brought a dense, picture-less chapter book on sharks and their presence in Fiji cultural traditions, his kinder brother sat in rapt attention for nearly an hour soaking in every word from his big brother.
We know the results on a child’s motivation and confidence when parents relish in their child’s success, so why don’t we harness that effect from siblings as well? Equipping our children with the love for reading and the skills needed to confront real world problems involves every stakeholder in our children’s lives—and that may include their smallest (but loudest!) cheerleaders.
If you need more inspiration, check out these books with strong sibling relationships: