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Turning a potential bore into a motivator

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By Dr. Andrew K. Shenton

Using the library classification system doesn’t just have to be the job of the librarian – get children involved too

2008 has been designated as the National Year of Reading and no doubt many schools will be keen to seize the opportunity this presents for promoting their libraries. However, since there is now a widespread tendency among children to obtain much of their information, for both academic and leisure purposes, from the World Wide Web, any attempt to promote a school library’s non-fiction collection may appear a thankless job. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that, where relatively simple schemes are likely to be employed, the method of classifying non-fiction stock may seem disconcertingly abstract to youngsters, and attempts to devise stimulating activities to promote familiarisation with the categories can pose quite a challenge.

Match making

It may be difficult to enliven the initial introduction explaining the groups and how they are represented but, once children’s understanding has started to grow, you can set a range of engaging tasks. One that I have frequently used with children of eight upwards begins with children being shown a breakdown of the main categories, in the order in which they are arranged in the scheme. On the left hand side of a sheet of paper, each child makes a vertical list of, say, ten specific topics for books that he or she believes would be covered in the classification scheme. The sheet is folded down the middle and, opposite each topic, the child states the relevant classification category and, where appropriate, the number or symbol representing it. The youngster tears the paper in half along the fold, retaining the list of categories but passing on to a classmate the list of topics. The child, in turn, receives the partner’s topics and, on a separate piece of paper, writes down the category into which he or she believes each of the book topics fall. This is ultimately passed to the child who created the topic list, and this child marks the partner’s “answers” by comparing them with those on the list that he or she has kept. (It is useful if, at this point, an adult is available to adjudicate on any matters of disagreement that arise!)

Because the children are able to nominate their own topics, levels of child motivation are generally higher.

This activity is attractive on several counts:

1. It encourages children to think in terms of broader and narrower concepts, as they must consider the relative placement of their own precise topics, but also those of their partners, within a framework of more general categories.

2. Since the task concentrates on the actual classification system employed in the school library, hierarchical understanding is fostered within the context of a structure that is real, rather than merely created for an exercise, and what is learned will be useful to children when they come to locate information within the library itself.

3. Because the children are able to nominate their own topics, levels of child motivation are generally higher.

4. The work fosters skills associated with both personal autonomy and cooperation, the former through the independent marking by children and the latter via the peer discussion that arises if two children hold different opinions on where a particular topic might fit within the scheme.

On a smaller scale

The activity does not pertain to actual library books and could just as easily take place in the classroom as in the school library. So, you can employ a second task, which is well suited to small group situations. Ask children to bring in non-fiction books from home and apply their developing knowledge of the classification scheme in order to find a volume within the collection that is similar in subject. Critical skills can be developed if the youngsters are then invited to compare the two books in relation to such criteria as overall scope, subject treatment, arrangement, level, up-to-dateness, degree of illustration and their provision of finding aids such as indexes and contents lists.

At first sight, the school library’s classification scheme may seem to offer scant potential for exciting and engaging activities. Yet, my own experience has led me to believe otherwise. Well-conceived and effectively managed tasks can arouse high levels of child enthusiasm and do much more than merely develop youngsters’ familiarity with one of the school’s key information resources. In short, the activities can result in the development of skills associated with such diverse areas as independence and cooperation, and hierarchical and critical thinking – all useful skills that can be used in a variety of situations.

Dr. Andrew K. Shenton is a former primary school teacher who holds a PhD in how children and young people find information. He has had sixty articles and research papers published on the subject.

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