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CEHS welcomes literacy education scholar who explores the convergence of reading and play

Research shows that when children are given the option to read a non-fiction book or a fiction book, they are more likely to choose the non-fiction book. But according to Courtney Shimek, teachers aren’t often comfortable engaging children with non-fiction texts.

Courtney Shimek   

Courtney Shimek

Shimek, who will join the Department of Curriculum and Instruction/Literacy Studies this fall as an assistant professor in literacy education, studies the convergence of reading and play, specifically as it relates to young children’s interactions with non-fiction books.

“Dr. Shimek’s research both compliments and extends the work of our literacy education faculty, and we are happy she is joining us in CEHS,” said Melissa Luna, associate dean for research. “Her insight and expertise are already making important contributions to literacy education, and as she joins us in CEHS, I expect that her research and teaching will continue to make a difference in the field and with our pre-service teachers.”

Shimek, who recently completed her doctorate in language and literacy at the University of Georgia, studied children’s responses to non-fiction texts through her dissertation.

“I’m really interested in how kids read non-fiction picture books and how they make sense of them, particularly kids who aren’t reading conventionally yet,” Shimek said. “Reading isn’t just something that takes place between a child and a book, or even a child and a teacher reading a book aloud. Kids respond to books in ways that have often been overlooked, and this is particularly the case with non-fiction books.”

For her dissertation, Shimek completed a study in a kindergarten classroom in South Carolina, where she observed the teacher reading non-fiction books to the students. After each observation, Shimek followed the students throughout their school day.

“I found that the students were continuing to make sense of the books through their play,” Shimek said. “After reading a book about birds, the students reenacted scenes from the text on the playground. When they read a book about New York City, the students recreated the city with blocks during playtime.  

These student behaviors present a stark contrast to what Shimek has identified as conventional strategies for teachers to help students interpret non-fiction texts. She explained that recommended activities for teachers to use with non-fiction books include activities like graphic organizers and key vocabulary words, but those activities don’t recognize some of children’s strengths or the meaning making they do in the classroom. 

“I think the work I do is very important and emphasizes a lot of the strengths that children have that we often overlook because they can’t be quantified with numbers,” Shimek said. “I look at the whole student and the whole learning experience.”

Shimek’s interest in this field began while she was serving as a preschool teacher in South Carolina, when she noticed behaviors in her students that she didn’t know how to describe, particularly as they related to reading. Wanting to learn more about these behaviors, she decided to pursue graduate education.

While enrolled in her doctoral program, Shimek’s scholarship initially focused the portrayal of outdoor play in children’s literature, but she changed courses when she became involved with a program at a local library. The program, which provided both Spanish and English non-fiction books to bilingual children from Spanish-speaking households, was designed help bilingual children with reading comprehension of non-fiction texts.

Shimek said that bilingual children tend to struggle with comprehending non-fiction books because the vocabulary that is used and experiences that are portrayed are often culturally unfamiliar.

“We designed this project to provide non-fiction books in English and in Spanish to young readers early on, thinking that it would help them do better in school later,” Shimek said. “The project taught me that we have so much more to learn about children than we think we know.”  

Ultimately, Shimek’s experience with this program inspired her current research agenda that takes a closer look at how students interact with non-fiction books. As she prepares to join the CEHS faculty this fall, Shimek hopes to continue this and other work with teachers in the Morgantown area.

“In looking for a university where I wanted to work, I wanted to find a place that was really closely connected with its community,” Shimek said. “I was really trying to find a department and a college that worked closely with their local schools and teachers, and I felt that most at WVU.”

The faculty of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction/Literacy Studies agrees that Shimek is a great fit.

“We are thrilled to welcome Courtney as member of our department,” said Sharon Hayes, associate professor of elementary education. “We are impressed with the theoretical and practical knowledge she brings, which will allow us and our students to disrupt our thinking, and our commonplaces, as we create learning experiences that actively and meaningfully engage our students with multiple literacies.  We believe her research agenda will extend our understandings of literacy and we all look forward to learning with and from Courtney.”