It’s time to change our definition of literacy

It’s time to change our definition of literacy

I teach middle school science. This year, I taught several 8th grade learners who were reading at a K-2 grade level and many who were reading well below grade level; some of these learners are identified with specific learning and/or emotional needs and receive additional services, many of them are not. All of my eighth grade learners will be transitioning into a high school science course load in August. Sadly, due to their struggles with literacy, too many of them will struggle immensely with this load if they have a traditional secondary teacher.  This is a problem; how can we expect students to successfully read to learn when they are still learning to read?

The struggle many of my students will experience will not be the result of laziness, apathy or inability, it is simply the result of inadequate reading skills that are necessary when content must be accessed primarily via reading. Multiple studies have confirmed that students who are not reading at grade level in third grade are significantly less likely to graduate from high school (Hernandez, 2012). The transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” customarily occurs after third grade. By the conclusion of third grade, students are expected to begin to extract information from texts and make meaning of it as they also enhance their vocabulary (Center for Public Education, 2015). As learners move into the intermediate grades, many teachers are able to provide the scaffolding and support to help those who struggle with reading and who don’t fall into the traditional (and might I say ineffective) education timeline continue to access content. Eventually, however, these non-traditional learners (non-traditional only in the sense that how they learn doesn’t quite fit into our traditional education system) enter the secondary grades. They face six to eight content specific teachers, whom, given the culture and organization of the school, may or may not communicate effectively amongst one another about their students. Those students still learning to read are now just expected to be able to read to learn and are being supported in many cases by educators who don’t have experience or the skills to teach them how to read. Here’s where the disconnect begins to solidify.

Over my 15+ year teaching career, I have heard well meaning, well intentioned, dedicated content <img src="underwater.jpg" alt="Those who struggle to read are usually unsuccessful, not because they don’t want to learn but simply because they can’t even begin to access the material in the manner it has been presented to them."> teachers say: “I can’t help these kids, I’m not trained to teach kids how to read”. In secondary content specific classes, I continue to see typical “read this section/chapter/article and summarize/outline/answer analysis questions” tasks being given, sometimes differentiated, sometimes not. Those who struggle to read are usually unsuccessful, not because they don’t want to learn but simply because they can’t even begin to access the material in the manner it has been presented to them.

This is not ok! I am tired of hearing “I can’t help these kids” or “we need to change our expectations because this is the best they can do”. It is my responsibility as a science teacher (and as someone who believes in all kids) to help every single one of my student learners make meaning and understandings of science. True, I was certainly not trained to teach kids how to read but I am passionate and knowledgeable and excited about helping kids understand how science intertwines with their lives. I need to make science accessible to all kids, regardless of their learning style, their strengths or their weaknesses. And truth be told, while this may have been harder just ten short years ago, it’s not now, it just requires a different mindset and perspective. We are surrounded by tools and pedagogies that can help all kids, regardless of their reading level or learning style, access text and information; Newsela, YouTube, audio tools, shared reading and PBL just to name a few. A student that can’t read at grade level, or even close to grade level (yet), can still access and make meaning of secondary science content as long as their teachers help make the content accessible to them.

Don’t misunderstand me, I believe that literacy is a critical skill that provides an avenue for us to be successful in our ever-changing world, but literacy now encompasses much more than traditional reading and writing skills. In “Literacy is Not Enough: 21st-century Fluencies for the Digital Age”, Crockett, Jukes and Churches state “In schools, we need to move beyond our focus on text and expand to include visual media. We need to rethink what our definition of literate is, because a person who is literate by the standards of th<img src="perspective.jpg" alt="I will continue to advocate for a change of perspective and mindset in education that acknowledges every learner is different, knowledge can be accessed, created and shared in many formats and there is never just one “right” path to learning."> e 20th century may be illiterate in the culture of the 21st century.” (Crockett, Jukes, Churches, 2012). Just today, I read a blog post from George Couros in which he says “When we see literacy about more than reading and writing, meaningful consumption and creation of media in different elements should be a norm while continuously evolving.”.  As educators, we must remember this and use an enhanced definition of literacy to help all kids be successful. Every one of my student learners, regardless of their reading level, is a learner. Every learner has strengths that help them learn. All educators must recognize this. I will continue to advocate for a change of perspective and mindset in education that acknowledges every learner is different, knowledge can be accessed, created and shared in many formats and there is never just one “right” path to learning.

Sources

Crockett, Lee, Ian Jukes, and Andrew Churches. Literacy Is Not Enough: 21st-century Fluencies for the Digital Age. Moorabbin, Vic.: Hawker Brownlow Education, 2012. Print.

Hernandez, Donald J. How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation. Rep. The Annie E Casey Foundation, 1 Jan. 2012. Web. 30 June 2017.

Learning to Read, Reading to Learn Why Third-grade Is a Pivotal Year for Mastering Literacy. Rep. Center for Public Education, Mar. 2015. Web. 30 June 2017.

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4 Replies to “It’s time to change our definition of literacy”

  1. You sound very passionate about your work and your students. I think the resources available to us allow us to reach these learners in ways we were not able to just a few years ago. It just takes more effort on the teachers’ part and the passion for teaching. I have also disliked when students are given something to read to learn and then no follow up or discussion happens. What’s the point? I hope more teachers begin to realize how they can help students with new tools and some time. Thanks for this post!

    1. I agree, we have access to amazing resources now Julia. It is so important for us to recognize that the learning journey looks different for every kiddo that walks through our doors. Thanks for reading and participating!

  2. Would that we could clone your understanding and attitude! Another overlooked factor is that, when children don’t “learn to read” at the age and in the way that traditional education demands, it affects their self-image. Rather than turning them into lifelong learners, they come to hate learning/reading because of the negative feedback they get whenever it is “required” of them. These same children popped into the world loving learning…an schools effectively destroyed that love. That’s the legacy of our current obsession with academic achievement!

    1. I agree Judy, children that don’t “fit into the box” are too often at a disadvantage in our current system. It’s time to recognize and acknowledge that learning doesn’t, and shouldn’t, fit into a box! Thanks for reading and participating!

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