Thursday, December 18, 2008

Position on Literacy

What is literacy? The basic definition is reading and writing and a hundred years ago that would have been true. However, literacy has changed in the 21st century. To be successful in the modern world, a literate person needs to do more – they need to evaluate, interpret, analyze, synthesize, and respond – not just to words – but numbers, images, video and graphics, and in a variety of contexts. In addition, the amount of information available increases exponential every year. There is no longer a single expert, but a community of experts. Knowledge is no longer something to be attained, but instead, found to be used in practical purposes. A silent classroom indicates teacher control and rote learning, but the job world demands active, independent and collaborative participants who can manipulate information and communicate it clearly. With a changing definition of literacy, classroom instruction need to adapt to reflect the new demands of literacy.

Reading and writing are social events. Teachers need to create opportunities for students to actively interact with text and each other.

Piaget believed that when individuals cooperate, socio-cognitive conflict occurs that creates cognitive disequilibrium, which prompts new perspective-taking and advances cognitive development. Vygotsky showed that social interaction plays a fundamental role in the process of cognitive development through the teaching of a More Knowledgeable Other (MKO), often an adult, and learning occurs when the task is within the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). To extend the idea of Vygotsky's more knowledgeable other, Blatchford et al. (2003) feel that, “pupil-pupil or ‘peer’ relations, as developmental psychology has shown (Pellegrini & Blatchford, 2000), can be an inherently motivating context for action and learning. In contrast to adult child relations, they are more horizontally organized and power is more likely to be evenly shared.” (p. 159) In addition, peers understand each other more directly, which may help them achieve intersubjectivity,which, according to Vygotsky, is the shared understanding of something. 
Conversation is an important part of learning. Students need opportunities to discuss what they are learning. One example of this is Literature Circles. Harvey Daniels(1994) pioneered the use of Literature Circles in his book of the same name. Small groups of students read the same text and each student receives a specific role, such as Discussion Director, Passage Picker, Word Wizard, Connector, and Summarizer. When the students get together to discuss the text, each student presents their role and encourages discussion from the rest of the group. Students end up discussing the same ideas that the teacher would assign as questions, though since it is student generated, they feel more ownership for the work. Eventually, students are weaned off of the roles to more book club-like conversations. Through conversation, students are able to gain different perspectives of the text and each other.

Writing and reading are about making meaning from and with text in relation to personal and cultural goals and experiences. The goal of the literacy teacher is to help students clearly communicate their ideas and understand the ideas of others.

Gallagher (2003) gives nine reasons for reading, and none of them have to do with standardized tests or isolated phonic skills. Reading is: emotionally and intellectually rewarding, builds vocabulary, makes you a better writer, makes you smarter, prepares you for the world of work, financially rewarding, opens the doors to college and beyond, arms you against oppression and is hard reading is a good challenge. In the past, the illiterate person was one who physically could not sign their name or read a document. In the future, an illiterate person will be one who can, but chooses not to read or write.

In order to be literate, people need to be able to teach themselves. Not the old version of literacy of just reading, writing, and arithmetic. The new forms of literacy includes evaluation and research skills plus understanding graphics and video. Students will be doing most of their reading online, so they will need to know how to evaluation the bias and information presented on the pages. They'll need to know how to backtrack on a webpage to find the author or organization of the webpage. Our current model of education assumes there is an authority with the correct information – often a writer, teacher, professor, researcher, or encyclopedia. However, that is no longer true. Although books continue to be published, much of the information that students encounter comes from the internet and anyone can put up a website.

What does it mean to be a reader in the 21st century? It isn't just reading the text, but also finding information, decoding text, images and multimedia, critically evaluate the information and organize the information. Mitchell Kapor, a computer engineer and developer of Lotus, said, “Getting information off the Internet is like taking a drink from a fire hydrant.” People can make and share websites and bookmarks. They are also using arrogators that automatically find information based on a personalized list of topics. To be a skilled reader, a student must be able to wade through reams of information to find the specific information needed and apply it to a new situation.

Writing will always be an important skill, however the genre of writing is changing. Blogging, wikis, emailing, and other forms of writing are emerging. Communication is becoming more multimedia and not just text. The successful pieces of information are those that get the reader's attention. Therefore schools need to be teaching students how to work with images and video with the images, text, and music working together to create powerful messages.

Graphic organizers can help students not only take better notes from their reading or to organize their writing, but they also organize those notes, present information in an orderly manner, and structure their thinking process. The general definition of graphic organizers is “a visual representation of knowledge that structures information by arranging important aspects of a concept or topic into a pattern using a label (Bromley, et al. p. 6).” Graphic organizers can be used before studying a topic to activate prior knowledge. During a study of a topic, students can use graphic organizers to order their notes, compare characteristics, find relationships, or learn new vocabulary. After studying a topic, graphic organizers can also help students demonstrate their learning. The same graphic organizer format can be used before, during and after studying a topic with just only a slight change in the focus.

Reading and writing are both cognitive processes with several recursive stages. 
In the past, teachers would assign an essay and expect the students to intuitively know how to get a finished product. During the 1970s, writing was seen as a process and teachers were encouraged to treat it as such, with pre-writing, drafting, revision, editing and publishing as a linear progression. However, professional writers see the process as a more nebulous operation, which changes based on the type of writing, subject, and even personal events. Although it is important to teach students different forms of pre-writing and planning and how to revise and edit, teachers need to recognize that the process is different for each student and possibly, for each writing task. Tony Romano (2005), teacher and author of several books, believes that language has tremendous power: writing describes the world, argues for what we believe, frames our thinking, and changes how we think. Believing that you can fill the empty page takes faith and fearlessness. The choice of words determine how we think about things. All writing is creative – even forming an argument and describing a chemistry lab. The creativity is in the choice and arrangement of words. Language is the mother, not the handmaiden of thought. Schools need to help students understand the power of language and develop fearlessness in using it.

Being able to accurately decode text is only the first step in truly being able to read. The reading process is quite similar to the writing process and requires actively engagement of the mind. The reader plans to read through setting a purpose, previewing the text and activating their prior knowledge and then begins to read. While reading, the reader visualizes, questions, tests hypotheses, and makes connections to the content of the text. During and after reading, the reader gets confirmation of his/her ideas and then may share ideas and responses with other people. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Tis the good reader that makes the book good.”
Reading and writing are intimately entwined – one informs the other. Francine Prose, an American writer with over a dozen novels, a half-dozen non-fiction book and three collections of short stories, wrote a book Reading Like a Writer. “Like most, maybe all, writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, from books.” (2006, p. 2) Writing during reading helps the reader become more cognizant of their own understanding of the text and their connections to it. After reading, writing helps cement the story in the reader's mind. For many writers, reading good literature helps them find solutions to their own writing struggles.

Speaking, listening and collaboration are essential aspects of literacy and must be modeled, taught and practiced.

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills was formed in 2002 by leading technology businesses such as: AOL Time Warner Foundation, Apple Computer, Inc., Cable in the Classroom, Cisco Systems, Inc., Dell Computer Corporation, Microsoft Corporation, along with the US Department of Education and National Education Association. Since that time they have added over three dozen large companies, businesses and educational organizations. The goal of the group is to “serve as a catalyst to position 21st century skills at the center of US K-12 education by building collaborative partnerships among education, business, community and government leaders” and it has “developed a unified, collective vision for 21st century learning that can be used to strengthen American education.” Within this context, the Partnership has identified communication and collaboration as part of the “skills, knowledge and expertise students should master to succeed in work and life in the 21st century.” This is defined as:
  • Articulating thoughts and ideas clearly and effectively through speaking and writing.
  • Demonstrating ability to work effectively with diverse teams.
  • Exercising flexibility and willingness to be helpful in making necessary compromises to accomplish a common goal.
  • Assuming shared responsibility for collaborative work (Partnership, 2004)
Often speaking and listening get cursory attention in the curriculum and are lumped in with giving presentations and read alouds, but good speaking and active listening takes skill and practice. Coming into the classroom, students are primed and pumped to talk, but are not often aware of how they present themselves and view listening as a passive activity. Students need to have the opportunity to present themselves in a variety of situations – large and small group, form and informal, different genres of speeches, and including the teaching of techniques of body awareness and voice projection. It is estimated that people retain only 25-50% of what they hear, which means most people lose 50-75% of the content of any conversation – which would include classroom discussion and lecture. Learning active listening skills will have an impact on students' personal life, scholarly pursuits and career achievement.


"Our doctors don't treat patients using 19th-century medicines, and our teachers shouldn't educate students using 19th-century learning models...Today's students need to demonstrate knowledge of core subjects such as reading, math, and science—but they also must learn additional skills, including critical thinking, decision making, problem solving and communication, and the ability to adapt to a changing world." (The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2004) 

Ian Jukes (2000), author of Windows on the Future : Education in the Age of Technology and NetSavvy : Building Information Literacy in the Classroom, stresses the need to reform teaching and learning to reflect the profound changes happening in society. He describes seven exponential trends and how these trends effect culture and education. He believes that 21st century learners need to be effective problem solvers and information fluent. A successful problem solver: 1) Defines a problem 2) Designs a solution 3) Does the task with the appropriate tools 4) Debriefs to see if the solution corrected the problem. A fluent information user: 1) Asks the right questions 2) Accesses the data 3) Analyzes the information 4) Applies what has been learned 5) Assesses both the process and the product.

Recognizing these social, cultural and informational changes, the modern classroom MUST adapt to give students the skills and attitudes which will be demanded in their future. It is estimated that the current generation of workers will change careers ( not just jobs) at least a dozen times. That means that the traditional goal of education – filling minds with content – is truly irrelevant. Schools need to teach and encourage students to be thinkers, planners, researchers, visionaries, and their own teachers.
Blatchford, P., Kutnick, P., Baines, E., and Galton, M. (2003) Toward a social pedagogy of classroom group work. In Blatchford, P., and Kutnick, P. (Eds.) Special Edition of International Journal of Educational Research, 39, 153-172.
Bromley, K., Irwin-Devitis, L., and Modlo, M. (1999). 50 graphic organizers for reading, writing, and more. New York: Scholastic Professional Books.
Daniels, H. (1994). Literature circles: Voice and choice in the student-centered classroom. Stenhouse Publishers.
Jukes, I. & McCain, T. (2000). Windows on the future : Education in the age of technology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2004). Retrieved November 15, 2008, from:
Prose, F. (2006). Reading like a writer: A guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them. New York: Harper Collins.
Romano, T. (2005, November). Middle school mosaic presentation. National Council of Teachers of English Convention 2005. Pittsburgh, PA.