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Stephen May: The problem with literacy

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The problem with literacy

Stephen May

Do your eyes glaze over when the topic of literacy comes up? Join the club. Now, this isn’t to say that literacy isn’t important – far from it – but we need to change the terms of the debate.

For far too long now we have been preoccupied with the ‘phonics versus whole language’ debate – which is better for learning to read? The simple answer is obvious – we need both. This is supported by the bulk of the educational research in the area, and also allows for the differences in learning styles of individual students. It’s also basic common sense.

But the phonics/whole language debate is problematic for another reason. It obscures the fact that literacy is about much more than just reading and writing – important though these skills clearly are. We live in a world that requires us to engage in a wide range of literacy skills – computer literacy, information literacy, media literacy, biliteracy (or bilingual literacy), critical literacy, to name just a few.

So, perhaps the first thing in reformulating the debate on literacy is to recognise and acknowledge that what we should really be talking about are literacies rather than some singular notion of literacy. If we approached literacy in this more pluralistic way, we would immediately be able to make connections that go well beyond (but do not diminish) the traditional reading/writing debates that have so dominated the field in recent years.

And this raises another important point. Even when we are talking about literacy specifically in terms of reading and writing, we need to do so much more carefully than we do currently. This is because what we mean most often here is reading and writing in English (although we seldom ever say this explicitly). So, when we’re discussing someone’s ‘literacy skills’, we invariably mean their English language literacy skills.

I’m not just being pedantic. This is crucial because if we use literacy to mean literacy ‘in English’ we assume that literacy skills equate with, or are limited to English language skills (wrong; there are many other forms of literacy, including literacy skills in other languages). Even more problematically we end up, by default, adopting a ‘deficit’ notion of literacy. In other words, we judge our students by their literacy abilities in English, often ignoring or devaluing the many other literacy skills that they might have. This is particularly true, of course, for students whose first language is not English, an increasing feature of many of our New Zealand schools and other educational institutions.

As teachers, what we need to do, urgently, is rethink our traditional understandings of ‘literacy’. As a starting point, we need to ask how we can teach more effectively in classrooms that have an increasingly diverse range of students. To do this, we need to consider how we can recognise, and build upon the different literacies that students bring to school, including those whose first language may not be English.

One way this can be achieved, for example, is through bilingual education. Recent educational research highlights how bilingual education programmes, when properly implemented, allow bilingual students to transfer their first language skills successfully to a second language. In contrast, the long-held practice of ‘immersing’ students in English as soon as possible, at the expense of their first language, has now been found to be the least successful means of achieving literacy in English.

When these questions about literacy begin to be explored, it immediately makes debates about literacy both more interesting and more controversial!

Even more importantly, when viewed in this way, questions of language and literacy become far more central to the work of all teachers and educators (not just reading, ESL or English teachers).

Stephen May is Foundation Professor and Chair of Language and Literacy Education in the School of Education, University of Waikato (www.soe.waikato.ac.nz).