Most educators define literacy as the ability to read and write. And it is true, to be literate we need to know how to read and write. But is this definition limiting? Why might we need to broaden it?
When I was interviewing freshmen for my doctoral research, I asked them what it meant to be a reader. Many of them answered that it meant you went to the library and liked to read books. Some described “bookworms” or even considered readers “nerds.” When asked as a follow-up, “Do you see yourself as a reader?” Most of them said no and followed it with phrases like “I am a hockey player.” “I sing.” Or “I snowboard.” This concerned me. These students could read and write but didn’t consider themselves readers.
We are challenged to consider the complexity of literacy in the article, From “What is Reading?” to What is Literacy? (Frankel, Becker, Rowe, and Pearson, 2016). The authors argue:
- Literacy is a constructive, integrative, and critical process situated in social practices;
- Fluent reading is shaped by language processes and contexts;
- Literacy is strategic and disciplinary;
- Literacy entails motivation and engagement; and
- Literacy is a continuously developing set of practices.
In other words, students develop literacy skills by fully engaging in the process of learning through reading, writing, and collaborating with their peers.
Students of all ages need to hear language read aloud with expression, and consider how the context will change the way in which something is read. For example, the way we might read a science lab report will be different than the expression used to read satire.
There is no better instructor to help students read and write effectively in each discipline than their content area teacher. Science teachers read scientific journals, research studies, graphs, and more. Social studies teachers read history, biographies, news articles, and more. Physical education/health teachers read heart rate monitors, health journals, playbooks, and exercise instructions. These content area teachers are the authentic choice to help students know how to read and write their way to learning science, social studies, and PE/Health.
Think of motivation as a reader’s reasons for reading/learning, and engagement as the capacity to devote time and energy to a task. Our students are relying on us to help them see connections to motivate them to do the learning and use practices that will engage them to persist especially when it gets difficult. For example, I was motivated to learn statistics in my graduate work because it was directly related to the research I was doing. It was connected and relevant to something I cared about.
We have a misconception that students learn to read in grades K-3 and then read to learn in grades 4 and higher. This can’t be true when students continue to develop skills as they engage with increasingly difficult tasks. I remember specifically being challenged in my doctoral courses when encountering quantitative research and statistics. I had to seek support from a colleague who taught Advanced Placement Statistics who could help me understand the text and apply the knowledge to my own set of data.
So how might we redefine literacy in practical ways to better engage our students? We can do so in two important ways:
- Ensure students are reading, writing, and talking your discipline every day.
- And when it comes to having students read, we need to redefine what we think of as text. Texts can include pictures, graphs, podcasts, video clips, satirical cartoons, excerpts, song lyrics, poetry, artifacts, regalia, and so much more. Find ways for students to engage with “text” through writing and talking all the time.
When our students think, consider, reconsider, rethink, construct knowledge, reflect, write, and talk to each other, not only do they engage in our class, but they also have the motivation to do the hard work of learning.