15 September 2006

The Question of Literacy

The last post generated a lot of conversation, which is great. It raised a lot of questions. Also great. I think we need to keep the discussion going…

What does it mean to read? What does it mean to read a book?

In our "Western World" we believe – somewhat automatically – in a couple of things. We believe in what I have come to call "Individual Print Literacy," which is to say that we believe that typically the best way to get recorded information into your brain is to sit by yourself and look at ink that has been applied to paper. Our entire primary school system is based on this belief. Our entire higher education is based on this belief. In between (secondary) – possibly because of the intense difficulty we have trying to keep adolescents engaged – we bend just a little, allowing the occasional recording, audio or video, or letting students read digitally created versions of ink applied to paper.

We also believe in "Alphabetic Decoding." We have constructed a code system for our language that is dependent on random symbols to which some meaning has been applied. These meaning might be sounds if our language is phonetic – Spanish, Italian, Portugese, German, Czech, or they might be much less obvious than that if we're stuck with French, English, Irish, or Polish, but either way, we believe that "the best" way to get information is through code-breaking of this particular kind.

Not everyone on the planet, obviously, has made the same decisions. Many societies have adopted various kinds of "group literacy," where people read together. Consider, for example, the lack of books in Catholic worship (as opposed to Protestantism and Judaism). In Catholicism literacy has traditionally taken many forms that somewhat mirror those famous "seven intelligences." Worship (and thus teaching) involves hearing speech (stories are told), hearing music (rhythm, rhyme, etc), movement (re-positioning the body), visual arts (those windows, sculptures, etc), smell (incense), and on and on.

Or think about the way news is moved through traditional African villages, or in traditional Native American societies.

Other societies have structured writing in different ways as well. Hieroglyphics, pictograms, graphic novels, wall paintings, even those wordless Ikea instruction sheets have all decided to move recorded information in ways other than alphabetic decoding.

This has huge issues for education. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows, essentially, zero progress over 35 years of reading assessment, with a stunningly low percentage of US students proving to be high-level readers. This time span covers the full-circle of traditional educational strategies. 6% of American 17-year-old read very well by this measure. Only 38% of those tested read at any level that could be called "proficient" – that is, the ability to read, understand, and assemble the ideas. And remember, at least 13% of US students drop out of high school and do not take this kind of test at all. If we assume that those dropping out might do worse on these tests than those in school, we probably have an American reading proficiency rate of between 30% and 33%.

The general response? Do the same thing we've been doing but do it more! Emphasize phonics, for example, which, of course, do not work in English (ok everyone, why is it that Come Home doesn't rhyme?). Make kids spend far more hours holding books that they cannot read in their hands. Deny those students every other educational opportunity (history, math, art, music) while waiting for them to magically start reading.

My suggestion is different. Re-define reading. Reading is, to me, getting information from a recorded source into your brain. Writing is getting information from your brain into a recorded form. The art of this, and where I think instructional time should best be expended, is on the comprehension and structure and concept assembly side of this. The code breaking will come if it will (I've met few people happy with the fact that they cannot read), but meanwhile students can advance in every other skill area, and guess what? They can stay interested in education.

Because listen, does the method of reading matter? As one commenter on the last post asked, "If I take a test on Moby Dick in my English class, and get an A, having listened to it instead of reading it, how can someone argue that I don't understand the story?" Or, as I always point out, does it make James Joyce any less my favorite author that I have not "read" (ink on paper) one of his books but listened to them all? Does it make my writing less interesting if you know that I dictated it using ViaVoice?

I just need to let people know that I am not against literacy or reading or books. I love these things. I love them so much that I want the possibility of this communication system opened up to everyone. I truly believe that if students are allowed to read by interest rather than codebreaking capability they will be more interested in reading, and might pursue it with more energy. I know (from my own research) that students who use computer literacy software (which highlights the words as they are read) show dramatic improvements in sight-word recognition skills and I am beginning to see some strong evidence that students who dictate to their computers (thus seeing correctly spelled words appear as they say them) show improvements in both sight-word recognition and spelling. If the codebreaking potential is there, these systems will help, and if they are not there – for whatever reason – than these alternative systems are a lifeline.

One very sincere commenter said, "Of *course* I want people to read how I do: by looking at the words, recognizing what they mean (or looking them up if one doesn't), and recognizing how the words fit together. You may as well be complaining that I want all people to breathe the way I breathe (i.e. with an intake of air into the respiratory system, where the oxygen is transferred to the blood stream via the alveoli, etc)." And yes, the world would be "easier," especially for teachers, if this were true. But not everyone can breathe in the same way. Some need machines. Some need specially cleaned air. Some need different oxygen mixes. Some even need tracheotomies. And not everyone will "intake information" the same way either. Our goal, as a society, is to turn the technology we have developed into powerful tools capable of helping all students learn, while we help them to learn the way they need to learn, and how to pick the tools that will help.

- Ira Socol


Anonymous said...

This discussion isn't new. :-) (See also: 'Le Dernier Combat.)

What I was trying to get at before is that if a student *can* learn to decode the symbols, they *need to.* This is the tyrrany of the neurotypical, if you know what I mean.

This discussion leads me to an idea...

If Steven Spielberg were your English teacher, would he teach you to diagram sentences? He might insist that you learn such things, but his emphasis would be communication. He might also teach you how to market a film, how to negotiate a contract, how to appreciate lens choice and camera movement... A successful communicator and storyteller like Spielberg might well understand that an F on a grammar test doesn't preclude successful communication, and might actually encourage that successful communication despite the F.


Unknown said...

ah yes, the tyrrany of the neurotypical and the tyranny of the mainstream, but yes, surely useful if you can do it. Like I said, once people learn to want to read, they seem to do whatever they can (in their capability range) to get at words. As in that, "I want to at least be able to read my girlfriend's notes" (or the menu, or whatever). But, as you point out - communication is what really counts.

Anonymous said...

Hi......Well I read it a couple of times and I agree up to a point about learning styles, there different learning styles and feel that as a teacher I need to teach to the student....I know that some students learn through reading, some through listening, some through discussing and some through touching/doing...Visual, spatial, tactile...BUT...the written word is important...with visual or hearing, the voice, the inflection, the story being told is just that, being told is hearing/knowing the story, with reading it you interpet the story, you decipher it to what you know, each story will have the same theme, plot but it will be different to each reader...their point of view and experiences tell them how to interpert the story they're reading...even a magazine article....I believe that supporting and assisting the written word, but it's still a very important part of learning... now saying that, as a Native Person I put much stock into Oral traditions and learning by doing....my Heritage was to show and tell the student/child, then allow the child/student to do, correct the mistakes as they made them and continue with the practice....This is possible to do with small groups but with the size of and content/curriculum of school systems it's not possible most of the time.... I also believe on ruling out or finding things that assist the learning of written word... Math is another type of language btw....pictographs are just the first step to learning the code of written language....I also have a student with Irlene's syndrome, I've had to learn how to help with her learning, not to mention the Asperger's syndrome child from before.... my learning still isn't over .....like your post and opinion very much...'Til The Next, Grace