09 February 2012

...in which I may suggest that I oppose literacy

"Skill in reading is desirable. However, the importance of reading may be overemphasized in schools. Reading skills are determined relatively and not absolutely. Thus, relatively poor readers will persist. Schools cannot eradicate individual differences. Biological makeup and societal pressures are the important factors in determining reading skill. Present methods of reading remediation are of questionable efficacy and are traumatic to some children. Time with its associated normal development succeeds in remediating the majority of children with dyslexia. Most poor readers eventually attain reading levels that enable them to comprehend the types of printed materials commonly encountered. If a child finds reading difficult or distasteful, that child should be encouraged to read but should have the right not to be forced to read." - R.D. Snyder, 1979
I have been introduced, more than once, as, "this is Ira, he's against literacy."

It's a funny introduction. I think of myself, in some weird ways of course, as a "prophet" of literacy, bringing the love of stories, yes, of books, to many who have grown up without it, but when I run into your typical "literacy advocate" I often fly into a rage.

My rage now has been created by two things, first, this "What if everyone could read" campaign by Pam Allyn and her organization "LitWorld and LitLife," and a Guardian article somehow mixing Dickens 200th Birthday with government mandated phonics ("Please sir, may I have another Pseudoword?"), and the British government's desire for all students to visit the libraries the British government is closing as an austerity measure.

Allyn is perhaps less ironic, and more hateful, fully demonizing me and all others who struggle with decoding text - she actually extends this generationally, choosing to bash our children. "When a child cannot read or write at an appropriate level for her age, it affects her ability to understand other subjects. Struggling readers connect learning with embarrassment and frustration, which puts stumbling blocks in their way and prevents them from reaching their full potential. Later in life, struggling child readers become struggling adult readers who are far less likely to vote and secure jobs than their literate counterparts. In addition, literacy levels correlate with health outcomes, both for the individual him or herself as well as his or her children." Thank you dear, I feel all better. May I now psychoanalyze a person who chooses to make their living describing others in pathological terms?

I like to read sci-fi and mysteries as I fall asleep...
The Decoding Obsession

Who reads? Who reads well? What does "reading well" mean? "In the hypothetical “average school,” 50% of the students will read at or below grade level when grade level is defined as the class median. This statistical fact is generally not recognized. Educators and parents tend to view below average performance as unsatisfactory. A student performing below average in a classroom should not necessarily be considered an adverse reflection on either the parent or the teacher." - Snyder, 1979. Actually, "below" is the "norm." 67% of American fourth graders fail to read "proficiently" for their imagined "grade level," along with 66% of eighth graders, raising questions about that "grade level" concept. According to "KidsCount" from the "Annie E. Casey Foundation," in all of the United States, only Massachusetts has 50% of fourth graders reading "proficiently." This is no doubt due to the individual health insurance mandates, and required services provided by religious hospitals, of RomneyCare.

So, if so few are reading well... how the hell are people getting information or working?

If you listen to this, you simply will not know anything of
Dylan Thomas's
A Child's Christmas in Wales
The argument made is that our failures, whether "our" means the United States or the United Kingdom, lie in the failure of schools to beat more children into submission via phonics. If only our kids were better at decoding alphabetical text into tiny fragments of words which are tiny fragments of ideas, we'd beat those damn Chinese, Germans, Brasilians, Singaporians... whoever. Then the argument accelerates, abetted by educators who talk to human resources mismanagers. You can't do any job anymore unless you can decode alphabetical text and prove that by answering multiple choice questions on trivia included in the text.
"Although this is a common argument today, it ignores the fact that modern science and technology create many jobs in which literacy demands go down, not up, thanks to human skills being replaced by computers and other sorts of technological devices (Aronowitz & DiFazio,i994; Carnoy, Castells, Cohen, & Cardoso, 1993; Mishel & Teixeira, 1991). This is true not just for service-sector jobs, but also for many higher status jobs in areas like engineering and bioscience. Indeed, there is much controversy today as to which category is larger: jobs where science and technology have increased literacy demands or those where they have decreased them." - James Gee, 1999.
Of course Gee, here criticizing the general "Educational Industrial Complex" belief system, is talking about the narrow definition of "literacy" adopted by way too many, rather than the broad definition of "reading," "Reading is defined as getting information from a recorded source into your head, Writing is defined as getting information from your head into a form which others can access," which I, and Gee, advocate. People like Pam Allyn of LitWorld, and the current British and American governments, believe in an untruth: "Is it intrinsically incorrect to learn from audiovisuals or even from actual experience?" Gee asks. "Why should a student be forced to take written notes or written examinations when a recorder or a direct personal dialog might be used equally well? For many students with severe reading deficits, the oral-aural route is the major alternative route for education." And I will add that, since Gee wrote this, the ability to convert text to speech and speech to text has become not just absurdly inexpensive, but completely ubiquitous everywhere except in schools. Gee goes on to make the key point...
"Remedial reading programs may be emotionally damaging to a child. These programs focus not on the child’s strengths and accomplishments but on his failure. With our present methods of remediation, a child with dyslexia can very rapidly become a child receiving special attention to reading during school, remedial instruction after school, and special tutoring from his parents at night. A large percentage of the child’s waking day can be occupied by the very thing he cannot do and often finds distasteful. Childhood can thus be marred by systematic humiliation. Any interest the child may have in the reading process can be abolished."
Obviously, its not just literature which can be transmitted - and learned - without "decoding literacy"
The instruction manuals of this century...or earlier
So, every day "we," led by politicians of dubious education and intentions, and by self-enriching dogooders like Pam Allyn, label children as pathologically diseased because their brains don't work exactly like "our" brains. And then, we administer daily doses of humiliation because we somehow forget that someone like Socrates managed to know a whole hell of a lot without being "literate" at all - and, in fact - opposing literacy in every form. We forget that almost nothing comes with instruction manuals anymore - unless its from Ikea - because when "we" need to learn to do something, we go to YouTube, or we ask for help - in person or perhaps via Twitter. We forget that storytelling - that critical transmission of culture - occurred long before alphabets were created and continue to occur in this Post-Gutenberg age.

We also forget that the tools to switch media, as I said above, are everywhere. Right from the post below: "Read the book on paper. Listen to it via WYNN (the tool which changed my life), via Balabolka (Free), via WordTalk (Free), via FoxVox (Free), or via an audiobook,or watch the video, or talk with someone, it makes no difference cognitively."

As I said, I love books, I've written books. I've "read" tons of books. I want to share this with kids. And I want to tell all those who will unwittingly support Allyn's "Forced Reading Day," or other sad initiatives, that I'd much rather you help kids learn how to use Kindle for PC and Balabolka (or some other combination) to let them access the books they want than do any or all of your "reading interventions."

What we need to get better at is accessing information and expressing ourselves. And if that is what we want to do, and decoding - or handwriting - is likely effective for us, the evidence suggests that we will learn it. And that evidence is a hell of a lot stronger than any evidence you can present for your "teach me to read" programs.

- Ira Socol


Mary Ann Reilly said...

The Literacy Myth is of course powerful and helps to maintain power. Common Core does not acknowledge any sociocultural contexts, and instead situates 'literacy' as autonomous. That is what Allyn seems to believe: literacy is an autonomous matter. She seems to believe this so strongly that she makes absurd claims, such as the one you quote. Worse, she conveys this poorly informed belief via her power as 'research' not tacit theory.

Utter nonsense. As grapho-phonenmic knowledge plays a role in decoding visual symbol, it is simply wrong to equate that with reading--be it alphabetic text, or the world.

If we spent less time situating some as other and more time coming to understand how people different from us learn, compose and negotiate the world--we would be in a much better place.

I use to teach a course about sociocultural language and literacies. If I have occasion to do so again, I will include a sampling of posts by you.


Emilie Rinehart EDM310 said...

Hi there Ira,
My name is Emilie, an EDM310 student at the University of South Alabama and I was assigned to your blog. I am going to be honest with you, your blog intimidated me at first. You are very opinionated but of course opinions followed by support to follow. Your bog posts are very well researched and informative. I enjoyed reading your blog post because I agree with you and James Gee about learning and how remediation can ultimately turn into a lifetime of humiliation for these students. As a future educator, I do not want to steer my future students away from learning and reading, but focus on their strengths and try to guide them on the road to success. We so often find teaches expressing the failures of their students instead of embracing the strengths.

I know from experience all students can learn at his or her own pace. Educators need to come to realize that not everyone learns the same and humiliation is not the way to teach someone. The type of educator I want to be is one who can teach on all the levels of special learning needs. Do you have any tips in regards to encouraging my future students who may have a learning disability?

I look forward to hearing from you if you have the time to respond!