From Reading to Literacy
Reading and Writing – An Antiquated Way of Thinking?
Many teachers ask their students to put their phones down. But is that the only thing educators should do to keep up with the 21st century? Meet Ms. Marcie Craig Post, Executive Director of International Literacy Association, in an interview after her speech in the 2017 International Reading Education Forum.
Reading and Writing – An Antiquated Way of Thinking?By CommonWealth Magazine
From Reading to Literacy
CW: First, thank you so much for your terrific speech this morning. I think literacy is the most popular keyword around the globe these years. I noticed that in 2015 there was a paradigm shift from International Reading Association to International Literacy Association. Why do you think that education needs this kind of transformation?
MP: There are a lot of things shifting and happening so rapidly in the world as a whole. The system of education has been having a hard time staying up with that, especially the change brought by the digital era. A lot of teachers want to say to a class, 'Put the phones down, no social media here.' But if we don't become more open to utilization of these new media and the ways which the youth is communicating with one and other and finding out information, we are going to miss the opportunity for a whole generation that will likely not get anywhere near their potential of learning because we are not able to shift rapidly enough with the way that we embrace the use of this technology.
You have mentioned the transformation of IRA (International Reading Association) to ILA (International Literacy Association). It is a fundamental and philosophical shift for us as an organization. Because the focus before kept us very cellular in the notion of reading and teaching the skill of reading, which is important. But it tended to keep us in this place of talking to ourselves and each other as teachers of reading. I think we needed a moment where we stood back and said "But for what end are we doing this?" Why is reading important? Reading is a skill, right? It's not the end goal. It's the skill to achieve something else. We believe that reading is the fundamental basis of literacy, and literacy is what allows a society and people within it to become fully productive and engaged citizens.
Literacy in and of itself is the ability to read and write. There are all kinds of other literacy that follow, but the reading and writing aspects are absolutely essential and critical. We need a better view of that as being the fundamental element that allows someone who doesn't go to university but is a laborer still has the ability to participate, grow and expand in society.
The Challenges in Literacy Cultivation
CW: What are the challenges during the transforming process?
MP: One of the biggest issues regarding literacy that we are facing is multiple languages and learning. When we say literate, we say 'in which language'. When you live a nation where you have multiple languages being spoken at the same time, where you have a national language and a global language that is being expected to be learnt. Then we go into the regions of the world where mother tongue can have 15 dialects in a single region of a community. The problem becomes really huge in which language are they literate.
Now we have begun to realize the importance of mother tongue. With mother tongue often come culture, family values, legacies and traditions. So there's now an embracing of the need for that multiple literacy achievement in different languages. We can't force people to only learn English because we are forgoing an entire culture by doing that. I'm not sure how becoming literate becomes resolved when we start to add in the issue of multiple languages. If the general community is utilizing a single language, perhaps that's the language you need to be most literate at. There are still a lot to do around that issue.
Another major challenge is the different multi-modal methods of learning, such as digital learning. They add another dimension to becoming proficient in reading and writing. We've got lots of adults who will say ‘if you're not reading a book, you're not reading.' Well, we will argue there are students who are reading far more content because they have more access to more content than ever before. I think the challenge here is to think of all the different methods of the way in which we might read something, or gain that knowledge to become literate. We need to be more open to different methods by which people learn information and reach different level of proficiency in their knowledge of that.
I often run into the issue regarding the preparation for teachers to teach. There are countries that don't have any formal system to prepare their teachers, whereas many nations' teachers maybe have eight years of education. This preparation for teachers to be teachers is also one of the major challenges.
The Definition of Literacy
CW: When you were 'doing' like IRA, you also met the same challenges right? Is that more serious or more difficult when you add on 'literacy'?
MP: No, not if we keep the focus. This is the funny thing. I think we have been exposed to the word literacy and the media in particular, general public has taken great liberty with the use of that word. Now we attach it to ‘financial literacy’, ‘political literacy’, ‘digital literacy’...on and on and on. Literacy is not just proficiency. Proficiency can be a standard that you set. I see literacy in whatever form you want to place it in as a continuous process. There is never an end to it. There's never a point which I say 'Yep, I'm literate.', I am always becoming more literate. We know about a lot of the mechanics and instruction of reading. But literacy brings with a higher order of thinking about how we prepare students to become everything from an independent thinker to critical thinking and analysis.
Reading is not just learning to read at one point and we're good to go. Our vocabulary continuously expands. Even as adults, we continuously learn new words and new meaning. Part of learning a new word is seeing it, spelling it and phonetically decoding it and understanding it. There is a part of many of us that is very highly visual. Learning a word might require visually seeing it. We can't forgo the printed text. We still need to have a print. It can be on a device, but we need to see print text. This is coupled with our growth of vocabulary, our ability to spell and sound words out. I think we still need this exposure in a regular daily basis.
We are concerned about this. As children reading less, they are not 'seeing' the words, which might impact their overall span of vocabulary that are available to them.
Read – To See, to Imagine, and to Empathize
CW: You mentioned reading can help cultivate empathy which is the most important attitude among society since we might be competing with robots and AI in a non-distant future. Could you elaborate on that?
MP: In any good novel or fiction, you have a hero, a villain and other characters who fall on the side of goodness or not good. They have quirks, we envision them. Whenever you read a fiction book, you're seeing a vision in your head. You've created that, it's not like there's a picture to guide you. It makes you feel things and you place things and you add people into that, bringing emotion into it. Our interactions with people are prompted and based on 'my feeling about you, your feeling about me'. When you read a book, you are transported into each and every one of these people. You feel like you're part of that. That's where the ability to identify and to empathize, to sad with them, to be happy with them, to be mad at them. There's nothing like fiction. There's nothing like it for developing the way we think and feel about society. In films and TVs, the pictures are already there, you don't necessarily have to mentally vision and feel the certain character.
Reading and Writing – An Antiquated Way of Thinking?
CW: How can we prepare our kids for the 21 century? What kind of literacy or skills do you think children should be equipped with?
MP: They need to be able to read, and to take what they've read. I do believe writing is a portion of that. Because talking about an idea requires one part of processing the idea. But talking about an idea is different from writing about it. Writing about it requires, I think, even a higher level skill than speaking about it. Because we get to verbally correct ourselves as we speak. But when you write, it's a slower process. So you're more deliberate about the placement of words and the strength and emphasis of the language in the writing.
People are concerned about a loss of the actual written work. Because we're typing, we're texting, everything has been digitized. Again, I'm a proponent of that. I believe that is probably something we should pay attention to. And primarily, it's because writing, like speaking, requires a different brain processing. I think that the written work, one is, if you're a lover of reading and fiction, you become a lover of prose. So there are certain things about writing, like the words you decide to use in writing that you wouldn't use in speaking.
Typing is what we call rote motor skill, because it's a repetition. Writing requires a fine motor skill. That's a different process of connection from the brain to the paper. So I think it's important to think about what role does writing play or should continue to play in teaching kids and making them literate.
How Can Literacy Be Assessed?
CW: I think literacy has been in news too much, especially in Taiwan. Because we're revolutionizing our curriculum, we put literacy in every subject. But in Taiwan, we still focus on exams. How do we achieve basic literacy if we're taking so many exams?
MP: I think that there probably isn't an achievement of basic literacy. It's how we're measuring it.
I think that's always going to be a major debate because you can't take a statement about assessment and apply that across every single level of learning. I would argue that even at the middle school, the high school level and even extend it to the college level, it's more important that we're assessing growth of an individual than achievement. That can't possibly hold true for all professions because at some point within a profession, I don't want somebody that's trained to be a doctor not to have a certain level of proficiency, not have met a standard of knowledge to practice. So there is a level of mastery of that information that has to be measured. Earlier in primary and secondary education, I think that can be more of a developmental assessment as opposed to achievement assessment.
A lot of us have struggled with PISA and OECD assessments. OECD will talk about exactly maybe one of the most compelling pieces of information that come out of them. It isn't so much were anyone nation falls on the performance on those assessments. Because it's not an apples-to-apples comparison. For instance, to compare Taiwan to the US. Pretty tough. Just based on the number of students in the nation being educated. So when you talk about the size, the expanse, and the diversity of a nation, trying to compare, I'm not sure what that necessarily tells us.
How Should Assessment Be Viewed?
But here's an important thing, one thing I think is really fascinating that comes out of the data of PISA. You have a number of nations that over the years have collected this data and reported it out. And if you look at the nations 15 to 20 years ago that were in the bottom quartile, they are now at the top of the quartile. This is thing we should be looking at in PISA. Because what I want to know, as someone who is interested in global education, is how did they do that. What change in that nation that took it from the bottom quartile to the top? Korea, great example. Singapore. Malaysia. Many countries that have gone from the very bottom in a span of 20-30 years, to the top.
Something changed in that nation to create that change in education. And in most instances, we can definitely pinpoint the things that changed. First and foremost is, you have a government that has made it a mission to educate its people. Education is top tier. It's talked about by the leaders of that country and it is resourced accordingly, meaning it's given appropriate funding. The profession of teaching is valued. It starts with the government that says teachers are important and we're going to treat them and pay them and prepare them, like we would to any other profession that we admire such as a doctor or a lawyer. Those nations that have been successful at doing that, are the ones that are turning their scores around. So if you don't have a government that has embraced education as the premiere priority, then you won't see a radical change, which is why we don't see radical changes in some of our largest nations.
Literacy Coaching – A New Trend
CW: Last question. Could you share with us about the latest trends in global education?
MP: I think I ended my presentation talking about leadership. We're seeing an increasing amount of attention being paid to broadening the understanding of the importance of literacy and then preparing leaders in schools to lead it. There's another emerging leader, which is a position called 'literacy coaching, or 'literacy coaches.' These are education individuals that are often employed in a school system. One coach might have two or three schools. Their job is to go in and work collaboratively with teachers in the classroom. So often the literacy coach may not directly instruct students but helps side by side with the teacher to talk about literacy methods and instructional methods. They help the principal to make sure that those methods are being utilized throughout the different content areas in the school. There are studies going on in South Africa, Zambia, and Kenya on literacy coaching right now and the effectiveness of them.
The problem is it's an expensive resource. You brought in another person into the classroom. But the study I've heard about in Kenya is yielding results that show that it's still as cost-effective. Because the achievement the students are experiencing is significant enough to offset the cost of having that person in that classroom.
So we're very much monitoring this body of work around literacy and literacy coaches. UNESCO just put a report out about a year and a half ago about this, globally, this movement of utilizing literacy coaches. Actually, one of our members was the primary investigator for them in that report. So we're taking a look at it, too, seeing how we can use that information to spread more information about how this could be a really important resource for expanding literacy in schools since pouring in literacy instruction.
Interviewed by Jenny Cheng.
Transcribed and Edited by Sharon Tseng and Shawn Chou.
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Sprouting from CommonWealth Magazine’s highly acclaimed annual special edition on education, the CommonWealth Education Foundation takes our longstanding concern for learning a step further through practical action. In 2004, the foundation initiated the “Hope Reading Program,” a campaign to strengthen literacy and reading interest among young children in remote and underprivileged areas of Taiwan. Through this program and with the joint effort of the business community, the Foundation has adopted over 200 elementary schools, and trained over 2,000 seed teachers. Established in 2002, the Foundation seeks to help Taiwan look outward, to borrow from international educational reform experiences, to gain internal solidarity and integrate educational resources, to care about its less privileged areas, and to prize the power of education.