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Literacy

Every once in a while, my thoughts turn to such things as literacy. It is hard to imagine why, given the number of things that I could think about. Actually, I think one reason is that few areas seem so important in the course of human history than literacy. Writing, which predated reading in human history, began in Sumeria, in modern day Iraq. At least that’s the case in the Western world. Writing was not designed by poets, or teachers, but to keep records of economic transactions.

There are many types of literacy: digital, visual, print, numerical, cultural, etc. Sustained Silent Literacy is an approach to the domain of print literacy, or the ability to both read and write. Reading involves decoding and comprehending words, sentences and paragraphs in magazines, newspapers and books. Print literacy is often considered ‘basic’ literacy, as it is the literacy favored in schools and, until recently, in the work world.

Basic literacy is taught to every student. Students learn to read and write by a certain grade—usually the third—and then progress through each grade using the skill they had learned in an earlier grade to learn other material. There is an expression: learning to read and reading to learn that expresses the importance of reading. Reading is the conduit through which learning occurs.

Writing once involved holding an instrument—pen or pencil—and making marks on a surface (usually paper). Recent advances in technology have moved the general public in most places away from holding something with their hand, to using a keyboard. This trend has progressed to the point where cursive writing is not taught at all in many schools. Reading still involves processing and interpreting the arrangement of letters. It is just that the place these letters are presented is different. So now when we speak of writing, we are speaking about a process, not the physical activity of putting pen or pencil on paper.

No matter the form in which the print is produced or appears, (good) practice means improvement in each area. Practice connected to meaningful activity is better than practice connected with repetitive activities disconnected from student interests and needs. Students can make progress in reading when the material they choose is interesting and relevant to their interests; students can make progress in writing fluency and confidence, when the material they write about is not judged.

In the past, reading was thought of as a passive activity, while writing was active. This had to do with the (unproven) belief that readers approached texts differently based on their interest level. Passive reading was another way to describe what students in schools might simply call boring. The texts can be ‘boring’ for several reasons: the subject might be too difficult; they might be disconnected from the learner; or they might contain a high percentage of vocabulary that is unknown. On the other hand, the higher the interest in the material, the more the reader is likely to be actively engaged with the text. This means that reading is not inherently passive.

I would hope you want to become more literate, not less, in all areas. In future postings, I will tell you about how we can help you improve literacy.

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