How do we improve literacy?
Now when I use the word “we”, I know that it’s meaning isn’t clear. I could mean, “How do we, the teaching profession, go about improving literacy?” or I could mean, “What do we, the literacy coaches at Wellington Secondary College, do in order to improve literacy?” These are not the only two interpretations of that simple sentence, but you, as an experienced reader, will be able to put the ambiguities to one side, content in the knowledge that the meaning will become clearer as you read further. An inexperienced or reluctant reader, however, will quickly grow confused if they don’t grasp the meaning straight away.
Reading, as Dan Willingham, points out in The Reading Mind can create a virtuous circle. If you read well, you’re more likely to enjoy reading, so you have a better attitude toward reading, which means that you’re more likely to read which helps you to read well. Of course, the opposite is also true. Obviously, giving students some encouragement to read material will go some way to improving their literacy in most cases. This could be intrinsic – finding books or articles on something the student is interested in – or extrinsic – some sort of reward for completing a reading task. And, as with all deliberate practice, it would be best if what the student were reading was neither too hard, nor too easy.
While this sounds simple enough in theory, the reality of reading during a school day is rather different. English classes may sometimes do wider reading where students are given choice over what they read – intrinsic motivation (hopefully)! However, most subjects still use textbooks which are all pitched at the same level.
Of course, some of you are thinking, we’re concerned with the content, and the reading level isn’t really the issue in this subject. However, you only have to pause for a second to realise that the way in which a topic is written can either be inclusive to those who don’t have an understanding of the metalanguage or jargon, or leave them floundering and confused. For example, while the sentence: “There is a reason why the atoms are arranged the way they are in the periodic table of the elements, and it comes out naturally from the Schrödinger equation when you add in the Pauli exclusion principle,” may be quite simple to some of you, it will have lost others at hello. Similarly, the reading level of a textbook may exclude some poor readers or fail to challenge the more able. Yes, I know, textbooks for each subject don’t come in different reading levels… Perhaps they should
So, what’s all this got to do with cancelling trains?
Before I can explain, I need to draw a distinction between goals and targets. The two words are used often interchangeably, but I’d like to suggest that a goal is the reason behind what you’re doing – the desired result – while the target is what you personally are aiming to achieve. The target should be something over which you have a large amount of control. To explain in terms of the trains, the goal of the public transport system should be to move people from place to place in a timely and efficient manner. To ensure this goal, they may have a target of no more than x percent of trains being late. As you may be aware, Metro solved the problem of not meeting their target by cancelling some trains because they were likely to run late. Yes, they met their target, but in doing so, they completely ignored the reason for having it in the first place.
Encouraging students to read more is a worthwhile target, if we say that our goal is improving literacy. But is that our real goal? Is improving literacy, in fact, our target and our goal is somewhat wider?
When the education system sets its targets, is there any real consideration about what the overall goal is? Unless we keep that in mind, then we’ll always run the risk that we start cancelling trains just to meet our target and forgetting what we’re actually here for.
What are we here for?
Now there’s a question you may not have asked for a while…