Beyond K-12…

What happens to those people who leave high school without having learned traditional literacy skills?  Although my focus in education is K-12, I can’t help but ask myself this question.  Having had extensive experience working in the service industry, I have known several adult versions of those students who fall through the cracks.  That isn’t to say that they cannot be successful as adults – a lack of literacy skills does not equal a lack of any valuable skills.  But struggling with reading and writing can certainly be a source of anxiety, embarrassment, and problems both in one’s personal and professional life.

According to the Literacy Foundation, some key implications of inadequate literacy skills are having a limited ability to obtain important information, employment problems (such as lower paying jobs and a higher unemployment rate), and, most relevant to educators, less access to continued learning and not seeing education and reading as important.  All of these things will also affect their children – our students.  Employment problems can lead to instability at home and other issues that come from reduced economic status.  A limited ability to obtain information makes it more difficult for a parent to help with homework or even understand important materials we may send home with our students, such as letters about upcoming events or problems the school is dealing with.  And, to compound these problems even further, a parent who doesn’t value education is less likely to make their child’s education a priority while influencing their child to also not value literacy and education.

Although I’m sure that some adults who struggle with reading and writing may have been students who lacked motivation and just “didn’t think reading was important” for life beyond school, I suspect that this is not the case for most who continue to have significant problems beyond things like spelling and grammar.  Most of these adults – all of the ones with whom I have had opportunities to have conversations about literacy, in fact – struggled with some sort of learning disability while in school which they received services for.  This leaves me wondering – were the interventions simply not enough?  What could have been done differently?  Or is there just a need for additional services and educational programs for adults who still struggle with literacy and don’t know how to improve those skills independently?

I don’t think there are any easy answers to any of these questions, and I don’t think it is the responsibility of K-12 educators to intervene on behalf of these individuals.  What I do think is that we could well have the skills and knowledge to help support the ones that we come into contact with – friends, neighbors, and especially parents of students.  We could use our knowledge to guide them to helpful resources or provide an understanding of strategies that could help.  We could provide reassurance when they feel like giving up.  When it comes to a parent who struggles with literacy, we can help not only the adult but also our student because increased literacy will allow them to better support their child’s learning outside of school.  The first step is simply to make ourselves open enough and approachable enough to become a resource for our extended communities.


Literacy Shouldn’t Be An Afterthought

As a student, I’ve had a hard time thinking about what to write about for this blog.  What sort of insights might I have into the topic of teaching literacy?  As my semester has gone on, I have tried to keep this in mind, thinking of what I could write about but, inevitably, other classes and things have taken up my time and brainpower.  Then it dawned on me – teaching literacy is something that can easily become overlooked and pushed aside, much like writing for this blog became for me.

It’s easy to think that students will learn literacy skills without explicitly teaching them, and to an extent, that may be true.  Some students will naturally pick up the skills they need to have good or even excellent reading comprehension, writing, speaking, and understanding of language, technology, or even parts of the broader definitions of literacy such as visual art or music without explicit literacy instruction.  However, many students need more guidance and support.

I think the single most important thing anyone who works with or cares for children and young adults can do to encourage literacy skills is to expose them to a wide variety of texts and make sure they have opportunities to appropriately interact with them.  That may be as simple as reading story books to a five year old or taking a ten year old to the library once a week.  It may mean modeling making time for reading by setting aside time to sit quietly together and read a few times a week.  It also means providing a space for children and young adults to talk about what they have read, especially if it is technically difficult or dealing with a topic that they may not fully comprehend.

As teachers, I think it is important to introduce comprehension strategies and even explain to students how they are useful.  I know that some of the strategies that I have learned about in my college classes, I can recall using in my K-12 years and thinking of them as busy-work and a waste of time.  I think that, had my teachers told me why they were asking me to do these things and talked about how they might help me better understand or remember the information we were covering, I would have been more likely to put effort into the activities and may have even used some of them when reading on my own.

It is also important to talk to parents about what they can do to help their children develop good literacy skills.  Since most parents will not be educators, there is a good chance that they have never considered how to build literacy.  Many of them may have little or no post-secondary education and may struggle with literacy themselves.  By making ourselves available to parents when they feel like they don’t know how to best support their children, we can improve the support they receive outside of our classrooms and outside of school hours, which is especially important for the students who are struggling.