Literate in Life
For many, when they someone mentions English class, they have flashbacks to diagramming sentences, writing a five-paragraph essay, or dreading the confusion around Shakespearean language. Even the students who loved English class, remember talking about the meaning behind a symbol in a text and debating what the author meant by certain choices. They might think about content-specific vocabulary such as “metaphor” or “past participle.” However, the English discipline, while very much inclusive of those aspects, has evolved. Besides the integral aspects and major works of the discipline, the English discipline encompasses a lot of skills. Teachers need to understand how to teach English skills to their students, ways to translate ELA-specific skills to prepare students for critical thinking in their jobs and coursework in other content areas, and adapt teaching to support all of their students, many of whom may have diverse needs and “literacies” they bring to the classroom.
The SC College- and Career-Ready standards for English Language Arts are organized by Inquiry-Based Literacy, Writing, Reading — Informational Text, Reading — Literary Text, and Communication categories. The standards do not dictate which texts need to be read or which authors or literary periods to study; instead, the standards are skills-based. Besides being at the core of the English discipline, finding and assessing sources, discerning information, and communicating ideas through speaking and writing are required for learning and integral for most modern jobs. The English-specific literacy skills sound like general literacy skills, and they do align greatly. Like other subjects, there are many facets to being literate in the discipline. Some might include:
· structural rules of language, such as grammar and conventions;
·literature studies of different genres (fiction, poetry, drama, etc.), authors and movements, or literary periods;
· ability to write and communicate effectively, like diction, audience consideration, craft, etc.; and
· meaning-making. Decoding and understanding what you’ve read, relating stories and themes to the human condition, and understanding the artistic importance of a work through the ability to analyze the text directly or connect it to a larger social context are just a few examples.
Besides preparing students for college and careers, the literacy within the English Language discipline supports other content areas. Therefore, teachers must stretch to support other content areas. For example, students can learn the skills they developed within their ELA classes, such as understanding text components, to read a scientific article. They can learn to analyze primary documents in Social Studies or use the critical-thinking skills of developing inference to understand conjectures in Math. The skills learned within the ELA discipline are skills needed to transfer knowledge. If students don’t know how to communicate what they’ve learned effectively, it is difficult for other content areas to assess them or find gaps in information. They can’t share information and learn from one another (Integrated writing, reading, and communication strategies across subject matter help students build, practice, and refine their literacy skills. English and non-English teachers must work collaboratively to ensure content-wide literacy.
Being literate in English means that you need to develop the critical examination and thinking about and beyond the text. Making connections is crucial, and learning how to pull information and learn independently is important for an evolving world. Experts believe that many of the jobs that we’re preparing our students for will not exist in the workforce in years to come. Automation and technology are rapidly changing our world and the skills needed. In just a decade, we can see how this has impacted our school structures. English-literate teachers help students transfer ELA skills to find information on their own. Many will not be provided with job-training as new fields and occupations emerge to meet demand. As Plaut states, “Even with all the pressures of teaching, we can and should lay the groundwork for our kids to choose their own positive path” (2009). By teaching students how to learn and to think about learning, through the English discipline, they can learn how to love learning and become self-guided learners. This will help them pursue their passions and give them the agency to guide their own learning and “take risks and work more independently” (Plaut 2009). Besides traditional English skills, ELA classes can focus on 21st digital literacy skills. As Shanahan and Shanahan have pointed out in their article, reading skills have increasingly become necessary for all jobs, even the shrinking blue-collar jobs (Shanahan and Shanahan 2008). Within a few years, one could predict that digital literacy skills will follow the same pattern. Learning how to navigate and read online information, use critical reading skills to find information and evolve to meet the needs of changing technology.
Instead of other subjects, English literacy is a deeper-dive and refinement of basic and intermediate literacy skills (Shanahan and Shanahan 2008). The top part of the pyramid would be transferring those basic and intermediate skills to guide learning generally. Additionally, English teachers should strive to adapt to meet the needs of all students and teach students how to switch within discourses. That contextual knowledge of not just how but when to use certain literacy skills is the modern version of disciplinary literacy in English. In the Smagorinsky book, the author states that non-ELA content teachers, science teachers for example, shouldn’t rely on English teachers to teach them how to read, write, and speak according to their discipline (Smagorinsky 2014). While I think that statement is true and wholeheartedly agree; however, I think that understanding of different texts and modalities is what it truly means to be literate within the English discipline.
With literacy so entwined within the English discipline, it’s hard to define how someone can be literate just in the English discipline, as it exists today. In the past, with a strong emphasis on literature (and specific literature) in English courses, it was easy to teach people how to read, write, and speak like a literary critic. However, the discipline, much like the world, has evolved to encompass skills-based standards. There are no longer specialized literacies within the discipline. Instead, the teachers (and even students) within the discipline are charged with finding ways to connect and transfer these English-specific skills within other content areas. These skills support a holistic gathering, creating, and synthesizing of knowledge. This shift in epistemological approach has broadened what it means to be literate within the English discipline. I’m relieved that a push for cross-discipline collaboration exists, and that the charge of teaching these traditional literacy skills (reading, writing, and communicating) and 21st century literacy and digital literacy skills (finding sources, evaluating sources, navigating multiple mediums, producing content) is trickling into other content areas.
To be literate in English is understanding the stories within ourselves and the other content areas and making meaning of these stories in relation to who we are as humans. English is about building skills to share and communicate knowledge. We used to teach terms and specific books, but with the advent of the internet, that is changing. We’re now teaching skills and big ideas in our content areas. As teachers, we straddle the lines between learning the works and wealth of knowledge in our discipline that came before us and creating students who can progress our disciplines forward. Helping our students become literate, from basic literacy to discipline literacy, feels like a lofty goal; however, it’s an important one. We can belabor the terms or teach the overall humanity of our disciplines: the stories that connect us to being human, the history that informs our futures, the problems we push through in math, and the science of understanding the world around us.
Plaut, S. (2009). The right to literacy in secondary schools: Creating a culture of thinking. New York: Teachers College Press.
Shanahan, T., & Shanahan, C. (2008). Teaching disciplinary literacy to adolescents: Rethinking content- area literacy. Harvard Educational Review, 78.
Smagorinsky, P., & Flanagan, J. M. (2014). Literacy across the curriculum: teaching dilemmas and effective solutions, grades 6–12. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.