Teaching Literacy

What does it mean to teach literacy? It would seem to be very straight forward. Reading and writing is literacy. But of course nothing is that simple, and literacy is far from it. So to discuss literacy we need to define literacy and disciplinary literacy.

Literacy is the ability to understand and read something at its barest definition. Whether that’s reading a book, a room, video or any number of other things. Complex literacy is the ability to use and speak within the literate terms of that discipline. It is the ability to create something that someone else with that literacy can read and understand.

It’s easy to see how wide and varied that definition is, how much room for complexity that leaves us. But how can we use such a wide definition in teaching? Let’s unpack that definition for the classroom. As the definition of literacy suggests, there is more then one type of literacy. So let’s get a handle on what this broadly means for teaching.

This idea of different literacy skills and the importance of teaching towards literacy or intelligences has been increasingly important in the last few decades. Ideas like Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences, discussed in his text Frames of Mind, have driven and shaped teaching philosohpy. Scott Seider chronicles this change, and his own person experience in the article, “An Educator’s Journey Toward Multiple Intelligences.” He charts how the theory “grassroot”-ed its way through the education field, giving teachers words and concept by which to discuss what they were already seeing and accommodate those difference in their teaching.

This idea of various literacy is much the same. The National Council of Teachers of English think the subject is so important that they have a webpage titled “What Do We Know about Multiple Literacies?” On the sight they summarize the important research on the topic, making three main claims. The most important here is that engagin with multiple literacies engenders success.

First you need to get a handle of what type of literacy, what disciplinary literacy, you are trying to each within your classroom. So let’s define disciplinary literacy.

Literacy within a discipline is the ability to engage with and understand the disciplinary jargon, tropes and technical and intellectual skills within a discipline. Further it is the ability to create new content with that knowledge and those skills that others within the discipline can in turn engage.

As my teaching focus is Social Studies, history specifically, I will orienting this discussion around that subject.

Teaching history has two main poles around which it is centered. On one hand students need to know content. On the other students need to be able to think like and use the skills that historians have. This allows us two ways to attack and address the needs of students within teaching history.

Now some might think that a simple lecture and essay assignments will address both of those elements, however that does a disservice to student skills, abilities and the subject. Teaching should enhance, culivate and encourage the various types of literacies any given student can have. Let me explain further on why it’s important for teacher address all types of literacies in schools and in the classroom. Again this can be seen on two levels.

On an academic level schools prioritize certain types and methods of literacy. This can be both positive and negatively affect adolescents. Student whose interest and intelligences line up with those forms of literacy are validated and self assured in their strengths. Students whose literacies, interests and intelligences don’t line up, can detach from school, feeling ignored and overlooked.

On a social level, school peers and other social groups influence what literacies have social capital within their group. This can negatively discourage exploration into new forms of literacy, including school approved literacies. Students often find validation for their literacies within peer groups that school does not give them. However, this can limit students futures as school encouraged literacies hold cultural capital within the larger world.

So then what does that mean for Social Studies teachers?

On the content side, we need to encourage and valid a wide variety of literacies. We should encourage discovery and exploration into content through multiple types of literacy and give students a safe and welcoming environment to explore new and unfamiliar types of literacy. History is a great subject to do this in. Historical themes and narratives do not need to be only taught through reading and lecture. Videos, hands on activities, skits, art among many others, are all valid ways that content and historical themes can be taught.

On the skills side, there are skills like interpreting various primary and secondary sources and the creation of historical arguments and new knowledge. And of it is important, of course, to teach more traditional literacy skills that real historians use, reading and writing. However, while those traditional skills are important for the ability to communicate within the discipline, the actual ability to think like a historian is the most important skill. And again, engaging in other types of literacy skills can engender those historical thinking skills.

However, there are a couple of key element needed to make interliteracy teaching successful. And you can see it missing in this video.

So what has the subsitute and the teachers before him missed? Only what I feel is the two most important elements of teaching any subject. One, is to give student stimulating intellectual work, which can encourage engagement in and of itself. Two, make the work within the discipline feel meaningful and relevant to the students in an authnetic way, acknowledging them as individuals and not as cliches.

For a more successful, if less “radical,” approach to breaking away from the traditional literacy oriented classroom, look at the video below. In the video Stanford University looks at this the importance of expanding how history is taught from memorization to historical thinking. Showing how being academically rigorous and intellectually engaging students in relevant disciplinary literacies helps in achievement and understanding.

Of course, literacy is a complex subject and successfully engaging with all students at all levels is impossible. But it is important to try. You never know how you classroom and subject might positive affect and encourage students to grow and you will definitely be a better teacher for it.

Works Cited

Gardner, H. (1993). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York, NY: BasicBooks.

Seider, S. (2009). An Educator’s Journey Toward Multiple Intelligences. Retrieved December 06, 2016, from https://www.edutopia.org/multiple-intelligences-theory-teacher

What Do We Know about Multiple Literacies? (n.d.). Retrieved December 06, 2016, from http://www.ncte.org/policy-research/wwk/multipleliteracies

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