Caitlin Crawford
Jul 9, 2016 · 4 min read
Unflattening (pg. 10)

When you step into a classroom, what do you see as the school-sanctioned literacies? Are students reading their textbooks, novel, or lab procedures? In schools today and in many years past, it seems that there is a correct and singular way to measure a student’s literacy. Nick Sousanis in his book Unflattening illustrated it perfectly. He elaborates by saying, “ Level upon level, they (students) pass through an elaborate sequence of discrete steps, a recipe of add this, mold that. Every procedure is designed to ensure that proper results are achieved (pg 8).” He is viewing the phenomenon that encompasses the education of a student. Students must input information that the schools deem necessary in specific ways, and are assessed on their performance to achieve through these singular strategies. Students are “squeezed into slots. What comes out is interchangeable… standardized (pg. 13).” Although, we cannot blame the schools entirely for this singularity and flattening of literacy achievement. The sanctioned reading being forced on schools through federal and state legislation is hurting, rather than helping, students’ literacy abilities.

To understand why there is such a narrow view of literacy in schools, we must turn to the legislations in place that regulate literacy. South Carolina has a new reading policy in place called Read to Succeed designed to address low literacy performance in the state. It involves several components a few of which are reading coaches, summer reading camps, and provision of reading interventions just to name a few (pg. 3). This particular state act forced schools to measure students’ literacy on how they read traditional text. If a student does not enjoy or learn best through traditional text, then they might be less inclined to excel in that area which will eventually hold them back to be labeled a non-proficient reader. In reality, all students are literate in some way, but it may not be the conventional reading style that has been used for all of these years. Two other legislations that seem to enforce this strict literary assessment is the No Child Left Behind Act and the Race to the Top initiative. NCLB in particular has required standardized testing in reading and math (Klein 2015). The assessments are tied to the comprehension of traditional text. Both of these federal acts involve schools being forced and rewarded for keeping the traditional learning styles and standards as long as the test scores are up. It has created a sense of competition among states to see who has the best reading proficiency. But if a state is missing the federal mark, pulled funds and resources punish them. In all, schools are forced to assess students’ literacy on in a singular form, which leaves several different learning styles out of the equation and left behind.

As I stated before, every student is literate, but these literacies might take different forms than a traditional school text. Margaret Finders did a study on this very issue with adolescent girls in her book Just Girls. She followed two main groups that she called the “social queens” and the “tough cookies,” and neither of them used a singular form of literate text. Both groups did have books that they enjoyed reading on their own time and included several genres, but their main forms of text were more mainstream. For instance, the social queens were highly literate when it came to teen magazines, note writing, and graffiti drawing. They used all of these forms to express language and read. It was part of their social, adolescent culture and did not find much enjoyment in assigned novels that the school asked them to read nor did they fully understand them (pg. 48–82).

The tough cookies were the same way. Cookbooks, home improvement magazines, and poetry were how Finders found them to be literate. They read the school texts to get the grade, but by no means enjoyed them nor did the cookies seem to learn “literary skills” with the text (pg. 83–115). Both of these adolescent groups are expressing their literacy through cultural forms.

In conclusion, the literacies that are sanctioned by schools are being forced mainly by federal and state legislations yet this singular form of assessing a student’s literacy capabilities leaves out many literacies. A student that is an auditory learner should not be expected to read Shakespeare and comprehend its meaning in the same way that a visual learner might. In all, our government needs to reevaluate literacy policies to encourage a more diverse learning environment. Also, instead of making federal funding a competition between states and districts, funding should be provided to the schools that are struggling to help get them back on their feet.

Finders, M. J. (1997). Just girls: Hidden literacies and life in junior high. New York: Teachers College Press.

Klein, A. (2015, April 10). No Child Left Behind: Overview. Education Week. Retrieved July 8, 2016, from

SC State Reading Plan. (2015). Retrieved July 8, 2016, from

Sousanis, N. (2015). Unflattening. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Literate Schools

Where broadened views of literacy lead to more responsive classrooms

Caitlin Crawford

Written by

Literate Schools

Where broadened views of literacy lead to more responsive classrooms

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