Literacy as a 21st- Century Survival Skill

Brooke Foged and Jenny Hammock share their insights into fighting generational illiteracy with the engaging power of technology

In today’s world, reading is an expected skill. Most of what we need to know to get by in life is written down, so for our current students to have future career success in nearly any field, they must have some degree of literacy. Even an entry-level job in a fast-food restaurant requires a person to read the application, and then eventually the employee handbook and the menu. Outside of a career, patients who cannot read their prescription bottles for dosage information may find themselves in real danger, and people signing binding contracts need to be able to read to know what they are agreeing to. In the 21st century, reading is a survival skill.

However, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education (https://www.all4ed.org/state-data/national/), only 36% of eighth-grade students in the U.S. read at a proficient level, and an estimated 32 million adults are considered illiterate (https://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/education/2009-01-08-adult-literacy_N.htm). There are many correlations between a lack of literacy skills and a poorer quality of life (http://www.begintoread.com/research/literacystatistics.html). For instance, 85% of juveniles who interface with the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate, as are 60% of all prison inmates. Some 43% of adults who have Level 1 literacy skills live in poverty, compared to only 4% of those at Level 5.

Given this contrast between the necessity of literacy in our society and how many people in society lack this crucial skill, teachers are left with the responsibility to engage each and every one of their students in the process of learning, regardless of age, natural ability, and other factors like learning disabilities. This is where technology comes in. The right technology, intelligently implemented, is a valuable tool to differentiate learning for each individual by interests, skill level, and familiarity with the English language and to help overcome the challenges students may face due to their family and economic backgrounds.

Family Background and the Cycle of Illiteracy

Families play a critical role in setting students up for success in every area. Teachers only have a few hours a day to teach students, whereas families have a lifelong opportunity to illustrate the importance of education and literacy. Reading aloud to children, providing them with a variety of books, and demonstrating a personal enjoyment of reading are all excellent ways to start children on the track to reading success. Absence of this early family support can create a cycle of generational illiteracy that is difficult to break, particularly once the children become adults.

The older students get, the more “emotional baggage” they bring to their literacy learning curves. They have struggled to read for a long time, and many are so discouraged that they have convinced themselves that they just cannot read—or worse, they believe themselves to be stupid.

Alternatively, this struggle can also make adult learners take literacy instruction very seriously. They know what it means to live in the world without the ability to read. They know what they are missing out on, and they want to remedy it. Teachers in these situations not only have to provide explicit, age-appropriate instruction, but they have to overcome the emotional hurdles that thwart student motivation.

Older readers sometimes struggle with getting help from the teacher. They can often feel frustrated and embarrassed that they still need help, so they do not raise their hands. Peer mentoring can help alleviate some of the emotional struggles for those students by allowing them to work through things with a fellow student. Other students prefer working with a teacher, because they do not want to be seen by their peers as needing help.

For students who are ashamed of their struggles with literacy or with learning English as a second language, technology can provide a safe haven to learn at their own individual paces. The solitary process of going through a literacy software program can alleviate the embarrassment felt by these learners and allow them to repeat lessons and practice particularly difficult concepts over and over again until they master them. They can practice spelling and decoding new words, reading and hearing definitions, and understanding context sentences without the concern of looking foolish in front of a group or holding up class for others who may be ready to move on.

Unique Challenges for English Language 

Learners

For decades, English teachers have been encouraging students to read their writing aloud to themselves and listen for expressions, words, or sentences that “don’t sound right.” This is not bad advice. Native speakers, specifically those who come from homes in which

standard English is spoken, often have a gut instinct for what “sounds” right. Even if they cannot explain a rule or even provide an example, their experience will often guide them to the right answer.

However, this tactic is less helpful for English language learners (ELLs), who are often heavily influenced by the rules and sounds of their native languages. When English aligns with the rules they already know, things can click more quickly. When English deviates from their native languages, we are asking them to create entirely new paradigms for their knowledge bases. In these cases, being able to articulate rules and patterns becomes a crucial skill as they compensate for a lack of a gut instinct.

Many ELL students may have a fairly solid grasp of the alphabet, but most have never been taught decoding strategies. This is where phonics instruction can prove useful. A solid foundation of guidelines and rules can help any person, native speaker or not, learn the basics of reading and writing English. Using simple markings for different letter patterns allows students to look closely at the individual parts of a word and make sense out of them. Once they become familiar with the markings, the process becomes automatic.

Technology and Engaging Literacy

Instruction

Traditionally, reading is seen as a sedentary, quiet activity. Treating it this way can lead some more active students to disengage. This can be overcome by using a multisensory, encompassing approach to literacy instruction with movement, speech, listening, and writing, too. Because several areas of the brain are stimulated during this process, the knowledge is reinforced and retained. Also, using different ways of delivering information addresses everyone’s learning preferences.

Technological advances have made literacy instruction a more active, engaging process. Benefits such as instant feedback, gamification, and analytics have greatly improved student motivation and instructor monitoring in the area of literacy. With technology, teachers can more easily differentiate instruction for students of different reading levels, as well as teach extensive decoding strategies.

There are many ways to make reading instruction fun and engaging. Most learners, regardless of age or skill level, really enjoy a multisensory aspect to direct instruction in the classroom. When it comes to individual work, software is adaptable. Digital lessons can be interactive, filled with images, videos, games, and other fun activities. Software can offer hundreds of different passages to choose from, at a variety of different difficulty levels and for a range of interests, and students can control their progression through these different texts based on how comfortable they feel.

Giving students the autonomy to work at their own pace through programs such as these serves as a valuable tool for increasing literacy and can also serve to scaffold their learning within a blended classroom setting. Software can also include formative assessments at regular intervals to ensure that the student is placed at the appropriate reading level and can also help teachers monitor student progress and discover any trouble spots where they can offer additional help.

Demonstrating the Value of Reading

Technology has come a long way in aiding educators and engaging students, but nothing will ever replace the judgment of a good teacher. Some students may be better served by delaying the introduction of classical literary works in favor of in-depth phonics instruction and more real-world reading, like job applications.

Classrooms that provide authentic text for reading also illustrate the importance of reading throughout life, as opposed to classrooms that only focus on more classical literature. The ideal classroom environment is one in which the teacher encourages reading and helps students understand the value of reading. Classrooms in which frequent reading is modeled and encouraged are great environments for nurturing reading as a life skill that must be learned.

Speaking, by contrast, is a natural process; no matter how much or how little instruction a child receives, he or she is programmed for speech. Reading is a different animal. It is not a natural ability and does require work. Some students will struggle a lot more than others. Processing disorders such as dyslexia can make reading a painful experience. However, while natural ability can increase ease and enjoyment, it is not a prerequisite for success.

Every individual can find his own unique path to literacy success, from an English language learner who is able to use technology to learn letter rules and patterns to a student who jumps at the opportunity to engage with reading material that applies to her individual life and interests. With the right kind of instruction, dedicated teachers, and motivation, all students have the potential to be good readers.

Brooke Foged has a master’s degree in English and experience in higher ed. publication and teaching developmental English at the community college level. She is currently a curriculum developer at Reading Horizons.

Jenny Hammock is a former high school English teacher currently working as a curriculum developer and trainer at Reading Horizons.

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