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Are All Readers Literate?

obriena's picture

Back in 1965, UNESCO proclaimed September 8 to be International Literacy Day. The goal? To highlight the importance of literacy to individuals, communities and society. I’ll try to link to some of the reports being released today as they come out.

Just learning this occasion exists reminded me of a post of Robert Pondiscio’s that I saw recently on the Core Knowledge Blog, which referred to a post on Mark Bauerlein’s blog at The Chronicle of Higher Education that commented on an article that Pondiscio wrote with E.D. Hirsch earlier this year. (You’ve got to love the internet.)

The article doesn’t necessary embrace the international spirit of today, but it hits literacy on the head.

To be fully literate is to have the communicative power of language at your command—to read, write, listen and speak with understanding.

The Pondiscio/Hirsch article argues that reading is not a transferable skill, at least not entirely. A child may be able to master “decoding” but needs domain-specific content knowledge to fully comprehend what he or she is reading. And it argues that our current testing and accountability system for our public schools results in time wasted on reading strategies rather than imparting the knowledge that will allow our children to become truly literate, especially in low-income schools where children don't always get background knowledge from their home environment to the degree that their more advantaged peers do. Certainly there are exceptions--Alabama's George Hall Elementary comes to mind. But in general, we seem to be developing a society of decoders…or perhaps a society segregated in terms of literacy as well as income. Those who have are literate and those who have not decode. The problem is worsened by standardized tests that, at least in the early grades, reward the decoding drill and kill rather than the development of the underlying skills necessary for literacy later.

Just because a school has high test scores doesn’t mean that it’s a good school. And just because a child passes a state reading test doesn't mean that he or she is literate. But then we get back to the same old question: How can we accurately assess whether someone is literate? Something worth considering on a day in which we are celebrate its importance to not only the individual but society as a whole.


This is all so true. But one

This is all so true. But one caveat: there are still plenty of children who can't even decode effeciently by third grade. It is appropriate to teach decoding pretty intensively until the children are good at it, while at the same time teaching lots of content; once children are effective decoders, I do agree that the background knowledge is more important than the "reading strategies," which I have found are often just a way to try to get kids with insufficient background knowledge to struggle their way through a written passage.

"To be fully literate is to

"To be fully literate is to have the communicative power of language at your command—to read, write, listen and speak with understanding."

Not true! Go read about Amanda Baggs. I daresay she can communicate effectively with a keyboard despite being nonverbal autistic.

And I have a literate and verbal autistic child who will exit through doors that state DO NOT ENTER. Well, he wasn't entering, so it was OK for him to exit through those doors. Really. I suppose his literacy will help him in some situations, but NOT others because his reasoning isn't like yours and mine. So is he truly "literate?"

I have a feeling all of us don't really know how the human mind processes information, but we make guesses based on current research with neurotypicals. And we're not all that. :)

PS. Is the proper etiquette to wish everyone a Happy Literacy Day? Ok, well, I'm doing it. Have a great one!

I've read a lot about the

I've read a lot about the necessity of background knowledge, and my classroom observations have led me to believe it's true. I do believe strategies have a place in reading, but once you have those strategies in place, you are dead in the water without background knowledge. I know this from watching my students. I know this for myself from trying to read things "outside my field." A text about golf means virtually nothing to me because although I've heard the terms, I don't know what they mean. My only experience is with mini-golf. So I am illiterate at reading about golf.

I recently did a whole series of comic strips about background knowledge for my newspaper strip Mr. Fitz. I don't think the general public thinks about this sort of thing often, and I wanted to make it accessible. I offer the link (http://www.mrfitz.com/archive.htm) as food for thought. (The Background Knowledge strips are the ones near the top).

Anonymous - "It is

Anonymous - "It is appropriate to teach decoding pretty intensively until the children are good at it, while at the same time teaching lots of content." I think you are right about that. Only through the combination will kids truly get reading.

Mrs. C - True about Amanda Baggs. Maybe in the "To be fully literate is to have the communicative power of language at your command—to read, write, listen and speak with understanding," "speak" could be replaced with something like "communicate." Although I am not sure that is even necessary, because I could imagine a situation in which a person can read, write and listen with understanding, while not being able to communicate it back. I might say that person is still literate--to me, its the understanding that is key. And your son presents an interesting case...I am not an expert at all, so I would have to defer to them on this. But I do agree that "all of us don't really know how the human mind processes information, but we make guesses based on current research with neurotypicals. And we're not all that." (By the way...I think it is perfectly proper to wish everyone a Happy Literacy Day--I am so glad you did!)

David Lee Finkle - I agree that I don't think the general public thinks about this sort of thing often. And I love your comics! Thanks for sharing!

CUTE comic! I'm sharing it

CUTE comic! I'm sharing it with others! :)

I think the issue is too

I think the issue is too simplified - I think that we continually make the error of making literacy "either or" when it really is dependent on the person. It is a mistake to focus on just reading strategies or just background knowledge or just anything else. I think the focus should be on helping students identify what their needs are and move them forward based on need, not opinion.

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