Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

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.