Improving The Literacy Of Amer
Improving the Literacy of America Through Our Classrooms
Reading and writing are two of the most important functions performed on a daily basis by individuals. One problem in America is that a significant amount of the population can not perform one or both of these tasks. These two tasks are commonly referred to as literacy. What encompasses a literate individual is a controversial topic. For example, if someone can read a sentence and decipher what it means does this mean the person is literate. Or should the individual be able to interpret a sentence as well as write and respond to a given situation to be considered literate. Due to this vagueness in what encompasses a literate individual, I will not state statistical information about the state of literacy in the United States. The statistical information is not important, rather the way the literacy rate can be risen in the U.S. is what is important. A general situation that has to occur to raise literacy rate is the situation where an individual has the desire to read and write and does not do so solely because of instruction from authority figures.
This certainly is not occurring today, as exemplified by the event that “even a best-selling book in this country might reach 5% of the population” (Castell 38). Perhaps a better way to influence the literacy in America is to examine the classrooms where primary education geared toward literacy takes place. This refers to elementary and middle school classrooms. An examination of what processes in a classroom context help develop literacy in individuals is an important aspect of the literacy of the children in America. Three aspects of a classroom that affect literacy are: the power of the teacher, community
with peers, and access to tools of literacy.
Power, in this case, refers to the power of the teacher and the extent to which this person expresses this power. The teacher serves to regulate the activities of children. One of the most important things that he does is to foster the interest and learning of the pupils. In this way the teacher has infinite power over his subjects. He can assign work, manipulate exactly what the student has to know for his class, and alter his teaching styles for different subjects. Traditionally little power is given to the student in the classroom setting. Often times students regurgitate memorized information in order to perform in a well in a given class. This allows for little interpretation by the individual and hinders their ability to think and reason for themselves.
Another example when students’ ability to think and function academically on their own is hindered is when the teacher uses his power to interpret texts, provide analysis, and validate learned information while giving students little opportunity to express their ideas and opinions on a given subject. This idea is summed up when David Bloome states that literacy and cognitive thought
“. . . requires students to learn to reflect, not only on what they are writing and how they are writing, but also on the role and function of writing within a community and how a community will use, interpret, and understand a written text. It is not that teachers give up power to students, but that power is vested in the classroom community of readers and writers of which the teacher is an experienced member(24).”
The teacher is certainly a key part of the teaching of literacy, but some of the teacher’s power needs to be dispersed to the students in the classroom as well. In essence the move toward students conducting more actively their own analysis of presented material needs to be established in American schools.
Another aspect that affects the learning of literacy is community with peers within the classroom. Members of a community are often times encouraged to use language on the same level as others in the community, which can serve to ignite learning. The way in which literacy is used within the community is established by the members of the community. Groups, or communities, of individuals therefore are a helpful tool in the teaching methods of literacy. For example, if a group is formed with one of the top students of the class and a mixture of the average and below average students of the classroom, then the learning processes and achievement of that particular community will function near the level of the top student. This is true because the average and below
average students will participate and understand the given task at a higher level than they normally would because the above average student serves to explain and aide the rest of the group.
Vygotsky presents this idea of community with his zone of proximal development. This idea is “. . . defined by the difference between a child’s test performances under two conditions: with or without assistance (Wells 1). Community is a very positive factor and the work with the more competent peer leads “. . . the child to carry out activities that force him to rise above himself” (Wells 1).
Within the community, the way literacy is used is created by the members of the community. Bloome states that “how members react to each other, and their use of written language, establishes expectations. . .” (15). This again emphasizes that when working in a community certain expectations among peers are created and these expectations encourage students to achieve success at a level of others in their particular community. Forming a community with peers helps with learning literacy through encouragement to perform at, or near, the same level of other community members.
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Access to literacy tools is another way literacy among the youth of America can be improved. This access refers to a student being able to participate in classroom literacy. The basic idea behind the access to literacy is that students should be given activities that will improve their abilities. For example, students who lack competence in the interpretation of a given subject should be given an activity that will improve their competence, while, on the other hand, students who already has this competence should be given another activity. In this situation a student is not challenged to an extreme
causing him to give up the task at hand, nor is the student not challenged at all by the given task. However, if students work as a community, rather than on their own, this giving of different tasks with different difficulties does not apply. This is true since the less competent peers will be working with more competent peers which allows for assistance from the more competent peer.
Engaging and interesting activities should also be accessible to students. As Karen Harris and Barbara Baskin put it:
“One acquires reading skills by reading something that engages the imagination and excites interest, a principle endorsed by more and more reading experts who are now advocating the replacement of sterile, artificially constructed, dull and simpleminded stories. . . (31).”
The idea here is to spark the reading interest of the student so that reading (and writing) will be a desired activity rather than a punishment. A specific type of reading material that is most commonly attacked is the textbook. Harris and Baskin report that the “. . . special voice of a single author is suppressed in favor of a homogenized style, with content more sensitive to readability levels than to potential student interest” (31). Textbooks are the
main reading source for students, therefore they need to interest, as well as educate, students early in their academic careers so they do not develop a negative connotation when dealing with reading and learning. Certainly, if students have access to appropriate material according to their competence and to interesting, thought provoking material then their willingness to learn will increase, hence their literacy will increase.
The power exerted by teachers, interacting with a community of peers, and having access to tools of literacy are three factors that greatly influence the level of literacy obtained through classroom experiences. Teachers need to allow students to think and analyze texts and other information on their own instead of presenting an idea or interpretation as the ultimate truth. Students can help improve their literacy level also by working with a community of peers. This allows them to receive help from more competent peers and pushes the less competent to their maximum achievement level.
Access to thought provoking material and texts is equally important in achieving literacy. This type of material makes the methods of learning literacy desirable to the student, which obviously increases learning. The United States has to move toward implementing better literacy-directed learning in our school’s classrooms. In the long-run, this will help the U.S. compete on the national level with other countries.
But the advantages to a more literate society are obvious even when viewing the issue on a more personal level. Literacy is the key to the social world as well as the job market. Individuals who benefit from the increase in literacy rate will be more successful in life and maybe even have higher feelings toward themselves. The vision of a totally literate America is certainly a very promising and positive one.
Bloome, David. Classrooms and Literacy. New Jersey: Ablex , 1989.
Castell, Suzanne De, et al., eds. Literacy, Society, and Schooling. New York: Press Syndicate, 1986.
Harris, Karen, and Barbara Baskin. “Toward a Culturally Literate Society.” School Library Journal 35.12 (1989): 29-32.
Wells, Gordon. “The Zone of Proximal Development and Its Implications for Learning and Teaching.” Sep. 1996. http://cite.ped.gu.se/network/zpddiscussion.html (31 Mar. 1999).