Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Literacy and the need for developing capacity

A common catch cry in schools is that we need to improve literacy. Each year the same old rubbish is wheeled out in the guise of cross curricula scaffolding, pro-forma templates and a bunch of clever sounding words that achieve little.

I think if we actually looked at what each learning area is actually doing, literacy is a common component that does not need to be explicitly looked at as a 'literacy' issue. Let's take mathematics for example and the current rhetoric.

Literacy Statement:
Gone are the days where you can teach and test a skill. To adequately support literacy in a school we need to implement literacy in every learning area. Texts used need to support literacy initiatives.

Maths Reply:
Mathematics is typically a text dependent subject. A good mathematics text typically has three components. Each section starts with explanatory text, an area where a student has the content explained - such as a worked example. Following the explanatory text is usually some form of text bank that identifies key words within a section and their meaning. Each word in the text is identified by the teacher and used in context to assist students expand their mathematical vocabulary. Following each bank of words is a section of practice starting with straightforward examples and leading to word problems that require varying degrees of English comprehension and analysis. Mathematical comprehension is verified against answers supplied to questions.

Literacy Conclusion:
Over time, whilst immersed in examples of the mathematical form, the student gains contextual understanding, developing processes and strategies guided by cues for usage. Students are encouraged to reflect upon the level of their skills through answer keys and response items in assessment. Students develop independent learning strategies through investigative tasks to extend their growing understanding."

At this point some people (predominantly non teachers and skeptics like myself) will go "what a load of BS". This is not "literacy" rocket science but just old fashioned teaching (no surprises here.. the maths response was teaching from a text with some testing).

Unfortunately a lot of the literacy movement seems to be just hot air .. a lot of documentation that outlines what we already do, with no defined outcomes or outcomes so unmeasurable that they are worthless.

When parents ask for literacy improvement they usually mean can my student paragraph, write a coherent sentence, deconstruct a problem, understand a text. These tasks are typically issues addressed in English departments as specific skills taught over five to ten years. In the same way we teach supporting mathematics for SOSE and Science, we need English to teach grammar, comprehension and reading skills to assist us. This seems to have been the first positive outcome from NAPLAN testing and the national curriculum debate.

The main issue with the literacy debate and to a lesser degree "the whole of language approach" is that core skills in English (and to a lesser degree other subjects) have been given a backseat to experiential learning and by distributing responsibility for learning language based skills we have watered down the ability and accountability for learning areas to deliver their subject specific content (and undervalued the real skill of English teachers). The value of cross curricula learning has been overestimated, with few realising the amount of work it takes to establish a working cross curricula programme.

As someone that couldn't write a paragraph properly until year 10 (when my English teacher forced us to write an essay every Friday afternoon last period for a whole year) I recognise that this is not a new problem.. but we have had 15 years since I was in school to identify the issue and pinpoint better ways of solving it than the current mess. When responsibility for written skills is devolved to many, responsibility for success is also distributed to the point often that no-one is responsible. Written skills (although supported by all learning areas) need to be the responsibility of English departments in the same way that mathematics is guided in a school by a Mathematics department.

I think that strong, visible and active English and Mathematics departments in a school are clear indicators of a good school.

We need to consider that developing capable English and Mathematics departments is not optional in schools.. it is a necessity and priority for success.

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