Has the Word Literacy Become a Cliché in the World of Education?

Thinking About Literacy Part I




We all have memories that become moments integrating into our ongoing stream of consciousness that connect to facets of our daily lives.  A recent moment returned me to 1967 as I drove my parents’ car into the now demolished Dorchester, MA Neponset Drive-In with three  passengers, two of whom were hidden in the trunk. Once we all made it comfortably into the car, we settled in to watch The Graduate, a movie that resonated for four teenage boys because of Mrs. Robinson and the graduate’s (Dustin Hoffman) love interest.  However,  it was one iconic word of advice that brought me back to the present and unfortunately was predictably accurate…”Plastics!” Today, as we address issues of climate change, plastics is one of the key challenges to reducing our carbon footprints. 

As a graduate student, I received a piece of advice that was just as iconic as ‘plastics’; at least for me. Ted Sizer, a founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools(CES) was a guest in my class, Educational Issues & The Politics of Policy. He spoke of the Coalition’s philosophy centered on its 10 Common Principles, one of which was “Less is More.” The reductionist notion wasn’t originally coined by Sizer. Poet, Robert Browning, used the phrase in his 1855 poem, and multiple architects are given credit for coming up with the phrase in connection with a minimalist building designs during the mid twentieth century. For Sizer and the CES, the educational connection to less is more meant “curricular decisions should be guided by the aim of thorough student mastery and achievement rather than by an effort to merely cover content.”

Which brings me to an overused word in the educational arena today that might carry the same insidiousness going forward that has evolved with plastics over the last 50+ years…literacy

The comparison of plastics in our lives to the use of the word literacy is apt. Plastics are overused for profitability in packaging that is both cheap and slowly killing the environment.  The word literacy is ubiquitous, primarily by corporate educational publishing and school supplies companies for profitability.  Its overuse is slowly killing the love and motivation to read and write. Plastics made its way into the mainstream of our consumer lives seemingly without a great deal of thought and continues to proliferate despite the efforts of environmentalists. There are some corners of the planet where awareness is slowing plastic’s destructive march, but not enough.  Literacy has made its way into the corporate sphere of profitability; and as educators hurdle through another school year of distractions and new requirements, the meaning of literacy gets more polluted. It’s become a cliche covering more areas in an already overflowing curriculum. Instead, focus should be on mastering reading and writing in a way that requires less curriculum coverage by including learner experiences that translate to lifelong reading, writing, and thinking that will add meaning and quality to one’s life.

So, what should we do to ensure that literacy doesn’t become plastics-like in the 21st century? There are at least two paths required to ensure literacy maintains a fidelity to the roots of its meaning.  The first is for educators, teachers and administrators, to co-construct the meaning, value, and practice of literacy in their schools and classrooms.  This means there will be a shared understanding of how literacy connects and integrates across the curriculum in a way that gets inculcated by students beyond the English classroom.  The second path will be elaborated on in Thinking About Literacy, Part II covering the need to reduce the corporate influence and hijacking of the word literacy for selling mostly ineffective products to increase profits. The corporate takeover of literacy is reduces reading and writing motivation…both for the teacher and the student.

My teaching career was primarily centered in middle and high school English as well as writing at the university level. My own understanding of the word literacy begins with a simple premise that literacy’s primary focus is on reading and writing along with thinking critically and reflectively about the reading and writing one is doing in order to make meaning and connections both interpersonally and intrapersonally. This definition carries an assumption for me that literacy: reading, writing, thinking critically and reflectively, is something to be universally done across the curriculum in schools and educational organizations.

In schools it seems that in multiple situations, science and math for example, reading and writing is done more as an event…a homework assignment, an extended answer on an assessment, etc.  Rather, it needs to be done as a process; something done often and regularly by all teachers who want to develop a sense of deeper thinking and curiosity in their subject areas. Reading and writing across disciplines should promote active thinking that foster possibilities for multiple solutions and applications to key competencies that students should know and understand. Perhaps as important to deeper understanding of content is the emergence of new questions that students may be interested in pursuing. This can increase the intellectual curiosity in a subject leading to higher levels of metacognition. Educational publishers pushing out classroom products with literacy ubiquitously placed on titles and covers are not producing material that meets what I think should be the standard for literacy instruction.

When high stakes testing initially took a grip on curriculum and instruction, I was teaching in a New Hampshire public school.  As test scores were starting to be used like a scarlet letter to publicly punish schools with poor results, there was a shift to teaching to the test. Curriculum and instruction were captured by the politics of the day. Federal and state governments strove to tie funding to test results. Local school boards tethered administrators and specific teachers to those results without digging deeper or understanding the rationale for those results. The growing testing feverishness created a public at large that made faulty assumptions about test results (good and bad) as a measure of how schools and communities were doing for educating their children.

I was lucky to work in a school that had one simple directive for teachers as we begun to fret about the test and what student performances on those high stakes assessments might imply about our teaching abilities. The directive from our department head was, “Be sure to include quality reading and writing opportunities into daily instruction and the test will take care of itself.”  I was lucky to work in a district that thought this way.  It made teaching a more joyful experience and hopefully the same could be said about learning by the students as well. Fortunately, the students in our district tested well enough to make the testing discussion one of a fairly dry report to our school board and we didn’t appear in the press as a “failing School.”

However, to say the damage being done to teaching and learning by a testing craze politicizing the measures of successful schools and millions of individual students understates the negative impact that nationalized, standardized testing has had on the educational landscape in general. But I want to stay focused on some issues that appear to minimize what effective literacy instruction and integration across the curriculum can and should be, along with the resulting minimization of critical thinking across disciplines, which ironically diminish student test results.  

Literacy is a cliché in schools today because corporate America has marketed it in a way that overloads educational decision makers caught in a day-to-day world of choosing a convenient path to managing curriculum and teacher decisions for efficiency and practicality. There’s too little thought by decision makers outside the classroom for the best reading and writing practices that will serve students most effectively both in the present and as a lifelong venture. The proliferation and misuse of plastics for the past 50 years, gave consumers the convenience and cheapness of the packaging without considering the immediate and long-term consequences or costs to the environment. I’m hoping the current misguided use of the word literacy proliferating our schools on slickly packaged products won’t pollute the core meaning of literacy along with best practices for teaching reading and writing. Like plastics and its environmental impact, the consequences of unchecked proliferation of literacy labeled products are counterproductive to effective literacy instruction negatively impacting the lifelong motivation to read, write and think critically.

My post, Thinking About Literacy Part II examines the corporate side of this issue in a bit more detail and the subtle ways literacy instruction and attitudes toward standardized testing are being impacted.