Monday, November 08, 2004

Real Literacy Power!

All over the world there is government pressure to improve literacy in schools. Sometimes, as a result of this well intentioned, if reactionary, political pressure, there are unintended consequences. Learning power is sacrificed for literacy achievement.

Reading as a process, rather than reading for meaning or personal expression, becomes the end rather than the means. As well current literacy seems to focus unduly on reading, ignoring, to a greater or lesser degree, oral expression and writing. Schools go for 'quick fix' solutions and programs like 'jolly phonics' and endless black-line masters. They may be useful , if used judicially, but the English language and regional dialects make a mockery of too many words. More often 'experts' decide, using 'best practice' research, that certain activities need to be put into place in all classrooms. While this imposed approach might improve the statistics it has also been shown that the scores, after rising, soon drop off. Something more is needed.

One answer , known by creative teachers for decades, is to value students own 'voice' and to make use of their personal experience as the basis of the language program. Unfortunately as I travel around schools it is this personal voice that is missing.

Teachers who value student's experience use the desire to communicate and express as the basis of thinking, speaking, writing and reading. They encourage children to talk about what they have experienced, or are wondering about, and this becomes the context and the text for learning. Every learner has a wealth of experiences to tap into and creative teachers know how to help students focus on what one New Zealand pioneer ( Elwyn Richardson) called the 'felt experiences'. All students also have a 'hidden' vocabulary of 'powerful words' that have emotional meaning to them - these are the words that each child will easily remember. These words can be used to play word games and develop phonemic understanding - if not overdone!

Teachers who make use of students experiences, interests and passions need to be sensitive and excellent listeners. Children soon pick up when their ideas are being subverted to be turned into a teacher's language program! At an early age parents can encourage this sense of 'voice' and 'identity', and even before children come to school, young children begin to express ideas through their own primal form of writing. Creative teachers believe that, through student's own writing ( in some cases 'scribed' by the teacher) that the idea of other people books come into play. To do this they need to see themselves first as authors in their own right.

I wish I could say I see evidence of such poetic and imaginative writing in the schools I visit. A creative approach helps students create their own 'minds' with the help of the artistry of a sensitive teacher. It is also an approach that applies to all areas of learning and not just the 'literacy hour'. It is about tapping into the desire to learn and explore that all students are born with. If it were pursued throughout a student's schooling we would not have as many students who are currently 'dis-engaged' from learning.

What we need is a return to the real power of literacy - as means to explore the world of reality and imagination. I fear that, as one United Kingdom commentator wrote, that the 'evil twins of literacy and numeracy are gobbling up the rest of the curriculum'.

School who do not understand the true meaning of literacy may win the battle but lose the war. And they will miss out on appreciating the imagination of students who have acquired the power to be their own 'meaning makers'.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Elwyn's book should be required reading by all true educators. Nothing quite like it before or since.