The literacy journey

Wednesday, 08 Sep 2021

Wednesday 8 September marks International Literacy Day. The fact the United Nations has been celebrating literacy as “a matter of human dignity” since 1967, highlights its intrinsic importance as part of the right to education. Literacy is valued so highly that, even in times of global crisis, efforts have been made to find alternative ways to ensure the continuity of learning. 

So what does it mean to be literate? What is involved in the process of becoming literate? How can teachers (and parents) help students along the path?

Literacy is the ability to understand and critically evaluate meaning through reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing and representing. In a rapidly changing world, the concept of literacy has evolved to include new communication forms and media. Being literate is central to learning from an individual’s early childhood, through the middle and later years of schooling, into the workforce and personal life. It empowers individuals and improves their lives by expanding their capabilities to choose a kind of life they can value.

In the Australian Curriculum,

… students become literate as they develop the knowledge, skills and dispositions to interpret and use language confidently for learning and communicating in and out of school and for participating effectively in society… Success in any learning area depends on being able to use the significant, identifiable and distinctive literacy that is important for learning and representative of the content of that learning area. 

Becoming literate is a journey that we travel throughout life. There is actually no end point; it is constant movement towards a deeper level of metacognitive understanding and self-awareness. The journey begins in early childhood with a focus on the pillars of early literacy instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. In the middle and high school years, the emphasis is on the complex nature of critical thinking, understanding symbols, reading subtext, and discerning inherent assumptions, values and bias. Students learn to describe, analyse, synthesise, evaluate, and create using language form and features across all key subject areas. 

To best aid students along the path towards becoming literate, it must be acknowledged that all teachers are literacy teachers (not just English teachers). Great lIteracy instruction begins with explicit teaching and that is why educators are trained to teach subject-specific metalanguage, modelling and scaffolding learning to meet the needs of individual students. 

Obviously, students travel along the literacy path in different ways and at a varying pace. Consequently, schools need to regularly monitor literacy levels, using formative and summative assessment, and be ready to intervene quickly and intensively. At BDC, our teacher aides and Learning Resource Centre (LRC) staff do an amazing job supporting teachers, students and parents with both literacy and numeracy skill development.

Creating an inclusive learning environment is essential for student success as is the release of teaching and learning strategies designed to lead to increasing levels of independence and mastey. Having high expectations and clear learning goals around literacy, maintaining the belief that all students are capable of improving, and creating meaningful activities with a real-world application are vital in encouraging intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation. 

None of these positive literacy behaviours are limited to a school environment. Children who come from a talking, writing, viewing and listening family are at a huge advantage. Wherever possible, share stories around the dinner table, critique the news together, discuss the benefits and pitfalls of digital media, provide access to a wide range of books and recount life experiences and offer insights. Try to instill a love of learning and curiosity about the world.

The current pandemic is a reminder of the critical importance of literacy. Being able to communicate is essential to a sense of wellbeing. Having the skills to understand and use language helps us shape and share our understanding of ourselves, our relationships and the bigger picture of what we value as a wider society, allowing us to feel a part of something bigger and more meaningful. It seems to me that, at a time of unprecedented physical isolation, connection through language has never been more crucial. 

Amy Dal Pozzo
Head of English