Thursday, February 24, 2011

Reading is Complicated; Literacy is really Complicated

I 'bumped into' a former colleague from my university teaching days. She's an English professor with a background in literacy programs, so we fell to talking about reading, schools, etc. She sent me an article about the role the bedtime story plays in various kinds of family environments. The article summarized the findings of an ethnographic analysis of three different groups and how they enculturate their children into the reading and learning process.

Group 1 begins reading with their children very early, provides a wide variety of reading material, and teaches (consciously or not) that there is much to "take away" from reading material. These parents show, demonstrate, teach their children to, I as I put it to my 8th graders, "interact with the text." Make inferences, draw conclusions, evaluate context, make comparisons, etc.

This 'order' of things, by the way, is how school is organized. Or, more to the point, school is designed by people who are good at this, and who think this reading/learning process is good and right. Kids from this kind of background will be much more likely to succeed at school than will kids from Group 2.

Group 2 parents read less to their children and tend to be more ambivalent about the material. Their interactions tend to involve more of the recall/recapitulation process, and the so-called higher level reading skills are engaged less deeply. Children in this group are less likely to grow up thinking there is a breadth and depth of worthwhile material in a piece of reading, and less likely to have the skills to find that breadth and depth. In other words, they're less likely to be effective at reading, though these prospects are worse for Group 3 children.

Group 3 parents don't read much at all to their children and tend to see much less value in the process of reading or in the reading material than do Group 1 parents, or even group 2 parents. These children are the least likely to be successful in the reading-driven elements of school.

Parents in all three groups want and hope for their children to be well-educated. The study makes clear that the latter two groups may be less clear about the best things for enhancing their children's learning prospects.

The study was concerned to show a number of things, but I am interested in a variety of implications for the process of schooling.

First, to the degree that one class room has a mix of these kind of students, a teacher essentially has 3 different kinds of teaching tasks. And when we're talking about higher grades, this problem becomes the more complicated. The group 1 students who've been keeping up with grade level learning expectations will be in a very different place for the whole of their academic experience than will Group 3 students who have likely fallen further behind with each passing year.

Second, the teaching of reading mechanics (decoding, fluency, etc.) is far from the most important aspect of literacy. The article points this out, but it can't be reiterated enough. At school we're fond of saying "Every child can learn," but the differences between these kinds of students compels us to think seriously about this trope and the degree to which we really can commit to the idea implicit therein.

Can a Group 3 child learn in the same way that a Group 1 child does? Is school constructed to reach one group more than the others, and to what effect on those other groups? Should school be constructed in some other way? Should and can we transform Group 3 kids into Group 1 kids? If so, how? Or should we try to create more work and learning opportunities engaging Group 2 and 3 kids on their own terms? If so, at what opportunity costs? Is the current model, structure, organization, etc., of schooling adequate to this diversification?

Third, the big the standardized testing process inclined in favor of one or two of the groups and against the others? Would it be reasonable to figure out a different metric and learning goal for the different groups of kids?

Fourth, and I think most importantly, is there some way to engage Group 2 and 3 parents earlier, and get them to help their kids see the value of the reading and learning process? There is only so much a teacher can do to reconstruct a child's enculturation toward reading and learning. Getting more done earlier will be better for a child.

Fifth, does this mean that programs like Head Start are indeed important?

Sixth, I'm sure there are more implications to consider...let me know what they are.

...from that same colleague....Who's to say that group 1 literacy is the only way to go? There are certainly benefits to the second and third situations that get denied or ground out of students in schools.

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