The Greater Purpose of Literacy

[My own work regarding the role of high school English teachers in literacy development.]

The conceptual basis for literacy is no longer static. For multiple reasons, it is an increasingly difficult task for students and teachers to comprehend and master; yet, as teachers engage the broader spectrum of communicating meaning through different mediums, via traditional means or technological advances, students will engage all the more naturally and find relevance all the easier to grasp. This is to say “conceptions of literacy continue to expand in multiple directions, moving far beyond former emphases on reading comprehension and writing ability” (Shoffner, De Oliveira, & Angus, 75).

The role of the secondary English teacher is not that of mere literacy. Literacy is a means to the greater end of socialization and positive integration with society. It also helps teachers when developing their lesson objectives. The goal is not just to understand what happens in a book or to learn some grammar, but how to use and apply the learning experience toward something greater. How can literacy be applied to a greater purpose?

LiteracyisTo read a book simply for the purpose of reciting the plot and naming the main characters on a test is a severe disservice to the book and its author. The traditional realm of literacy does include comprehension of informational text and literature, but to stop there would neglect speaking, listening, writing, and language (as outlined in Arizona’s Common Core Standards). One could boil it down to the classic trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, each building off the other as students are given the opportunity to practice proper language conventions, argumentation skills, and the art of persuasion.

And this, here, introduces the rub, the element of discomfiture for the uninitiated teacher. Proper practice means students are called to express themselves through language, and expression introduces opinions, and opinions can differ from student to student. Conversations regarding the issues of diversity and current issues are generated, and the skills required for facilitating these discussions (Ruiz, Many, Aoulou, 26). This free expression extricates the classroom from the static, and delivers it into the bounteous, albeit unpredictable, realm of the dynamic. Bieler is optimistic that the purpose of the secondary English classroom, with its focus on the expression of language (i.e.: rhetoric), is likely to sow the seeds of compassion (Bieler, 10).

Inexperienced teachers might not see how free expression might lead toward compassion, as the freedom of expression inevitably results in a strong form of differing opinions. These uncomfortable moments, disagreements, or even conflicts are actually a desired aspect of literacy development, because it provides opportunities for students to talk, read, listen, and write with patience and rigor to a point where students are forced to resolve the dissention in a just and compassionate manor. Not that everyone is right or that there is no right answer, but that we still have to be able to work together as a society even as those differing opinions exist.

To put it another way, not all conflicts can be resolved in one sitting, and some opinions run parallel to each other, never able to intersect; even so, we still have to be able to work together, to care, to help, and to love. As an English teacher “we are often talking about the drama around the choices that human beings make – and the consequences of those choices” (Bieler, 10). The faults of characters in literature encourage us to discover real-life examples in which tragedy could be avoided and violence is prevented in order to not re-create those mistakes. Essentially, the secondary English classroom is the perfect environment to practice decision-making and conflict management. Literature, in all its intrigue, plot, drama, conflict, foil and character flaw is driven by human nature, and the sooner students learn to recognize human nature at work, the more knowledgeable they will be about handling it in their own lives. We are talking about how to foster a classroom full of mutual respect and self-control.

This will affect lesson objectives and the angles to take in dialogue. This will buck at the perfectly sanitized, politically correct, walking-on-eggshells, carefully-worded classroom of today’s publicly funded schools. Not that conflict and argument is encouraged, but that students are allowed to open up and hash out the expressions of their heart now, in the learning environment of a classroom, when they can practice how to communicate well and how to implement conflict management. It may involve stress, but it is far better now than in the so-called ‘real world.’ Therefore, teachers should grade the quality of student work on social interactivity and relational understanding as much as on the quality of student thinking and performance.

With this in mind, Beiler encourages teachers to ask the question, “Does our current choices in literature unwittingly shape a worldview that expects and perpetuates violent behavior?” Not that we exclude such books, but that we should be aware of the patterns of behavior that our choices represent. Our choices need to include instances of compassion, companionship, philanthropy, and the like.

However, another justification hindering the re-emergence of this understanding of literacy is the difficulty presented in assessing such things as empathy and community building in an era of high-stakes testing (Beiler, 14). Some believe the answer is as simple as the very fact of participation and interpretation, regardless of what, exactly, students interpret from the input provided. A teacher interviewed by Shoffner, De Oliveira, & Angus would define literacy as referring “to the idea of being able to look at that text, whatever it is, and extract some sort of meaning from it…some sort of meaning, to me, is literacy” (81). This logic encourages teachers to give extra points for freestyle meaning-making, inventive thinking, and accepting multiple interpretations of a text; just so long as students contrive some sort of meaning to personally apply to the text.

abolitionUnfortunately, this instills in the impressionable mind of our average student that statements about meaning are nothing more than feelings. C.S. Lewis addresses this danger directly, warning that this proposition will teach schoolchildren to believe “that all sentences containing a predicate of value are statements about the emotional state of the speaker” (15). It becomes meaningless to use literature toward an instructive end when students are doing nothing more than arguing opinions. Remember, the goal, as discussed above, is to promote inherently desirable values, traits which are universally acceptable and merit our approval.

Therefore, as teachers prepare their lesson objectives, and consider that which is beyond the nuts and bolts of traditional literacy, we can clarify that they also need to move beyond that which is simply empty conversation about subjective meaning in a text. Literacy encourages specific values in society and challenges students to evaluate their emotional reactions to a text, a value, an opinion, or a fact, and consider whether such a reaction is meritorious or not, and whether the object of our reaction merits our approval or disapproval, reverence or contempt (Lewis, 25).

This is a mighty caveat for free expression; without this clarification classroom discussions become the same fluff as any other form of busywork. Students are certainly learning to express themselves, but toward a logical, reasonable end of fitting into the framework of society. “Education is that vast undertaking of passing on the wisdom and knowledge of one generation to another. It involves discovery, but also instruction; it is cultural transmission” (Perrin, 4).

literacyThe goal for an educator never ends with the pure, raw facts. Rote learning is only a very small component of an effective classroom. For the secondary English teacher, literacy is likewise not so limited as to end with reading comprehension and writing skills. Literacy itself refers to so much more, so much, in fact, that it is being superseded by the goal of presenting and encouraging multiliteracies, whether in reference to reading mediums, traditional skills, or cultural, language, and social literacy.

And even so, literacy is never the end in itself, but rather a means to an even greater end—that of compassion, discourse, respect, dialogue, mature relationships, and higher order thinking. That said, this promotion of certain values as a crucial aspect of literacy is making a claim toward that which exists beyond mere opinion and feeling or meaning-making. Of course, this includes the ability to pass state standards, advance to college (if desired), and pursue a career, but these are only the results, the byproducts of a greater whole.

 

References

Bieler, D. (2006). Changing the Subject: Building Critical and Compassionate Communities in English and English Education Classrooms. Penn GSE Perspectives on Urban Education, 4(1).

Lewis, C.S. (1974). The Abolition of Man.

Perrin, C. (2004). An Introduction to Classical Education: A Guide for Parents. Classical Academic Press, v.2.5.

Ruiz, A., Many, J., Aoulou, E. (2011). The Prevalence or Absence of Attention to Adolescent Literature in the Initial Preparation of Secondary Content Teachers. SRATE Journal, 20(2), 23-30.

Shoffner, M., De Oliveira, L., & Angus, R. (2010). Multiliteracies in the secondary English classroom: Becoming literate in the 21st century. English Teaching: Practice and Critique, 9(3), 75-89.

In Defense of Reading

[A more technical defense of teaching reading in all grade levels and all content areas.]

In a country prized for her innovations in science, technology, and social progressivism, the United States has stood as one of the most literate societies in history, which has made these accomplishments possible. More so than the advent of the internet, this country’s widespread literacy of the layman has allowed the dissemination of every form of knowledge and understanding. The ability to read and write has become integral to American living; from reading tax instructions to the ingredients of a recipe; from the daily news to voting amendment explanations; from reading the Constitution to reading the Bible; whether it is writing a resume, an email, or a blog post. The success of a representative government rests on a well educated, reading populace (Doran, 2005, 5).

Therefore, when reading falls out of practice, the populace loses control over their own government, as is currently taking place. Nowhere are these skills more noticeably integral to every citizen in America than their origin in the classroom. If students don’t get it right here, or rather, if students are not given strategies to succeed in literacy, they will be restricted in their participation of the American Dream. The implications of illiteracy in a highly literate society cannot be overstated. Assuming the necessity of a literate society, suffice it to say at present that teachers have an obligation to convey reading skills to their students above all else, regardless of the subject matter, lest all forms of higher education soar above their reach. Literacy is the solution that goes to the heart of many problems currently facing educators (Doran, 88).

It is not sufficient to conclude that literacy is a necessary skill, as this is already a foregone conclusion for any serious educational entity. The deficiency occurs when literacy is not emphasized at every grade and in every subject. The secondary classroom is not immune. The math, science, and social studies classrooms are not immune. Reading is a requisite still in every subject. Indeed, high schools must commonly contend with inefficient reading strategies, struggling to remediate students uncomfortable with the written word. It must then follow that all teachers take the first step toward fixing the problem by participating in the literacy scene.

Fine, Zygouris-Coe, Senokossoff, & Fang (2011) found most secondary content teachers assume that by the time students enter secondary schools, they have mastered the skills and strategies needed for comprehending content area texts, only to realize many students are not able to read or comprehend these technical, dense, or abstract books. For a teacher to consider himself highly qualified as an educator, their knowledge must expand beyond pedagogical content, and embrace knowledge of how to incorporate literacy in their content area.

Whereas remedial programs still provide the necessary services for severely lacking students, literacy in the classroom is not reserved for the struggler. The teacher must view each student as a separate literate entity—and the integrity of their reading strategies and comprehension is of gravest concern. To reiterate, reading is what connects the content areas together and opens the doors of knowledge and understanding to the literate.

However, as every mother’s child possesses different traits, so too every teacher’s pupil will possess different educational strengths and weaknesses. Some students need more help in reading than others. This begs the necessary question: who needs rescuing? There are students the educational establishment will commonly deem to have learning disabilities, dyslexia, attention deficit disorders, and problems with behavior, emotions, or social interaction. Pat Doran encourages we reevaluate our assumptions about these struggling students. Those who have disabilities, behavioral problems, suffering grades or are otherwise disinterested or hesitant may not have a disability or disorder at all. It has been shown that much of the malcontention in delinquents derive from their (almost) inevitable levels of illiteracy. Poor reading leads to poor academic performance, which leads to poor self-esteem, which consequently leads to poor behavior. The earnest teacher will discover that most academically or behaviorally challenged students fall on differing levels of the same continuum of deficient reading skills. These students will benefit most from your concentrated efforts to promote reading. As Doran facetiously quoted, “Try reading before you try Ritalin.” (Doran, 15).

This is to further enforce the necessity of universal reading practice for all students of all grades in all content areas, because the principle described above is a truism no matter who is already ‘at risk’ or not. Whatever the baseline, every student will benefit from the ability to read, and read well. Of those who excel in the skill, allow them the space to progress as far as they are able. Don’t limit their success in favor of keeping pace with struggling students. This would qualify as an equal crime to forgoing literacy altogether (Davis, 2012, 570). A holistic strategy to accommodate for these differentials in the classroom is what Steven Krashen advocates as free voluntary reading (Krashen, 2007). Free reading time should be promoted as an essential component of the classroom, as it allows students to practice reading their own choice of books at their own pace. It is the great equalizer! And it has shown impressive results in reading, writing, spelling, grammar, and vocabulary. Of course, content areas will have more limitations on the time and books available for this type of activity.

The astute teacher will need to be aware of one further example of students requiring special attention. Binder and Lee identified students who are considered resilient readers, those who cannot read very well, but with the aid of compensatory strategies, are still able to comprehend enough to get by. These students are adept at extracting syntactic similarities to words or concepts they find difficult to read through a cursory analysis of the context. While an impressive skill, it is dangerous because it forgoes proper reading and decoding strategies in favor of being ‘close enough.’ It does not allow full mastery of the English language by hindering vocabulary, spelling, and comprehension of more complex passages. They should still have the same free reading time as everyone else, but they will need supplementary instruction and practice with decoding strategies, such as grapheme to phoneme correspondence (Binder & Lee, 2012).

Most content classrooms will not have the ability to accommodate a high dosage of word attack skills, and this should never serve as the sole proprietor for remedial reading instruction anyway. The disadvantage of synthetic phonics is its frequent delivery outside the context of reading itself! (Davis, 561). This will prove especially difficult for resilient readers, though no student should suffer through a pile of disembodied English lexis. This is not to dissuade the importance of phonics as one of many strategies the teacher has on his tool belt, but to emphasize the importance of implementing actual practice in reading real texts and hearing how people speak real words.

Therefore, all teachers will need to prepare themselves for more. Provide specific and consistent feedback while managing a positive classroom environment conducive for those teachable moments. Foster a respectful, patient environment by telling students early on that English is a difficult language to master, but practice makes perfect. So encourage students to help each other out. If they hear someone mispronounce a word, give them the proper pronunciation. Don’t avoid correcting students on their errors. Any teacher understands the value of immediate feedback, and this is no exception. If students can’t expect correction in the classroom, of all places, (possibly to preserve their self-esteem), then when will correction ever take place? How will students learn from their mistakes?

To maintain the kind of environment where students feel safe to be corrected a teacher must give his feedback with gentleness. Reading can be a sensitive subject for a struggling student who might already possess tendencies of withdrawal in order to cope. An effective strategy, and prominent communication skill, is to balance correction with praise. Before you correct a student, praise the student’s efforts by noting a positive observation. For example, “Thank you for giving it a try, but it’s actually pronounced like this…” One way to describe it is the good news-bad news approach, or as Doran calls the 1-and-5 Approach, where the one is the correction and the 5 is the praise, as if on a scale of 1 through 5 (Doran, 95). Teachers can also model self-correction, or metacognition, through think-alouds throughout each lesson. This is just as effective for literacy as it is for other subject matter.

This is a decisively superficial defense for literacy in the classroom and only a passing review of what teachers can do to promote reading with their students. If anything, teachers are encouraged to seek out a more in-depth understanding of literacy and new ideas for incorporating it into their content areas (Fine, et. all, 26). Since blending sounds will not produce consistent phonetic pronunciation nor will it generate a word’s meaning, decisions about decoding should be left to teachers (Davis, 562) as they assess the level of comprehension their students possess. The irregularities and complexities of the English language do provide challenges for the adolescent, especially if grade school programs were lacking in this arena, but it does not necessitate hardship for your students. The same potential for difficulty in the learning process likewise provides potential for extraordinary achievement. A teacher’s focus on reading will add weight to the latter.

References

Binder, K. S., & Lee, C. S. (2012). Reader Profiles for Adults with Low Literacy Skills: A Quest to Find Resilient Readers. Journal Of Research And Practice For Adult Literacy, Secondary, And Basic Education, 1(2), 78-90.

Davis, A. (2012). A Monstrous Regimen of Synthetic Phonics: Fantasies of Research-Based Teaching “Methods” versus Real Teaching. Journal Of Philosophy Of Education, 46(4), 560-573.

Doran, Pat. (2005). The Secret Club: Why and How We Must Teach Phonics and Essential Literacy Skills to Readers of All Ages.

Fine, J., Zygouris-Coe, V., Senokossoff, G., & Fang, Z. (2011). Secondary Teachers’ Knowledge, Beliefs, and Self-Efficacy to Teach Reading in the Content Areas: Voices Following Professional Development. COERC 2011, 24-28.

Krashen, S., McQuillan, J. (2007). Late Intervention. Educational Leadership, 65(2).

Copywriting Guide

ACSTO_Copywriting_Guide

This bit was created as a suggestive aid for when ACSTO’s partner schools developed their own communication/correspondence about Arizona’s tuition tax credit law. While these guidelines are based on technicalities of tax credit law and court precedence, it is designed to be easily read and implemented by a general audience.

You can view the 2-page PDF at this link: Copywriting Guide.

I wrote the content, and design credit goes to Tommy Smith. Copyright Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization, Inc. November 2012.

Evaluating Teaching Approaches For ELL Instruction

ELL wordle[An essay evaluating the Sheltered Instruction Approach to teaching second language learners and whether the Sheltered Instruction Approach is optimal for students and teachers.]

The last fifty years have seen attempts to consolidate methodology for teaching ELL/LEP students in America. Public schooling in the first half of the 19th century had no structure for immigrant instruction, and therefore no specified expectations for teaching ESL students. Then, upon the legislative onset of the Bilingual Education Act of 1968, bilingual instruction became the predominant method. But it didn’t’ last long. Since the collapse of bilingual instruction in several states toward the turn of the century, including Arizona, several alternatives have become more prominent to meet the need, namely, Sheltered Instruction (SI) and Structured English Immersion (SEI).

As far as I understand concerning the different methods for teaching ESL, I find an important distinction between sheltered instruction (SI) and structured English immersion (SEI), though they are commonly confused. Sheltered instruction refers to a classroom exclusive to ELL/LEP students with English-only instruction geared for their language learning needs. This places students with similar needs in the same classroom, sheltering them, as it were, from the toils of the mainstream classroom. The content is almost identical to mainstream classrooms.  Structured English Immersion refers to the same but in a mainstream classroom setting, where the ELL/LEP students immersed in an English-speaking context, interacting with peers who are native English speakers. The content is still there, though structured in such a way as to promote comprehension for language learners.

Rossell’s article appears to confuse these terms as interchangeable, while seeming to intend SI during her discourse throughout the piece. Even the Arizona ELL Task Force mistakenly defines SEI as an ELL-only classroom through a misinterpretation of A.R.S. 15-751 Section 5. Strictly speaking the Task Force  defined SI, whereas the Arizona Revised Statute simply provided guidelines required in an ELL classroom, leaving it ambiguous as to whether it would be an SI or SEI classroom. Perhaps this distinction has only developed in recent years (the two examples given were published between 2004-07), but I find the lack of consistency frustrating.

Even the very meaning of SIOP, which is short for sheltered instruction observation protocol, appears to give deference to the SI model as its core strategy, but that title is deceiving. For implementation is expected in both sheltered and structured mainstream classrooms, for “research shows that both language and content teachers can implement the SIOP Model fully to good effect” (Echevarria, Vogt & Short, 2008, p. 5); in the end, SIOP will integrate just as seamlessly with a mainstream SEI ‘content classroom’ than with an SI classroom that separates out  minority students.

Now, this distinction is important in our immediate context because I prefer the SEI method as the optimal approach, if used correctly. Preference is warranted for SEI over the SI model chiefly because of the peer-to-peer interaction. The immersion aspect has the most impact on natural language acquisition. Learning disjointed vocabulary will get to a certain point of understanding, but not sufficient enough for accelerated and organic language mastery. Cross-cultural training for a variety of job professions requires immersion in the language and culture.

One such profession, for example, is book translation. Accurate translation of complex topics from one language to another requires more than a thorough understanding of the language, but an intimate experience with how that language is currently being used, the current vernacular, and socio-cultural awareness. How do they behave? How do they think? What are their expectations about others or about life? What are their presuppositions? These are all essential for accurate understanding and you have to live with the people to acquire such understanding, and these are only experienced when ESL students are not separated from the rest of their classmates.

Resources:

Echevarria, J., Vogt, M., & Short, D. (2008). Making content comprehensible for English learners: The SIOP Model (Custom ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon. Pearson Education Inc.

Rossell, C. (2005). Teaching English through English. Educational Leadership Journal, Dec 04-Jan 05, 32-36.

Arizona Department of Education, Arizona English Language Learners Task Force. (2009). Structured English immersion ELD models. Retrieved from website: http://www.azed.gov/english-language-learners/taskforce/

ACSTO Values

[Content was a featured post on ACSTO’s ‘News & Updates’ blog on 10/25/12.
Click for blog link here.]

<Forward: I truly enjoyed writing this blog as the opening post for ACSTO’s new ‘News & Updates’ site. Sure it fits into the Blogging and Technical Writing skill categories, but it delves further into writing prowess than that. This is a Visionary statement, revealing what makes the heart of the organization beat. Writing in such a way as to accurately ‘wear your emotions on your sleeve’ requires intimate knowledge of your audience and what motivates them as well as the mission of the organization and any procedural requirements. The end result should show how they harmoniously overlap.>

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Here at ACSTO, Christian private schools are our passion.  It is hard to think of what could be better than seeing children raised up in an educational environment tailored to their needs and founded on Christian principles.  That is why our mission, day in and day out, is to help these schools succeed.  This mission forms the basis for our values, for how and why ACSTO operates the way that it does.

We accomplish this mission through the effective implementation of Arizona’s individual tuition tax credit laws.  These laws authorize taxpayers to donate to School Tuition Organizations (STOs) like ACSTO and we are able to award that money as tuition scholarships to students attending private schools in Arizona.  For their donation taxpayers are then able to receive a dollar-for-dollar credit against their Arizona income tax for that year, up to the annual maximum, or their actual tax, whichever is less.

So while our mission is clear, taxes are known for being quite muddy.  That is why ACSTO is available for questions regarding how the tax credit works, how we operate, and how you can be involved.  However, we are not tax consultants, so we always recommend you speak with your CPA regarding your specific situation.  Because of the complexities in these laws there is an unfortunate amount of misinformation out there.  ACSTO strives to be a source of accurate and reliable information.  We are tuned in to legislative developments, are very familiar with tax credit law, closely follow school choice news and research, have a lot of excellent resources available on our website, conform all our organizational procedures and by-laws to current law, and maintain precise records for our students and donors.

In addition to being a source of accuracy, ACSTO understands the need for stability.  Many challengers are not afraid to yell at their opposition from the rooftops, taking every opportunity to ‘discredit’ the program.  That is why ACSTO has stood at the forefront of legal challenges to the tax credit program that have lasted since is inception in 1998 and only recently put to rest in our favor by the United States Supreme Court in ACSTO v. Winn in early 2011.  From time to time during that legal challenge opponents used poorly phrased slogans and poorly implemented procedures of some STOs to bring the credibility of the program under suspicion.  Therefore, everything that an STO does should be done with careful consideration.  All literature, solicitations, websites, and even operational procedures tell a story.  What you imply is just as dangerous as what you say outright.

We can summarize the need for stability in two parts: 1) as a financially oriented organization, we need to be trustworthy; 2) as an organization firmly rooted in tax credit laws, we need to be legally sound.

If you are ever in a position where you are asking why ACSTO does what it does, or why it chooses to operate a certain way, you question is mostly likely answered by one of two reasons: 1) ACSTO strives to be a source of accuracy or 2) ACSTO understands the need for stability.  It is our firm belief that these two principles are the best way to ensure that the tax credit laws are effectively utilized and survive any and all opposition.  It is important to protect the tax credit laws because they protect our private Christian schools and they provide much needed assistance for parents and children.  That, in turn, fulfills our mission.

What is School Choice?

[Content was a featured post on ACSTO’s ‘News & Updates’ blog on 11/18/12.
Click for blog link here.]

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School choice is loaded with layers of meaning. It reaches far and wide into all forms of American education.  It refers to evaluation of educational systems. It calls for legislative policy reforms. It asks that parents be more involved in the process of their child’s education and which type of schooling they will receive. It demands the freedom of the free market enterprise to govern supply and demand in the education sector, instead of government regulation.

The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice summarizes school choice concisely, calling school choice “a common sense idea…encouraging healthy competition among schools and other institutions to better serve students’ needs and priorities [and] a public policy that allows parent/guardian or student to choose a district, charter, or private school, regardless of residence and location.

School choice is more than just competition among schools however. The second half of school choice is geared to affordability. Public districts may be free, but alternative forms of education are not. Most families cannot afford to pay for public schooling in taxes, and pay again in private school tuition. For this reason, school choice is synonymous with school vouchers, tax credit scholarships, education savings accounts, and individual tax credits and deductions. Without these methods in place to help families afford these educational alternatives, the school choice movement would be hard pressed.

Even though our service is specific to tax credit scholarships for private school students, ACSTO supports all forms of school choice. We don’t pretend to know what is best for children’s education. Our goal is to ensure that parents, when properly informed and given the financial capability, are able to choose whether private schooling is best for their children.

Interested in finding out more?

We’ve compiled a list of resources, articles, and lists of organizations to
help you understand what school choice is all about! Learn More!