What is Literacy?

Mon, October 15, 2018

Literacy is the ability to read, write, speak, listen and view with understanding and efficiency. It is the foundation of one’s ability to communicate with others and understand the intricacies of the world around them.

My child can read? What else is there to learn?

At its most basic level, reading, like speaking, involves learning the meaning of sounds when combined into words, and then the meaning of those words when combined together into sentences, paragraphs and whole texts. At its most basic level, literacy involves de-coding words on a page (or words spoken, or images viewed). This involves understanding the sounds made by letters, and the rules of spelling, grammar and syntax in order to make sense of the text. Decoding is just the start though. Once the words have been decoded, one needs to understand the meaning conveyed by individual words as well as the unique combinations of words in each individual circumstance. This is what we mean by ‘comprehension’ and there are many layers to it.

My child struggles with comprehension. What does this mean?

There are different levels of comprehension, and, as students progress through school, the requirements of their comprehension increase, as the information and texts they need to read and view in their subjects increase in complexity and sophistication. As such, students’ ability to understand texts can be impacted if their ability to decode the words or features of a text, or understand the underlying concepts, isn’t in line with the content, structure or style in which the information is delivered.

If a student is struggling with comprehension, it means they are struggling to understand the meaning of what they are reading/viewing at some level. Depending on the demands of the text, information or learning activity, this could relate to any of the following levels:

  • Level One – LITERAL COMPREHENSION - what is actually stated.
  • Level Two – INTERPRETIVE COMPREHENSION - what is implied or meant, rather than what is actually stated.
  • Level Three – APPLIED COMPREHENSION - taking what was said (literal) and what was meant by what was said (interpretive) and then extending (apply) the concepts or ideas beyond the situation.

What role does school play in literacy development?

Obviously, literacy skills are taught and supported in the English curriculum from Kindergarten through to Year 12. The concepts, skills and processes required for literacy development are addressed explicitly in English classes through all years of schooling. Literacy is also a General Capability, meaning it is one of seven areas identified as essential outcomes of schooling that are to be taught and assessed across all subject areas. Opportunities to learn, develop and extend literacy skills are experienced by students in every lesson, every day, and, often, there is a range of strategies for intervention and support available for students who struggle in this area.

What role can home play in literacy development?

Literacy is about skills. As with any skill, one must first learn the steps, techniques or processes involved. Just like with cooking, driving a car, computer programming, swimming or playing an instrument, practice is the key to mastery. Literacy is an essential life skill, and, as with any skill, requires regular rehearsal to maintain and develop competency. Basic literacy skills will meet basic literacy needs. Complex literacy needs, such as those required for university study, and writing and reading in the professional arena, require a higher level of literacy. To this end, regular practice is the key to consolidating basic reading skills, and then extending and maintaining them.  

Most people develop their visual, spoken and listening literacy as matter of course, and are able to adapt and build the skills required without too much consideration. The main reason for this is that we use these forms of communication every day, and, therefore, opportunities for rehearsal are abundant. Critical literacy requires exposure to more complex and varying styles of texts, so it goes without saying that those who expose themselves to a greater range of visual and spoken forms of communication will usually develop more refined skills of their own. That is to say, someone who watches documentaries, TED talks, and films and TV in a range of genres on varying topics, is likely to have more advanced visual literacy than one who limits themselves to YouTube and The Bachelor. So, turning off the screen isn’t necessarily the key to improved literacy, but, rather, you should ensure your children watch a varied, rich array of worthwhile programs.

So when is it worth cutting back screen time?

When a student’s literacy comes into question, it is usually in relation to reading and writing. In our modern, technological age, many people tend to read and write less, so cutting back on the screen is something worth considering, if it is the ONLY form of entertainment engaged in. Regular reading at home, for pleasure, is the single most useful thing one can do to develop and maintain the literacy levels required for success in our modern society. 

As a literacy educator, I am regularly asked by parents and students what they can do to improve their comprehension or boost results in English. Obviously, study and revision are the key for success in regards to the curriculum content in any subject, English included, but literacy development requires regular reading. There is nothing else that can substitute. To develop, maintain and extend the skill of reading and writing, you must read and write. The beauty of reading, though, is that while regular writing will not really help boost reading skills, regular reading will help boost writing skills. Exposure to language, layers of meaning and ideas crafted by experienced and skilled writers is powerful stuff.

To make reading an effective and successful tool in developing your child’s literacy, I suggest the following tips:

  1. Make it daily. Every single day.Before bed is ideal, as it will also help ensure you and your child are not staring at screens before going to sleep, which has been proven to disturb the quality of sleep.
  2. Make sure it’s age-appropriate and appropriately challenging. No 14-year-old should still be reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Students in Senior school should be moving on from Harry Potter. Young Adult fiction is the most profitable book market in the world, therefore the choice of titles is extensive and varied. Help your child find new authors, series and titles that challenge them in a safe and enjoyable way.
  3. Make is user-directed. They should read for pleasure, so let them pick what they want to read. As long as the book is not too easy, and doesn’t include age-inappropriate content, then empower them with freedom of choice.
  4. Model the value of reading and minimise distractions. No one is going to want to go read quietly in one room while the rest of the family is laughing loudly at the year’s biggest comedy blockbuster in the room next door. FOMO is real, people! So, let your kids see you reading, so they know it is worthwhile, and create an environment that supports them reading without distraction.
  5. Join a library! The School Library and your local public libraries are amazing places. The books are free, and the supply endless!

The power of a reading journal

In order to help your child develop the ability to interpret and evaluate what they are reading, encourage them to record their responses to their reading. Keeping a reading journal, which doesn’t need ever to be shared with anyone else, is a really powerful tool, particularly for Senior students tackling ATAR English and Literature, or those headed in that direction. Some things that could go into a reading journal:

  • Writing down thoughts, feelings, opinions about the people, events and themes
  • Creating ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’ lists
  • Keeping a vocabulary list—identifying new or unfamiliar words in books they read, and recording them and their definitions
  • Keeping a list of interesting words, phrases and sentences to appreciate the aesthetics of writing
  • Drawing pictures of the people and places as they read about them
  • Re-writing parts of the text or creating fan-fiction
  • Ranking books, characters, authors
  • Creating timelines and maps to keep track of narratives.

There are some useful tips online: How to Keep a Reading Log and Reading Journals

If you find your older child loves doing this, the next step might be to encourage them to start a book blog. Having a real audience will give them a chance to develop their writing skills and motivate them to keep reading more.

Happy reading!

Justine McGinnis, Head of English