Thursday / April 25

21st Century Literacy: It’s All in the Doing

Not so long ago, literacy had everything to do with decoding printed passages or writing a decent letter. Now, literacy is deeply rooted in such 21st Century texts as infographics or videos—all things digital, actually. As a way of developing common language in my workshops, I often pose the question “What is literacy?” Inevitably, I hear current buzz-phrases: to read closely, answer text-dependent questions, write argumentative essays, communicate through speaking.

Even as we attempt to pigeonhole literacy, its meaning morphs with each new device, app, standard—or directive. And yet one constant remains: The least literate students we know can still access as much information as they want on any topic. Since we—and our textbooks—are no longer the fount of knowledge, our role as teachers is changing. “Coaching” students instead of “teaching” them may be the most valuable way to help them become literate in today’s world, and by that I mean finding credible information, evaluating that information and then applying what they have learned to new situations. Such an approach demands a full spectrum of skills such as reading, writing, speaking, analyzing, synthesizing, and creating. Having students complete worksheets, answer lists of questions, read chapters in textbooks that present information one-dimensionally, or slog, whole class,  through novels that have been taught to students’ parents (and in some cases grandparents) may actually limit literacy abilities instead of enhancing them. More alarmingly, these practices could also diminish students’ motivation to engage in deeper literacy practices.

So, what should we do to ramp up literacy skills in meaningful, engaging ways? Following are some suggestions that provide students with opportunities to “wrestle” with literacy as they become flexible and independent users of it.

Allow students to engage in independent inquiry projects related to specific content, either in pairs or small groups. Give them guidelines; then act as a mentor and invite students to become involved in the messy process of authentic learning. A good website for inquiry is the Buck Institute for Education Also, check out Chapter 4 in my latest book, This is Disciplinary Literacy, for some models, examples, and tips regarding inquiry and project-based learning.

Give students time to read in class (fiction and nonfiction) and then do something active with what they read, such as contributing to a class blog, building a museum box, debating a topic in their book, or creating readers’ theaters from sections in the book. Students can keep lists of “want-to-know” topics as they are reading and then do research fueled by their own curiosity. A social studies student, for example, made a list of what she wanted to know more about after reading Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin. Her list included:

  • The Pentagon Papers
  • Presidents Johnsons and Nixon
  • Vietnam War protesters
  • Vietnamese people
  • Agent Orange

Ask your librarian or a student who is an obsessive reader to share favorite titles as you generate excitement for reading.

Engage in some pedagogical risk-taking. That is, try something you’ve wanted to do but haven’t yet done related to literacy, such as a Socratic seminar, literature circle, mathematical discourse, interview project, photo essay, or an “out of the box” science experiment and reflection.

Create a lesson or unit around an essential question rather than a topic or chapter. Put together text-sets related to the question and experiment with differentiated instruction by varying the content and/or task according to students’ abilities or interests. Don’t worry about the outcome; encourage students to enjoy the process while you use this opportunity to practice formative assessment and feedback. Then, have students engage in performance assessments (demonstrations, for example) in place of pen and paper tests.

Ask students to create a portfolio of their learning in your class from this semester. They should include samples of their best work, reflections of how and what they have learned, and ideas for how they will use their learning in the future. Have them revise a piece of earlier work for a real audience, such as social media, next year’s teacher, another student, or a parent.

As students bring literacy to life for their own purposes, you may find—as I have—that its definition scarcely matters; it’s the doing that makes the difference.

Written by

An international consultant, ReLeah Cossett Lent was a secondary teacher before becoming a founding member of a statewide literacy project at the University of Central Florida. The author of eight books–including Overcoming Textbook Fatigue–and chair of NCTE’s Standing Committee Against Censorship, she is the recipient of ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Award, NCTE’s Intellectual Freedom Award, the PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award, and most recently, the Florida Council of Teachers of English President’s Award.

ReLeah is the author of This Is Disciplinary Literacy and Common Core CPR.

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