Literacy used to mean knowing how to read, but the term is broadening to encompass both reading and writing. Now literacy means the competence "to carry out complex tasks using reading and writing related to the world of and to life outside the school" (Cases in Literacy, 1989, p.36). Educators are identifying other literacies that they believe will be needed in the 21st century. Our reliance on radio and television for conveying ideas has awakened us to the importance of "oracy," the ability to express and understand spoken language. Visual literacy which conveys the ability to create meaning from illustrations, is also receiving a great deal of attention.
The term "literacy" is being used in other ways as well. Teachers are introducing even very young children to computers and developing their "computer literacy." Similarly, math and science educators speak of mathematical and scientific literacy. Hrsch (1987) called for another type of literacy, "cultural literacy," as a way to introduce children "to the major ideas and ideals from past cultures that have defined and shaped today's society. (p 10). Literacy however, is not a prescription of certain books to read or concepts to define but rather, according to Rafferty (1999), it is a tool, a way to learn about the world and a means to participate more fully in the technological society of the 21st century.
The Early Literacy Initiative is a proposed district intervention for Edmonton Catholic Schools that is organized to achieve the Superintendent's Directive in Teaching and Learning, "through the implementation of a strong focus in division one language literacy that would challenge our district to ensure to do its utmost to see that every child, leaving division one, would be reading and writing at his or her potential." The discussion and thinking which has lead to this proposal has its roots in the work begun in Balanced Literacy and Reading Recovery which is based on current research in effective literacy instruction.
"With the development of community interest there has been a proliferation of naïve ideas about what is reading and what reading difficulties are. Incorrect and misleading ideas are often found in the media. The following are two examples.
- Critics of schools sometimes imply that people have different levels of intelligence but that all people can reach a similar level in reading achievement. These two expectations are contradictory.
- Completely erroneous statements are made about words 'seen in reverse' or 'the brain scrambling the signals going to the eyes' or 'squares that look like triangles'. There is no evidence to support such descriptions of how our brains work during reading. These errors of understanding arise from adults who make superficial or poor observations of their own skills or who disseminate misguided interpretations of new concepts, which are only partly understood.
Fortunately, this does not have to be the case any longer. Over the past two decades, with new understandings and new practices we have seen development of more effective solutions in the area of early interventions and have reached a point where it is possible to hypothesize that all but a very small number of children can learn to read and write and schools are able to implement interventions which can bring this about." (pg. 23, An Observation Survey, 2nd Edition).
Current and long-term research demonstrates and clarifies the problems and difficulties in determining potential in young children through standardized data. The major areas of consideration for concerns are as follows:
- There are bigger degrees of error with standardized tests with younger children. The brain research is demonstrating that IQ is not static and there can be many factors of influence that have an effect on IQ.
- There is not enough reliable research that supports the early identification of Learning Disabilities in young children.
- Labeling the child too early sets a context for that child in which s/he may perform to the label/level and self-concept is affected.
- Auditory processing skills in some children are not fully developed until 7.5 - 8 years of age.
Therefore the Early Literacy Initiative is organized around preventative measures, such as effective classroom teaching based on accurate, robust ongoing classroom assessment. Prevention is more effective than remediation. The call is for developmentally appropriate assessment, ". throughout these critical years, accurate assessment of children's knowledge, skills and dispositions in reading and writing will help teachers better match instruction with how and what children are learning. However, early reading and writing cannot be simply measured as a set of narrowly defined skills on standardized tests. These measures often unreliable or not valid indicators of what children can do in typical practice, nor are they sensitive to language variation, culture, or experiences of young children. (International Reading Association and National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1998)."
If we truly believe that every child can be inspired to read and write given time and support:
- Schools need to have a school wide plan and literacy needs to be a priority.
- All staff members must see literacy as a priority; we are all teachers of all children.
- Understanding of sound assessment practices that include benchmarks, standards and systematic observation practices that inform instruction.
- Children need opportunities to read large quantities of books.
- Classrooms and schools need to be structured, methodical, collaborative and reflective.
- Schools and teachers need to be flexible.
- We need to support children who are at risk as soon as possible.
- We need strong programs in our schools and a safety net for children who need one on one intervention.
- Some children will need long-term support - special education.
- Our job is to teach all children and we do this by working together, groups don't learn - individuals learn; therefore we must provide diversity in programming.