Literacy Education for the 21st Century
Leading educators share advice on how to prepare students to be successful in our changing world.
In an annual gathering of minds, Scholastic brought together its National Advisory Council (NAC) for a forum on the topic "Preparing Our Students for 21st Century Literacy." Six leaders from very different corners of the education industry shared their ideas on what literacy means today and how educators can help students acquire the skills they need to succeed in modern society.
The dynamic June 2 event was shaped by two recurring themes:
1) "Literacy" education needs to go beyond teaching traditional reading skills
2) Educators must look to multiple forms of literacy instruction to make learning meaningful
More than Words on a Page
Andrés Henríquez, Program Officer of the Carnegie Corporation of New York's Education Division, expressed the group's common view of literacy, explaining, "Students must not only be able to read information, they must know what to do with it."
According to Ronnie Ephraim, Chief Instructional Officer, Los Angeles Unified School District Education Service, educators can best support this type of literacy by talking about the messages, places, and tastes conveyed in the books they give students. So in addition to teaching reading skills, she said teachers must use books as a way to help students learn to think, engage, and debate.
The need to go beyond the status quo was also an issue raised by Dr. Maria Carlo. The University of Miami Assistant Professor of Education raised the fact that traditional literacy programs often neglect oral fluency for non-native speakers. She pointed out the importance of teaching ELL students how to speak and understand English as well as read it.
In order to support the broader definition of literacy presented by the panel, Alfred Tatum, Assistant Professor of Literacy Education at the Northern Illinois University College of Education, said that school leaders will need to provide students and teachers with different methods and materials. He presented a variety of "vital signs" that these should address:
- For reading: Words, oral fluency, comprehension, and writing
- For readers: Economics, language, community, and culture
- For educators: Competence, caring, commitment, and accountability
- For instruction: Context, text, quality, and instructional support
Beyond helping students to do well on tests, Tatum said that instruction that embraces a more comprehensive view of literacy will encourage and motivate students. "Kids," he said, "want to become smarter, not just better readers."
Re-Thinking Traditional Teaching Methods
James Warford, CEO of the Florida Association of School Administrators and former Chancellor of the Florida Department of Education, emphasized the need to consider which approaches will work best with today's kids. In addition to the urge to "become smarter," 21st century students expect to interact with information in new ways, but most schools are not yet offering them opportunities to learn how to do this well.
Observing that their familiarity with technology makes kids natural multi-taskers, Warford said the challenge is to find the best way to engage these learners and deliver content in multiple media. He pointed to the Scholastic reading intervention program READ 180® as a model for new ways to provide instruction. Warford also had an optimistic view of how the use of technology will transform the classroom and "will not eliminate teachers, but...will enable more one-on-one [interaction] with students."
2005 National High School Principal of the Year Mel Riddile also addressed the changing role of teachers and the need for teachers to develop new relationships with students in order to help them see the relevance of what they're learning. "Today's students will learn what we want them to learn only if they want to learn it," he said, adding that the days of students doing something simply because they are told to are gone.
The panel also discussed the need for targeted instruction and resources. Specifically, Carlo addressed the need to stop treating ELLs as a homogenous group. "We need to customize materials to address their diverse needs," she said, recognizing that different students have different educational backgrounds and literacy levels in their native and second languages. Carlo added that educational materials that reflect the world views and values of ELL students are extremely important to language acquisition. "Multicultural literature is not educational coddling, it is necessary for native English speakers as well, so that they can develop a worldwide perspective."
Tools and Solutions
In a question and answer session with Scholastic business leaders, the panel identified a variety of needs for 21st century students, teachers, and parents:
- Instructional materials that help teachers meet the changing requirements of No Child Left Behind and that meet the remediation needs of those students who have fallen behind.
- iTools like Scholastic RED® to help teachers efficiently integrate new technology into their teaching methods. Flexible, customizable, personalized materials to address the different learning levels of different students, and more guidance on how to implement new teaching tools.
- Information on how teachers can conduct effective read-aloud sessions.
- Tools that foster students' engagement with text, including technology, video, audio, and other companion pieces to use in combination with print.
- Ways to wrap lessons taught through various media around a central question or idea, and use technology to promote discussion of instructional topics.
- Integration of reading instruction into all subject curricula.
- A focus not only on younger children entering the educational "pipeline," but on older students too.
- Help in re-conceiving the role of school librarians and equipping them with tools to help teachers improve students' literacy.
- Guidance to help students assess the relative value and veracity of the information they receive online.
- Tools to strengthen the relationship between students, teachers and parents.
Ephraim articulated the panel's general feelings about literacy education today, saying that literacy involves more than just putting books in the classroom; it involves introducing children to the beauty of books and language. "Literacy is the language we use to express our lives."