by Carrice Cummins
International Literacy Day is being celebrated around the globe as we continue to work towards the universal principle of everyone being able to read. There are currently more than 750 million adults who do not possess appropriate literacy skills and over 100 million children without regular access to education; however, there are also more than 4 billion literate people in the world which is still reason to celebrate. We have come a long way; yet, we have a long way to go.
Though we sometimes think that illiteracy is only an issue of the developing world, literacy is a global issue and we all must recognize the situation and strive to promote and celebrate literacy efforts worldwide as we continuously seek ways to improve literacy rates in every country. So though we understand the need to think globally we must also look closely at what is being done in our own society to improve literacy so that as we grow within, our outreach can also be expanded.
In the United States one of the central elements of our current school-reform movement is the use of college and career-ready standards aka Common Core. These standards play an extremely influential role in what is taught in our schools and in order for these to truly make a difference in the levels of literacy among our students, teachers must understand how to interpret them appropriately to meet the needs of all students – even our neediest children.
Momentarily our panel will share insights on the Common Core and teacher effectiveness – how teachers must strive to strengthen the floor (establish a solid foundation) while raising the ceiling (the levels of literacy required in today’s information age) and doing this not only for the vast majority of our students but all students regardless of background. However, to get us started I would like to point out only a few of the deliberate areas of the standards that we must truly focus on in order to make this happen – those elements most often touched on when teachers talk about common core but in light of our high need student population:
- Reading more challenging and complex text. An excellent idea but it doesn’t mean that we are going to ask all students to always read more difficult text. It is a standard that must be addressed with a nuanced and thoughtful approach. Although the standards raise the levels of text complexity only for grades 2-12, reading aloud difficult text at lower grades initiates the development of oral language and comprehension skills so we should not back off from presenting this to our younger students or our high need students. Teachers must provide instructional scaffolding that allows all students to enjoy and benefit from exposure to a wide range of rich texts of varied levels of challenge.
- Comprehension focused on reading for meaning and purpose - using real texts- both literature and informational text. This involves teachers recognizing that the same logic exists for teaching both types of text – helping students understand what the text says (meaning), as well as, how it was said (structure). Teachers must provide explicit instruction utilizing metacognitive strategies and high levels of student engagement to help students reach this high level of critical reading, especially for students struggling with reading.
- Emphasis on vocabulary development as a critical component to comprehension and student achievement. All students need instruction in words and their relationship to other words as well as word-solving strategies; however, teachers of children living in poverty must provide aggressive assistance in order to help them build their vocabularies throughout the day and in all disciplines.
- Students writing more and for more purposes is an important change from current practice. Writing is finally considered to be an equal partner to reading; however, the problem is that traditionally teachers have focused on reading achievement as a measure of success and therefore many are now not comfortable teaching writing at this level of intensity. Teachers must begin making the shift to using writing as a means of students clarifying their thinking, digging deeper into text, and responding to text in a variety of formats and for different purposes.
There are of course many other elements of the standards that teachers need to understand and the International Reading Association has commissioned a CCSS committee to develop a set of basic principles to help teachers and school leaders better interpret and ultimately turn the standards into effective instruction. We hope to have these principles ready for dissemination soon but a draft list of the principles to be addressed can be found on the back of your program.
Our focus for this year’s International Literacy Day celebration deals with high need kids, common core standards, and teacher effectiveness. I emphasized a few areas of the common core standards that should be addressed for all students but that might create even more concern for the instruction of our students with greater needs. So does this mean that the standards just for those who come to school ready to learn what we are ready to teach? No, they are indeed for all students, and this means that for our teachers to be effective they are going to need a clear understanding of the standards – what they mean and don’t mean so they can use this understanding to match instruction to the students in their care.
The standards have been met with much trepidation and there are aspects of the standards that we like and aspects that we do not care for. However, there is one aspect of the standards that I am personally proud of and that is the respect they extend to the professional judgment of classroom teachers. The standards tell us what students should know and be able to do but they do not tell us how teachers should teach. So we must celebrate the fact that the standards acknowledge that it is teachers who will make a difference and effective teachers know they make a difference by knowing their children first and using this knowledge to plan their instruction. And while the common core standards are specific to the United States, the goal of all children and youth achieving and meeting high expectations is held worldwide.