|What is Literacy?
Hawaii State Department of Education
Literacy is the ability to understand and use language for a variety of purposes for a variety of audiences. Underpinning this knowledge is the mastery of the different patterns that structure written and spoken text.
Embedded in this definition is the unspoken truth that every linguistic community and/or culture has its own set of expectations for the whom, how and when that communication is presented. All of this is directly related to the relationship between the person speaking or writing and the persons listening and reading. Who holds the power? That determines, based on culture, the process and product for communicating. That is all part of being literate.
In the United States, public schools typically teach the Western European American expectations and structures for a literate exchange. A simple example would be the patterns of fictional stories. Most public schools teach a story pattern featuring a single hero or heroine. This main character sets about reaching a personal goal while also overcoming all obstacles in his or her way. Other highly literate communities do not share the valuing of the individual over the group; consequently, their story structures differ from this Western European American perspective. There are folks who value the responsibility to the group as being more important than individual desires or goals. The structures taught in most United States schools are not inherently better than any others; they are simply those that are presented in many textbooks in the classroom. Clearly, if our goal is to develop truly literate folks, we need to consider teaching a more global literacy that includes understanding that there are other ways of organizing and understanding the structures of text.
What is Literacy Instruction?
There is no one single best approach to the teaching of literacy. Human beings have different ways of learning; consequently, teachers need to have a variety of approaches in their repertoire to best meet the needs of the diverse learners in the classroom. This places great responsibility on the teachers' shoulders for they must understand the nature of literacy and its relationship to human learning in order to make informed decisions in developing curricula.
Research in cognitive development, psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, and discourse analysis informs that understanding and knowledge base of teachers. This means that the teacher who understands the fundamental nature of phonemic awareness realizes that while it is related to teaching phonics -- it is a developmental precursor. That is, before we can expect hearing children to look at print and connect it to discrete sounds (such as single consonant sounds) or patterns of sounds (such as word families) they need to be able to listen to and discriminate between those sounds. Curriculum planning would provide many word games, rhymes and songs to develop this phonemic awareness. As children demonstrate their mastery they make the gradual transition to learning the sound/symbol connections of phonics and decoding print.
Additionally, based on extensive research, we now know that the expressive modes of language (speaking, writing and nonverbal communication) share similar structures with the receptive modes of language (listening and reading). This means that if we teach students the structure of cause and effect in expository writing or in discussion groups, we are also teaching them how to read and listen to that same structure - or to recognize a pictorial representation of cause and effect. Based on this expanded knowledge of literacy, teachers recognize the importance of integrating all modes (listening, speaking, reading, writing and nonverbal communication) in designing curricula for any grade level for any group of students. Literacy instruction, then, crosses all subject matter or content areas.
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