The Strategic Value of Literacy Learning
Today, USA Today published a special centerfold feature on literacy in America, accompanied by a digital campaign by Mediaplanet. I was pleased to have the opportunity to author a piece for the campaign, published as “Expanding Literacy Beyond Language Arts.” In the article I describe work that colleges of education are doing to boost literacy among America’s PK-12 students. The 275 words available in USA Today scarcely begin to tell this story, but the message is an important one to get out. Here are a few additional words I’d like to share.
Literacy has become a keystone for all other learning, particularly because of our changing expectations around assessment. Beginning with the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act and evolving into today’s college- and career-ready standards such as the Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards, students now must show competence in all disciplines via writing, speaking, and critical thinking.
To help ensure that all new teachers are prepared for this environment, we need to look at state licensure standards as well as program accreditation requirements. The International Literacy Association is working on both fronts, with one task force (led by Deanna Birdyshaw of the University of Michigan) studying states’ licensing standards and interviewing teacher educators, and another group (led by William Teale of the University of Illinois at Chicago and Louann Reid of Colorado State University) partnering with the National Council of Teachers of English to revise national recognition standards for teacher preparation programs to reflect the latest evidence on improving student literacy.
Another ILA group (led by Rita Bean of the University of Pittsburgh, PA) is working to revise the Standards for Reading Professionals, used for national recognition of programs preparing English/language arts teachers, to update them relative to today’s expectations around technology, diversity, and more.
Most assessments, even in the STEM fields, now require essays, explanations, and reflection. We have a strong example of this shift in our own field of teacher preparation, where states are moving away from the multiple-choice tests of teaching knowledge and adopting performance measures such as edTPA. These new assessments require candidates to write extensively to articulate their plans, report student results, and analyze their work—and not just to their own professors or peers, but to a broad professional audience.
Another key challenge teachers face in boosting student literacy is closing the achievement gap. Using culturally responsive pedagogy, many educator preparation programs are building candidates’ capacity to better serve diverse students. Prospective teachers in the University of Illinois at Chicago’s urban education program, for example, study the role of culture, race, class, and language in a series of three courses that help them learn to implement evidence-based literacy teaching practices in the classroom. Using case studies, simulations, and co-teaching labs in live urban settings, students learn to establish a safe learning environment, design learning opportunities aligned with instructional purpose, facilitate rich conversations to enable the co-construction of knowledge, model and explain literacy content, and assess student understanding.
School-university partnerships are working from various angles to support teachers and improve student literacy. Clinical teacher preparation partnerships create numerous opportunities for preservice and in-service teachers to collaborate around the latest standards, assessments, technology, and more. In Kentucky, a state law requires another kind of partnership to support student learning: Every regional university must consult with local schools around student achievement testing in math and language arts to identify strengths and weaknesses and develop interventions to improve the results on the next round of tests.
For educators, supporting students’ literacy learning is an industry-wide priority. It’s not just that “reading is fundamental”—it’s that literacy learning has such a strategic value.