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Leaning into Literacy: Tackling Myths and Misconceptions

Chris Bronke
Chris Bronke
May 29, 2024
Leaning into Literacy: Tackling Myths and Misconceptions

I recently decided to conduct a super scientific experiment: I texted my group of adult male friends to ask them how they define the word “literacy.”  Filtering out the curse-filled versions of “leave me alone with your stupid questions”, there was one response that jumped out to me;  he said, “can someone read?”  And that is when it hit me, being able to “define” literacy is less important, as educators, in particular, than understanding what it is and what that means to our students.  So, think about it, when you hear the word, “literacy”, what comes to mind...

And actually, let’s take this a step further, though. Not only do I want you to think about what comes to mind when you hear the word “literacy”, but now, I want you to think about all the different literacies woven into the inherent fabric of your daily life.  Push yourself to go beyond reading the page and even beyond school as a whole.  Play fantasy football?  You deal in data and numerical literacy.  Love cooking after work?  You navigate culinary literacy.  Enjoy talking about a great glass of wine?  You swirl (pun intended) in vinology and a whole host of literacies (hell, I am currently reading an entire book that is all about the impact of soil on grapes and therefore wine).  So, let me give you another thirty seconds to reflect on all the literacies in your life…

swirling wine

Now with this reflection in mind, we must ask ourselves a simple but vitally important question: to what extent do the literacy programs in our schools reflect this reality?  As we explore rethinking literacy and the implications this rethinking has on school as a whole, it's important to address a few myths that, at times, hold back schools from creating a more robust and all-inclusive literacy program.  

Three Literacy Myths, Debunked

Literacy Instruction = Reading Instruction 

While this isn’t a myth in and of itself, it is short-sighted and fails to address and then support students in the wide range of literacies they encounter. Think of all of the different types of literacy you brainstormed at the top of this piece.  Numbers, still images, print images, print word (and all the different modes/genres of the print word), tastes, smells, and the list could go on for days.  So, when we fail to think of literacy as something more than reading, we fail to support all students.  To that end, we must rethink the term “text” as it applies to all classrooms, too.  Here is a great example that is personal to me.  I am a golfer (though a below-average one at that), and even golf has its own literacy and text.  If you have ever tried to read a PGA TOUR professional’s yardage book, it is a truly foreign language - a text with a mixture of words, pictures, lines, and numbers. We can extrapolate this out to any and all literacies, so it is important that we embrace this in our literacy instruction so as not to over privilege the printed word as the “real” meaning of text with any/all other texts as “supplemental.”

Literacy Instruction Happens ONLY in the English Department

As a bi-product of the first myth, oftentimes, I see schools/districts that have a literacy program that is housed in the English Department as the place where literacy happens. Unless school leaders break this myth, this stereotype will continue to perpetuate schools in unintentionally harmful ways.  All teachers are literacy teachers; that is an unarguable fact, and as such, it must be embraced by all school leaders.  Training, time, and space must be given to all teachers to equip themselves with the needed skills and abilities to teach the literacies of their discipline.  Scientists read differently than historians.  Historians write differently than journalists.  Journalists research differently than painters. Painters see art in ways that mechanics do not.  Mechanics dissect visual instructions in ways poets cannot.  And on and on and on...

English Teachers are Literacy Instructors

To this end, and this one is a personal pet peeve of mine, English teacher is not a synonym with literacy teacher.  English teachers are trained in the discipline of English -- literature and poetry, character development, and setting.  And as such, they can teach the literacies of the English classroom, but that does NOT mean that they can nor should be the default, token literacy teacher for a school.  Furthermore, English teachers need, just as all teachers do, the appropriate professional learning to fully understand what teaching literacy is and how that is different than teaching poetry.  

With all this said, if we truly want to engage our students in a robust and immersive literacy program, we must push past the traditional, narrow focus of literacy as reading, or of text as books, or of English class and literacy instruction as synonyms. Instead, we must reconceptualize literacy as supporting students in developing a deep understanding of the intricacies of life itself, as the ability to navigate and thrive in an ever-changing and multidimensional world.  Because at the core, literacy is life, and it’s our job, as educators, to help our students live.

This post has been updated from its original publishing date in 2021.

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