Why literacy?

I wanted to start this new blog space (I’ve had a blog on another site for several years now) with a post that reflects where my thinking has gone in the last few years. Maybe it’s my background as both an English and a French teacher, but for me, everything comes back to literacy. It’s true that in my French as a second language classroom we spend a lot of time talking about specific elements of speaking, listening, reading and writing, but when you boil it all down to the big picture, it’s all about literacy – the how and the why of communicating in a second language. Teachers talk about literacy all the time, and it’s a word that has been used so much that we may lose sight of how important it is. But consider this:

“Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society. It is a bulwark against poverty and a building block of development, an essential complement to investments in roads, dams, clinics and factories.” That was the opening sentence from the message of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the occasion of International Literacy Day in 1997. You can find the rest of the address here – it’s powerful. It goes on to say, “Literacy is a platform for democratization, and a vehicle for the promotion of cultural and national identity. Especially for girls and women, it is an agent of family health and nutrition. For everyone, everywhere, literacy is, along with education in general, a basic human right.” Given that level of importance, it’s impossible to ignore the need to focus on literacy.

My work in the classroom doesn’t have the same level of impact as Kofi Annan’s speech to the UN, but my classroom is still a place where literacy is critically important. Because I teach in Canada and I like to dig into this kind of thing, I created theinfographic below using Canadian statistics on literacy:

Literacy in Canada infographic

Up-to-date figures are tough to track down, and most international agencies that track literacy statistics assume Canada to have a 99% literacy rate, commonly defined as the ability to read and write at age 15. However, second language literacy digs much deeper than that. You’ve probably noticed that the infographic above doesn’t contain statistics specifically pertaining to second language literacy. That’s mostly because they are not readily available, and because it was only in the Canadian census of 2012 that questions specifically pertaining to languages spoken in homes across the country started to be asked. The really exciting thing (for people who care about language and literacy) is the potential return on investment in literacy programs. The benefit to society as a whole is huge.

Second language literacy is a complex beast, made up of speaking, listening, reading and writing components, each of which develop at different rates for different learners. I grew up in an era of second language instruction that was very focussed on rote memorization. That has changed over the years, with modern curricula focussing on communicative proficiencies more so than vocabulary quizzes and verb conjugations.

There is a strong need to continue moving forward towards communication and literacy, and my recent participation in a district committee tasked with piloting and selecting a new program for our French as a second language programs has highlighted that for me. The committee has looked at a number of resources so far from several publishers, and the current range of offerings spans the gamut from traditional grammar based practice to situations in which students acquire vocabulary for communication, and practice speaking, listening, reading and writing in context. As a language teacher, I have found the latter range of options to have far more appeal for my students, as well as more overall effectiveness. Learning grammar and vocabulary in isolation is really learning the “what” without the “why”, and most students can’t remember it for long.

What it all comes down to is really simple – students need to know what they are learning, why they are learning it, and how to put the pieces together. What they learn to say has to fit together with what they read, what and how they write, and their ability pick up information from listening. And it can’t be based on a series of rote memorization exercises with multiple choice answers. They need effective feedback, opportunities to make mistakes, and the courage and drive necessary to fix them. If you have thoughts to share on second language learning or literacy in general, please feel free to share – I’d love to hear what you have to say.

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