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Virginia Journal of Education

More Than Reading

Adolescent literacy means more than being able to decipher text. Here are some ways to expand student skills.

by Sarah L. Tanner-Anderson

What, exactly, is literacy? The term is often kicked around in faculty meetings and among our colleagues, but what does it really mean? Usually, when you hear “literacy,” it’s used to talk about how well someone can read and write. Then terms such as functional literacy, illiteracy and even aliteracy come up.

But real literacy goes beyond being able to read and write your native language. In their book, Content Area Reading: Literacy and Learning across the Curriculum, Richard T. Vacca and Jo Anne L. Vacca note that “The more researchers inquire into literacy and what it means to be literate, the more complex and multidimensional the concept becomes.”

The concept of literacy is constantly changing, as the world around us and the ways we communicate change.

As educators, then, we’re faced with several questions. Many believe that children should develop the skills necessary to be successful readers early in their academic careers. But what happens when children enter middle school or even high school with deficient reading skills? As an eighth-grade English teacher, I see this all too often. I hear other content-area teachers complaining that teaching reading “is not my job” and that “students should know how to read by middle school.” It’s important to realize that reading is a skill that is mastered throughout life, not just in the first few years of school. So whose job is it to teach reading? I believe that all teachers should encourage reading, regardless of content area or age; furthermore, it’s only through holistic cooperation that students can develop into successful readers.

Of course, we want all students to be successful readers, but why is the term “literacy” generally confined to only reading? Don’t students need to also be able to create clear communication through the written and spoken word? My answer is a loud and resounding, “Yes!” As educators, then, we must work together to provide students with opportunities to expand their writing and speaking literacies as well, by requiring intensive analysis through communication. It’s vital that students be able to understand and interpret the written word, but it is equally important that they be able to effectively communicate their knowledge to others.

While we realize that our students need to possess these literacy skills, it’s often difficult to determine how to teach these concepts. For instance, what happens when students simply do not respond to printed material anymore? What do we do when students are more familiar with video games, social networking sites, and text messaging? Text as we know it is changing, constantly, and we need to be prepared to teach our students how to be effective readers and communicators who are able to disseminate information, regardless of the format. We can strive to equip our students with literacy skills, but they must be able to transfer that learning into a more modern format. So the question really is: How do we promote adolescent literacy in the 21st century?

The National Council of Teachers of English strives to holistically define 21st-century literacy as “a collection of cultural and communicative practices shared among members of particular groups.” In an official position statement, adopted in 2008, NCTE states: “As society and technology change, so does literacy. Because technology has increased the intensity and complexity of literate environments, the 21st century demands that a literate person possess a wide range of abilities and competencies, many literacies. These literacies—from reading online newspapers to participating in virtual classrooms—are multiple, dynamic and malleable. As in the past, they are inextricably linked with particular histories, life possibilities and social trajectories of individuals and groups. Twenty-first century readers and writers need to: develop proficiency with the tools of technology; build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally; design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes; manage, analyze and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information; create, critique, analyze and evaluate multi-media texts; attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments; and document and cite resources (

This comprehensive definition of 21st-century literacies provides us with a guideline of essential skills and strategies that we can utilize in our classrooms, no matter our content area or age group.

Although we understand what we’re supposed to do, it’s often difficult to address literacy issues in the classroom. Students are sometimes face-to-face with a generational dilemma: many parents and teachers seem “out of it” in regards to electronic communications. A generational disconnect is far from new, however, as I distinctly remember when e-mail paved the way for easier communication as my parents and teachers stared blankly at their computer screens. Although we are not all technology teachers, it is our duty as educators to keep as up-to-date with the newest technologies as we can and, here’s the kicker – actually use them in our classrooms to promote adolescent literacy. If you’re like me, each day is a battle to keep mP3 players and cell phones out of sight. So I thought, “Why fight it? Let’s use some of these tools for authentic learning!” I cannot speak for all content areas, but I find unique ways to promote 21st-century adolescent literacy in my English classes through creative, real-world applications.

As a middle school teacher, I realize that my students still have a few years before they are exposed to the “real world”; however, I want them to experience success early. Many of my students are beginning to plot out their lives, and I want them to be successful every step of the way. We spend a great deal of time talking to each other – about books, about poetry, about problems we face as readers, writers, and speakers – and students have very valuable things to say! At the beginning of each school year, I assign a reading and writing survey that requires students to examine themselves and how they feel about their ability to clearly communicate. When I read these surveys, I am surprised by the depth of student responses. One student wrote, “I am scared to read because I just don’t know why I can’t understand.” This response moved me so deeply that I vowed to make fundamental reading and writing skills a daily exploration so that no one would feel unequipped. Students must feel confident in themselves, and I strive to get a good feel for each student’s ability and self-perception early in the year. Because each day builds upon the last, we then begin to enhance our abilities to read, write, speak and listen through 21st-century adolescent literacies.

Because there are many ways to engage your students using technology, it’s important to realize that 21st-century literacy doesn’t have to equate to technology learning. This is important, because we, as their teachers, are responsible for preparing them for whatever lies ahead on whatever path they may choose. In fact, we are charged with the task of promoting adolescent literacy that moves beyond the classroom and into the real world. In addition to understanding technology, students must also possess the skills necessary to comprehend the written and spoken words connected to it. Being a whiz with a computer does not make you a literacy expert.  Students must also be confident as communicators and collaborators.

Students will one day be faced with job interviews, college applications, business correspondence, public speaking requirements and similar situations. Working in a rural school division, I can’t tell you how many kids have groaned, “But all I want to do is work on the farm!” Or, “Mechanics won’t ever need this!” Or, my personal favorite, “I ain’t gonna be an English teacher anyway!” I try to help students understand that possessing the ability to communicate is a necessity, no matter their career choice. In fact, I didn’t realize the importance of literacy until after I completed my undergraduate degree.

As an undergraduate English major in college, I could tell you 101 things about literature from all over the world; however, it wasn’t until I graduated and landed a job in sales that I realized the importance of understanding elements of language. I wrote countless memos, e-mails, sales contracts and proposals – and for every one I wrote, I received similar correspondence from existing and potential clients. I had to analyze every word, as each could mean thousands of dollars. Rather than typing letters, e-mail demanded immediate responses. People would rather write an e-mail than pick up the telephone or request a meeting, and, before I knew it, I was communicating globally with customers without ever seeing them face-to-face. I realized then that the ability to interpret information and to communicate lucidly was vital to my success as a businesswoman.

When I started teaching, I decided that I would make it my mission to prepare my students for success by focusing on literacies they would ultimately depend on in their professional lives. One way I engage students centers on students’ upcoming job searches. With many companies moving towards “green” living, paper applications are growing more and more infrequent. Online applications are all the rage; moreover, one must attach résumés to online applications upon submission. To prepare my students, I assign online application reviews so that they may see, regardless of the career, that understanding the overall content and requirements necessary to correctly complete applications is a fundamental skill that potential employees must possess. Students spend time crafting e-mails to prospective companies and creating electronic résumés. Although they’re eighth-graders, we also spend some time discussing preliminary interview skills, both in person and via e-mail or other electronic formats, so that they are prepared for their first job searches.

In a world that revolves around instant access to the World Wide Web, it’s also important for students to be able to decipher information on the computer page. In an effort to provide a deeper connection with electronic texts, I have students create Web pages that showcase various elements of our classroom learning. Regardless of your content, students can easily craft Web pages to highlight important areas of their learning; for instance, I have had students showcase elements of grammar, literary and poetic devices, and even write pieces via student-created Web pages. You may choose to assign topics or have students choose their own items of interest. Either way, a Web project is an excellent way for students to synthesize their learning through a modern application. Even if students don’t publish their Web pages, they have gained valuable experience in real-world skills.

Realizing that some students will take a more artistic path, I’ve also implemented a multi-modal, marketing book project that requires students to use music. This particular project incorporates several aspects of 21st-century literacies. Students read a novel and utilize elements of their reading to construct music albums. Incorporating elements of writing in the form of reflective pieces, as well as elements of multi-media in order to craft illustrations for album covers and song books, provides students with a unique way to participate in hands-on, literacy learning. Locating and downloading music to create soundtracks, however, takes the project to a new, 21st-century level. I have students imagine that they are recording artists and producers; consequently, students take their learning to a real-world, business application that requires 21st-century knowledge.

Another great way to incorporate 21st-century literacy in your classroom is to participate in an online pen-pal project or classroom blog. Whether interacting with students across our nation or across the world, your students will gain global literacy skills. You may assign specific topics and have students locate an electronic pen-pal according to the topic, or you may choose to enroll your students in a classroom blog united around a certain topic or theme. You may even have students contact an electronic pen-pal who seemingly has nothing to do with your chosen topic or theme to see how similar or different cultures truly are! No matter how you choose to implement electronic pen-pals or classroom blogs, students will certainly benefit from the interaction with other students.
Although I have only provided a few examples, there are endless ways to incorporate 21st-century literacies in your classroom. Through real-world projects and applications and through cross-curricular and cross-cultural learning, our students can be prepared for life beyond their school. We educators are charged with a difficult task – preparing our students for an ever-changing modern society that is in both constant competition and simultaneous collaboration with a variety of cultures. Addressing 21st-century literacies in all our classrooms, regardless of the content or age group we teach, is our single most important task as educators.
Tanner-Anderson, a member of the Buckingham Education Association, teaches eighth grade English at Buckingham County Middle School and currently serves as Vice President of the Virginia Association of Teachers of English.



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