Literacy and skills development in the English class

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What do you think of when you hear the term ‘literacy’? In its simplest sense, being ‘literate’ means that a person is able to read and write texts, and has a reasonable level of education. Let’s reflect on the importance of literacy development on 8th September, UNESCO International Literacy Day (ILD 2018).

Illustration by Nick Tankard from Mystery at the Mill, level 5 Helbling Reader written by Elspeth Rawstron. © Helbling Languages

This year’s theme is ‘Literacy and skills development’, and the concept of the event focuses on ‘youth and adults within the lifelong learning framework’ and the links between literacy and skills. It is important to note that ILD 2018 places the concept of ‘skills’ in a wide context, and  includes ‘knowledge, skills and comptencies required for employment, careers, and livelihoods, in particular technical and vocational skills, along with transferable skills and digital skills’. (Source: UNESCO International Literacy Day, Literacy and Skills Development Concept Note)

What does it mean for teachers and students in the English classroom?

When we teach English in a classroom setting, it is important to look inwards as well as outwards. In other words, it is important to focus on text analysis in depth, both in the reading and writing processes. It is essential to combine both intensive and extensive reading in all disciplines, including discussions of paragraphs (in the former) and gist and general meaning (in the latter). This way, both reading and mathematical literary can become the foundations of transferable and digital skills. Looking outwards, placing literacy development in a wider context, it becomes essential to look for links with different types of employment possibilities, highlighting technical and vocational skills.

How should we approach reading literacy?

Students with stable reading literacy might not only enjoy and succeed in their future studies, but they will also be more interested in their everyday language lessons. It is important to remember and remind our studens of how broadly reading literacy is defined by OECD PISA.

There are two aspects of the OECD PISA definition of reading literacy which can guide teachers when choosing texts and designing activities and discussion questions for them. Firstly, when we select texts, we should keep in mind that understanding a text is only the first step, our students also need to be able to extract relevant information from it, use and reflect on it. Secondly, the text formats should not only be short written texts or long articles. We need to include continuous texts (articles, essays, novels and letters) as well as non-continuous texts (tables, charts, diagrams, timetables, schedules).

It means that a variety of texts should be offered in the first and second language classroom. Students are expected to be able to read several texts simultaneously in a web environment. We are all aware of the features of such environments and cannot ignore the visual and multimodal aspects of most of the texts our students encounter.

How to think of these texts in multimodal terms?

Along with many specialized types of literacy, such as reading, mathematical, scientific, technical, digital and media literacy, multimodal literacy has also entered scholarly discussions. When we think of texts we meet on a daily basis, we rarely find articles which are soley text-based, the verbal mode. Most texts contain visual elements, and the relationship between the written text and the visuals, or the written, the images, the film, the animation and the audio features of the text can create new meanings which only exist in such a context. Language teachers are natural users of multimodal resources, and it is important that our students also become aware of these different building blocks of texts on the web, in films or in illustrated texts.

On International Literacy Day it is crucial to remember that although ‘literacy’ is a powerful concept describing the ability to read and write texts, the context in which this reading and writing happens continuously changes, and the term keeps growing, to include wider contexts and reaching to deeper knowledge areas and applying more refined digital tools.

What can we do to help our students with such complex skills development?

We firmly believe in the importance of stable basic literacy skills, paper-based reading of simple stories your students can relate to. It gives students time and space to engage with the texts without any pressure. As most stories contain illustrations, we can start focussing on different aspects of such texts from a very early age, continuing with more complex visuals, including diagrams and charts. With teens and adults the transition to digital materials might happen more rapidly, and we can start using online resources and doing web-based exercises.

For resources, please check out our young readers, graded readers (for teens and adults), course books and online learning materials on e-zone.

Here are some more articles on International Literacy Day with activities and resources:

 

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