Friday, October 2, 2009

Ta-da! Defining Literacy!

When asked to define literacy as accurately as possible, most people might fall short and consider literacy simply the ability to read a novel, newspaper, magazine, or other work. Individuals may clump themselves together with the population that is considered “literate” merely because of the fact that they recognize various letters and words on a page, and they are not drowned in a blurry and illegible sea of punctuation when asked to decipher a sentence. I define literacy not only as the ability to read a piece, but also as the ability to have some form of intellectual thought of what one has read after the words come to a halt at the end of a page. While the actual skill of reading is a pleasant start to becoming literate, it is definitely not the final step in obtaining the coveted prize of literacy.
Reading is, of course, the fundamental tool needed for the literate individual. However, understanding why the piece was written and what it means is almost just as important as understanding the written words. Being able to read something almost seems irrelevant if a reader cannot put his or her new information to good use. Sadly, I have to admit that my observations have led me to believe that an astounding majority of individuals, even students, are not completely “literate.” Outside of my English classes, I hear students throw tantrums when they are told they must read a chapter out of a book. When someone mentions Shakespeare, many students hurl themselves to the floor and label the bard “stupid” and “boring” simply because of the fact that he uses words outside of the typical third grade vocabulary. What these students do not realize is that, if given enough time and attention, literacy can be much like lifting weights; small steps must be taken before one can lift literary behemoths with true potency.
As a student that has been to both private and public school, I believe that I have witnessed and been taught using a plethora of different teaching techniques. Although I do not intend on becoming a teacher myself, I can clearly establish in my mind which teaching techniques, as far as literacy goes, are truly effective. In a teacher’s effort to convince students to read, there are three methods that I have come across the most. Reading a novel out loud in class, listening to a novel on tape, and acting scenes out are all different paths I have been taken down on the road to literacy.
In private school, reading books out loud as a class was the only method used for becoming literate. For me, this process is terribly boring and ineffective. Not only do I find myself losing interest in the words, but as my eyes shift around the room, I notice other students begin to doze off as well. Then again, I think the environment of a classroom plays a dramatic role in whether students pay attention in class or not. The only reason students actually paid attention in these boring book reads was because of the fact that if one was called upon to pick up where the last student had stopped reading, one had better be paying attention if he or she wanted to escape the fate of being publicly humiliated in front of the entire class. A teacher could even take away a student’s recess time (Heaven forbid!) for not paying attention, a luxury not exactly effective in all learning environments. However, I think this technique can be very effective when used properly. I find myself more engrossed in the reading if teachers simply stop every so often to interrupt a student and describe the definition of a word or elaborate on a complex plot situation. Teachers should realize that even a small step like this one can make all the difference in helping students to become genuinely literate.
Listening to a book on tape has always been a nightmare for me, only made worse when I must endure this nightmare with my fellow students. Even the best narrators can become morbidly mundane after a few hours of restless listening. Some narrators practice with different voices, which is sometimes a comical and distracting situation only exacerbated when one must hear the muttered laughter of thirty other students. While this technique definitely ensures that all students are, in a sense, reading the book, retaining information about the piece appears to be far more difficult for a majority of students. Even when I do enjoy the narration, the piece does not seem to stick with me as well as if I had read it at my own leisurely pace.
I would now like to celebrate a wonderful teaching technique that appears all too occasionally in my learning environment. Combining literature with acting, and allowing students to learn and bond together, has been the most effective method I have witnessed. Not only is it an entertaining take on literature, but also it appears to make students more familiar with each other. This, in turn, increases the chance of students going out of their way and asking others what they thought about certain pieces, and underlines any common questions students may have in common. In short, a student appears to have more critical analysis on the work because the ability to retain the information has been so effectively utilized.
Literacy should be something for all people to strive for, whether the person is a student or not. While common belief is that literacy is simply the ability to read, it should be noted that careful perusal and proper understanding of a work is just as important as the words on the page. Literacy is possible for all, and sometimes it only takes a few extra steps to make the difference between being able to read and being fully literate.

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