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Pandemic emphasizes importance of literacy

International Literacy Day (Sept. 8) was founded by UNESCO in 1966 to remind the public of the importance of literacy. The COVID-19 pandemic, which disrupted schooling throughout the world, brought literacy into sharp focus as numerous studies pointed to learning losses experienced by students.

Faculty members in TWU’s Department of Literacy and Learning say the studies don’t tell the whole story, however. Assistant professor Aimee Hendrix-Soto, PhD, said the term “learning loss” misses so much about the learning that DID occur during the pandemic at home and through school.

“First, it assumes youth live in homes where there is nothing to be learned,” she said, pointing to “rich literacy traditions” such as families singing songs, reading, or watching the news together, or searching online together for information on a subject of interest. “The idea that youth are not learning in their homes is a deficit and limited assumption about literacy in homes.

“Furthermore, there are teachers who are ready to meet youth wherever they are, just as they have always done,” she added.

Elizabeth (Betsy) Kaye, PhD, director of the Reading Recovery and Descubriendo la Lectura training center at Texas Woman’s, said she’d heard of inconsistencies in children accessing school last year. Some were only able to be online periodically, while other classes were held in either a synchronous or asynchronous format. Some children were able to be in the classroom (with masks and social distancing) some weeks but not others.

Reading Recovery is a short-term early literacy intervention for first graders who have been identified with having initial difficulty learning to read and write. Descubriendo la Lectura (DLL) is the Spanish reconstruction of Reading Recovery. According to Kaye, officials in some school districts with Reading Recovery/DLL implementations have said that beginning of the year scores on the program’s early literacy assessment are lower than they’ve been in the past.

“That would be an indication that the pandemic may have made  learning how to read and write in kindergarten harder for some students,” she said.

There were some bright spots, however. Because Reading Recovery is set up to provide individualized lessons based on a particular child’s strengths and needs, Kaye said, teachers found flexible ways to build and hold the lessons on a variety of delivery platforms.

“We found that teachers were still able to design lessons with a great deal of individuality and expertise, and those children they taught did make really good progress,” she said. “So we were still able to get that accelerated learning, and I really credit the ingenuity and expertise of the teachers in all our school districts across the U.S.  and other countries.”

Kaye, who serves as the U.S. representative to the Board of the International Reading Recovery Trainers Organization, said there were similar challenges and successes across the five countries the program serves.

“COVID challenged everyone,” she said. “It just shows how expert teachers can adapt to the curveballs thrown at them.”

A Different View of Literacy

Hendrix-Soto, an adolescent literacy specialist, said schools are not necessarily set up to recognize the literacies that adolescents bring with them to class, such as composing and performing slam poetry, generating fan fiction in online communities, or being avid readers of young adult novels or comic books.

“The regimes of standardized tests, and the pressures schools face to focus only on test literacies, leave little room for this brilliance to be explored in schools,” she said. “This is how you can end up with students labeled as ‘basic’ or ‘below basic’ in literacy, when in actuality they are anything but.

“In our literacy teacher preparation courses for 4-8 and 7-12 certification, we push against this by teaching preservice teachers to hold appreciative perspectives of their future students’ literacies, languages, and cultures,” Hendrix-Soto added. “They also learn pedagogies and practices for bringing all of that into literacy instruction.”

Hendrix-Soto notes the past few years have been rough on adolescents due to the pandemic, racial injustice, and a looming climate crisis. One thing she would prioritize in classrooms this year is “just sheer enjoyment, which literacy can support. In the best classrooms I know, this is what is front and center right now. In the circle of teachers I know, they are making sure that youth have access to fantastic books, great reading experiences with peers and individually, and occasions for personally meaningful writing.

“Related to this,” she added, “literacy instruction is always a place where youth can process what is happening in the world and remake it in their vision – by writing for social action, building the scientific and media literacies we so desperately need now, or just by connecting with other humans, in a classroom, through dialogue about their experiences. In this way, literacy instruction can be sensitive toward the trauma youth have experienced and offer tools for individual and collective healing. This is something I have tried to offer to the preservice teachers in my literacy courses throughout the past year who are mainly young people subject to the same forces, with the hope that it helps them now and in their future classrooms.”

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By Karen Garcia
Marketing & Communication
kgarcia@twu.edu