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Why Aren’t Literacy Skills Enough?

By Nick Murja
 | May 11, 2016

shutterstock_113229730_x300I could not have been more excited on the last day of my first year teaching. The stress of slow progress and frustration melted into my badge of honor—I had survived unscathed. But had my students gotten my absolute best, especially as it applied to literacy? Despite my efforts, some students refused to buy in to the importance of reading. But, as a single father, I would get to spend the summer experimenting on my kids, with any luck; I’d have the “perfect formula” ready by next August. Unfortunately, my “summer students” revolted, and after three days I tossed out my lesson plans. I’d experienced the same problem at home and in school—despite skill level, reading was a nuisance. What was I missing?

The home literacy environment

While stationed in Paso Robles, CA, my daughter was blessed with the most dynamic kindergarten teacher. Budget cuts increased the maximum number of students per class from 23 kids with an aide to 33 without. The parents united and took turns helping each day. I was immediately hooked: the songs, the fun, the reading, and the hugs! By Christmas, the class knew the alphabet, sight words, and blends. Each week after, students were sent home with a book-themed bag of activities that focused on emergent literacy skills. I was immediately won over by creativity that bloomed in our home, inspiring our family to encourage literacy.

At the heart, this is a home literacy environment (HLE)—the resources, feelings, and actions in the home that support or inhibit literacy. Sadly, there was a time when I believed school success was solely the result of genes. Smart kids, with smart parents, became successful adults. I was mistaken. My beliefs regarding early literacy success were transformed with what Dolores Durkin described as “The Summertime Gap.” My kids began school with basic emergent literacy skills because we had books, went to the library, talked about stories, and promoted a culture that emphatically states, “Reading is important!” However, some kids don’t have books to read or parents who enjoy reading, which creates an academic gap between student levels on the first day of kindergarten. Teachers go to battle each year but ultimately lose to the summer months when some kids continue learning, whereas others forget what was learned. Parents must lead the battle as primary literacy educators, and teachers have done an incredible job empowering them to do just that. With that said, as a high school remedial reading teacher and literacy researcher, I believe we’ve missed a very effective opponent to long-term literacy success. 

Why isn’t literacy skills instruction effective?

Having experienced the new wave of literacy education, promoted by parents and enforced by teachers, I expected my high school students would, at the very least, want to read. I could not have been more wrong. Some struggle to read age-appropriate texts, and their avoidance is essentially self-preservation. However, some students can read but choose instead to fail, because they despise reading, a condition I’ve learned to label “aliteracy.” As my summer lesson plans indicate, the condition isn’t isolated to high school. Students of all ages, sexes, and ethnicities regard reading as no different from Ebola—a plague to avoid! I follow the rules, so why have my kids become alliterate? Is there an element that can be added to HLE empowerment that will prevent students from choosing failure over reading?

There are two immortal opponents to literacy: not all reading is enjoyable and, at some point, kids must choose to read on their own. Literacy skill instruction is not enough to overcome these factors.

The importance of household order

My oldest son is convinced he’s read Harry Potter. His excitement for the story has caused him to flip through pages and find words he can pronounce. Witnessing a child learning to read is exhilarating. The books immediately become games, which move into pictures, costumes, and sometimes a themed life. But a time comes when every child must begin reading-to-learn without the amusing implications. Readers sometimes have to buckle down and read a boring text or investigate vocabulary because it is essential. This self-discipline is likely to be enforced at school, but if household order is not an element of the HLE, students are unlikely to adopt the priority. 

My little boys came home for Christmas break playing “Polar Express.” Because they love me, I was given a golden ticket and allowed to come. Of course, I could have chosen to stay home, but the trip seemed too magical to resist. Reading is much the same when you consider the element of choice. There comes a point when kids are no longer so eager to please that their decisions reflect preference more than obedience. There is a bibliophile in every class, but most kids must discover their own reading style, and if never given the chance, they will never make the choice to read.  

I’ve redefined our HLE after I failed miserably that summer. We work on the activities teachers send home, but I’ve attempted to construct an environment that promotes self-discipline and discovery. As an unorganized person, I force myself to adamantly stick to a set of rules and schedule. My kids were not fans, but they learned objections don’t affect the outcome. Slowly, they garnered the self-control to do homework, go to bed, and clean despite their objectionable feelings. Some tasks require sheer will to complete and, to our dismay, reading is sometimes that way; therefore, self-discipline is required to endure.

I also began an “alone time” ritual. On holidays and during the summer, we separate for 30 minutes of alone time. Everyone goes to a different room and can do anything aside from play with electronics. No pressure from me, no pressure from siblings, pure unadulterated autonomy. Their rooms are filled with toys, drawing material, and books they’ve chosen. I am assured that each will choose a plastic superhero or some engineering project 90% of the time. But I’m confident that eventually each will choose to read a book, and this is the time they will have the chance to fall in love with words, forever thwarting the aliteracy plague.

Where do we go from here?

I’m not as creative as some, but experience has taught me both the value and the inadequacy of empowering the HLE solely with emergent literacy skills. For early literacy success, we need to introduce parents to the importance of self-discipline and discovery through household order.

nick murja headshotNick Murja teaches remedial reading and writing at Palo Duro High School in Amarillo, TX. He is working on a PhD in Literacy, Language, and Diversity at Texas Tech University.


1 comment

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  1. Renee Chalfant | Sep 27, 2016

    This is interesting, but I am finding it a bit judgmental.  Many, if not most, of the students we work with do not have the luxury of their own rooms, or even a shared room.  This is really upper class priviledge, as is a choice between electronics, books and other toys.  Our students live in cars, in shelters, in one room motel rooms provided by the state, and often only eat at school or at shelters.  Our schools often have a 95% free and reduced lunch rate, no book budgets, and the families certainly do not have the financial capability to purchase books for their children, when they don't have shoes.

    On the other hand, I am completely messy and disorganized, but my children saw me read a book every day...for me, reading is the priority for physical and mental health, and they have grown to be adults who are amazingly accomplished...and I never checked homework or assignments. That was their relationship with their teacher...not mine.  Books, of course.  Tidy...not so much ; )

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