On the fifth day of the institute, we heard Dr. Pamela Mason discuss literacy. Dr. Mason is the director of the Language and Literacy master’s program at Harvard, and she was the person in charge of our entire institute. She’s great. Her presentation was particularly applicable to me because while I taught literacy at the high school level, I never had the privilege of teaching someone to read like the primary grade teachers in my school.
She began her presentation by asking us what we do when we read. There are some easy answers – make meaning, decode, etc., but can you really describe what happens in your brain when you’re reading? I don’t think I’ve ever tried before, and I don’t know that I was successful. And I am a for real, hard core reader. We looked at samples of text that was all jumbled (which we could all still read, just slowly) and text that had such rich vocabulary that we could read it but had no idea what it said. Dr. Mason likened this to the way people with reading disabilities or who don’t have a good vocabulary may see text.
She discussed four pillars of literacy: phonemic awareness/oral literacy, phonics, vocabulary, fluency; and together these pillars hold up text comprehension. Writing and motivation serve as additional pillars. What most interested me was the designation of large and small problem areas, with vocabulary and comprehension in the “large problem areas” part of the diagram.
Throughout the institute, vocabulary continued to come up as vital part of literacy and learning. Mason advocates explicit instruction in vocabulary, and I questioned how much of that we do at my school. She stated that students should learn 3000-5000 academic words a year. That’s a lot! But now more than ever I believe it’s necessary to increase students learning. Kids need words!
She asked us specific reflective questions about our schools and literacy. The questions were powerful for all school leaders, and if I can find them online published by Dr. Mason I’ll link them here. To me, they all spoke of rigor. Are we challenging kids with text and their responses to it, both in writing and orally? She also asked us to think about whether or not our kids are reading online. That’s certainly a life skill in the 21st century as much as reading print.
My English teacher heart was happy to hear her say that we shouldn’t throw out the canon, but we should expand it, including culturally relevant texts right alongside Shakespeare. I also would like to mention that she recommend The Warmth of Other Suns as a book that was meaningful to her, and it’s now on my “to read” list.
She concluded her presentation with an excerpt from a Kofi Anon quote that I think I’d like framed in my office:
“Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society. It is a bulwark against poverty, and a building block of development, an essential complement to investments in roads, dams, clinics and factories. Literacy is a platform for democratization, and a vehicle for the promotion of cultural and national identity. Especially for girls and women, it is an agent of family health and nutrition. For everyone, everywhere, literacy is, along with education in general, a basic human right.... Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realize his or her full potential.”