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Why is literacy important?

Literacy seems to be popping up everywhere at the moment. A recent report by Professor Stuart McNaughton, The Chief Education Scientific Advisor, explores the [rather bleak] Literacy Landscape in Aotearoa New Zealand. A UNICEF report reported that only 64.6 per cent of 15-year-olds in New Zealand have basic proficiency in reading and maths. And The Education Hub currently is working on a range of resources on literacy, with an initial focus on early reading. 

It perhaps was unsurprising then that a couple of weeks ago I received an email asking if I had any papers or research that addressed the question ‘Why is literacy important?’. It turned out to be a very good question. While I had a clear belief in the absolute importance of literacy, I did not have anything that clearly and succinctly outlined why it was so important. In this insight article, I provide a cursory exploration of the question.

Reading and writing are human inventions, which have enabled us to create, store and make available to others across time and space a physical record of information and knowledge. In doing so, they have enabled successive generations to build upon the learning of those before them, and have enabled participation in political and social discourse in a way not previously imaginable. As James Murphy explains, in a recently published book entitled Literacy; An evidence-informed guide for teachers: Written information has become the foundation on which the information revolution is built. Without access to this foundation, full participation in our society is impossible. Indeed poor literacy is so strongly correlated with poor life outcomes that it should be impossible to ignore. And yet data from New Zealand suggests that over the past decade or so, the literacy achievement of 15 year olds has declined.  

While literacy often is equated with the subject of English at school, it is in fact fundamental to all curriculum areas, with each subject having its own peculiar literacy demands. We know, for example, that for some children who struggle with maths, it is not their mathematical knowledge that is lacking but rather they do not have the necessary reading skills (including background knowledge) to understand what a maths problem is asking them to do. It is essential, therefore, that schools are not only building students’ ‘generalised’ literacy but also their disciplinary literacy. Literacy, therefore, is the job of every teacher in a school. 

Literacy is essential for employment. At the most basic level, without it, it becomes challenging to search for or read a job advertisement, put together a CV, or read an employment contract. Within the discourse of the ‘future of work’, where an ever growing number of individuals and organisations are putting together lists of the must have skills and competencies for work in the twenty-first century, literacy, while often missing from the lists (for example here and here) underpins nearly all of the skills identified. In order to be able to think analytically and critically, to continually learn, to make effective decisions, or to be cognitively flexible, it is essential that one has the ability to engage with, understand and apply the ever increasing flow of information and knowledge that surrounds them. 

Literacy further is at the heart of much civic engagement. Not only is much of the information released by the government and its associated agencies written, poor literacy also affects an individual’s ability to vote and therefore to engage in one of the foundations of democracy. Literacy also plays a fundamental role in everyday life; from being able to read labels on food at the supermarket, to reading road signs, to reading menus at the local café, or browsing the internet (not to mention being able to utilise the internet to leverage the ongoing learning opportunities that it offers).

There also is a growing body of evidence about the importance deep reading, of the kind that occurs in effective English classrooms as students engage with texts that tackle complex themes such as racism, otherness, and colonialism. As I’ve previously discussed, deep reading is an essential activity for building empathy and perspective taking in young people (and society more generally). Deep reading enables people to not only encounter but also to inhabit, through their immersive engagement with a written text, different lives, different perspectives and different worlds. Reading books and longer articles also is one of the best ways to learn how to think critically, understand complex issues and separate fact from fiction. This becomes all the more important (and concerning) given the current decline in reading for pleasure among adolescents (and other ages). 

So what do we do? There is a lot of research on the science of reading – that is, what goes into enabling someone to read. However, there is still more work to be done on the pedagogy of reading (as well as writing) – that is, what effective reading and writing instruction looks like at different year levels and across different curriculum areas – as well as ensuring that it is consistently taking place in all classrooms across New Zealand. Added to this, a crucial part of any work on literacy in schools must be building a love and appreciation of reading and all that it can offer. For that, children need to understand the joy, the power and the possibilities offered by the written word.