What Works - Literacy

By Michael W. Truitt

While some programs are eclectic in their perspective on literacy (e.g., seeking to combine traditional life skills with problem posing), others have a clearly defined literacy framework that guides classroom practice, staff development and assessment.

Finally, programs vary in the way they conceptualize learner-centeredness and the degree to which they share control of the program.  In most innovative programs learners are involved in deciding what they wanted to learn and how.  To a much lesser extent, learners help make decision about course goals and assessment. In some participatory programs, learners are involved in the governance of the program itself and help make decisions regarding program direction and program aims.

What works?
For the purpose of this paper we will focus first on ESL (English as a second Language)

Contrasting approaches
Learning to read and write is not a simple process, especially for adults who are acquiring literacy in a second language and have had little or no previous experience with print.  Reading involves understanding what a text means, matching marks on the page with the meaning of words, connecting the message of a text with background knowledge and experience, and interpreting the overall purpose of a text.  Writing requires though, the language necessary to express these thoughts, powers of organization and the mechanical skills necessary to put ideas on paper. Obviously, there can be no quick and easy way to acquire the knowledge, skills and strategies needed for understanding and using written language and becoming what society considers a literate person.  There are, however, a number of approaches to teaching literacy that show promise in helping students become independent readers and writers.

Skill-based versus social-context models

Practice reflects theory and there is nothing as practical as a good theory.  The approaches teachers choose reflect their view of learning and their understanding of the way adults acquire literacy in a second language.  Two modes of reading and writing development are common in the literacy field: (1) a decontexualized skills-based model that claims that literacy develops in a linear fashion from holistic, social context models that holds that literacy develops as learners use their minds to make sense out of the literacy materials found in real-life.  These models are sometimes combined in interactive approaches that integrate phonics into a meaningful context.

Skills-based model claim that literacy is and individual accomplishment, consisting of a set of skills that exist independently of the context (setting, situation) in which they are used.  In literacy teaching, this is evidence in many basic literacy programs (particularly Laubach). Phonics-based approached are sometimes called “bottom-up” approaches since they start at the bottom (the letters on the page).

Proponents of the social context model, on the other hand, hold that literacy develops out of the need of humans to communicate and share meaning. In this view, literacy encompasses a set of social practices influenced by individual goals, collective experiences, and societal values.  This model is reflected in approaches that focus first and foremost on communication and meaning.

Approaches base on this model are sometimes called “top-down” approaches since they start with the top, that is, the background knowledge and experience that exists in the learner’s mind. Literacy educators agree that real-life literacy, or reading and writing for a purpose other than classroom practice, always involves both top-down and bottom-up processes.  The debate revolves around how much time should be spent on making meaning and understanding the “big picture” and how much should be spent on practicing letters and sounds.  The recent literature supports an approach that puts meaning first, but helps learners to understand the relationship between meaning and structure at a point when such information becomes relevant and necessary (i.e., when learners repeatedly get stuck in similar patterns or when learners ask questions about grammar and sound/letter relationships).

Next we will discuss the phonics-based approaches and their limitations and explain the cognitive theories that form the basis for meaning-based approaches.  We will then show how “bottom-up skills” can become part of meaning-based teaching through and interactive approach.


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