Literacy: more than ink on a page

Reading is a valuable activity, whether it’s novels, magazines, comic books, or websites.
That’s the message district teachers heard from keynote speaker David Booth during an annual professional development workshop at Fort Frances High School last week.
Booth is professor emeritus in education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. He also is Scholar in Residence in the Curriculum, Teaching, and Language department, having worked in the education field for more than 40 years.
“Literacy is such a complicated adventure today,” Booth said, noting the definition has moved beyond simply reading and writing.
“I define literacy as making the most sense of any text you experience. And ‘text’ means anything that we look at, hear, or perceive,” he explained.
“Literacy is changing.”
Booth spoke to more than 85 teachers from the Rainy River District School Board and other boards across Northwestern Ontario at the board’s annual “Summer Institute.”
The institute is a series of workshops about literacy and numeracy for teachers as they prepare for the upcoming school year.
Other speakers this year included Kathleen Gould Lundy of York University, Craig Featherstone of the Halton District School Board, and AJ Keen of the Lakehead District School Board.
Booth talked about the old “Dick and Jane” reading series that was used in schools across North America after World War II.
One of the problems with that series, he said, was that it did not reflect real life, but was instead an almost perfect world where the father always came to the breakfast table wearing a suit and tie.
Because the books did not reflect reality, they often did not hold the interest of young students.
In the last 20 years or so, the books being used in school have become more inclusive—describing various types of people and ways of life.
“We have moved literacy from just in school to life,” he remarked.
Booth said his own son’s favourite book in Grade 5 was a story about a mining town.
“That’s a far cry from ‘Dick and Jane,’” he noted. “I am really happy my son met the real world with his teachers.”
A common concern he encounters among parents is the fear their children—boys in particular—are not reading “the right things.”
When invited to do an interview with the CBC, Booth said he was questioned by a reporter who insisted her husband read only “garbage” and that she wanted it to stop.
“I don’t dictate what humans should read,” Booth explained to the teachers. “Only 15-20 percent of men read fiction. The rest don’t.”
Most boys stop reading fiction at age 13, he added, unless they are forced to in school. Where they do much of their reading today is on computers.
“Today, most people read on screen,” Booth said, noting this includes text messaging on cell phones.
Historically, most writing in families has been done by women—from Christmas cards to grocery lists. Boys often were hesitant to write because they were told their handwriting was terrible.
“Today, men write more than women, but it’s on screen,” Booth noted. “The computer has made men free to write, and they’re writing more than in the history of the world.”
He pointed to the phenomenon of online journaling, also known as blogging.
“Twenty million people blog every day,” he said. “Journaling is the most-used strategy in the world for literacy.”
So while men and boys may not choose to write by hand or read best-selling novels, they still are literate and participating in the world around them.
“I’m not here to tell kids what they enjoy isn’t worthwhile,” stressed Booth. “I welcome children and what they’re reading. I welcome the electronic world.”
This is just as true for adult men, who he said are sometimes made to feel they aren’t cultured if they read newspapers rather than novels.
“Most men do not read fiction. Quit picking on them,” he laughed.
Even Microsoft owner Bill Gates has said that as the world constantly changes due to technology, the one skill every person needs is literacy.
“The information generation is here. If you can’t make sense of text, you can’t participate,” Booth warned.
While education has come a long way in the last 20 years, Booth said it’s important schools maintain that momentum. “One thing that scares me about schools is we’re always behind,” he remarked.
Many elementary school children today own cell phones and know how to use their many functions.
“I have 46 messages on my cell phone and I have no idea how to get at them,” he laughed.
In Finland, Booth noted, every child receives a cell phone in Grade 1. This, too, is part of literacy, but it is not yet reflected in Canadian curricula.
“The schools are in danger of becoming tours where people visit old-fashioned times,” Booth said. “We have to find ways to unite the outside and the inside of school.”
To begin with, people need to stop thinking of reading just in terms of famous books by dead authors.
“We need to be pro-children and pro-literacy of all kinds. Embrace, respect, and value everybody’s tastes and everybody’s choices,” Booth argued. “When you take away elitism and judgment, such good things happen.”
Booth is the author of books about literacy, including “Even Hockey Players Read” and “Literacy Techniques.” He also is an award-winning writer of picture books for children.