03 November 2005

Who Gets To Be Literate?

by Michelle Ganz

Literacy’s definition has many variations. Carmen Simich-Dudgeon gives some of the many definitions in her essay “English Literacy Development”. They include the individuals’ ability to perform certain tasks, apply reading to real-world tasks and grade-level performance. It is also defined as the ability to function in the real world and the ability to apply deeper meaning to language. She also gives an “operational definition” of literacy as the “range of uses to which skills of literacy are put”. Languages that do not have a typical writing system such as Native American Languages and American Sign Language, which has no writing system, are starting to be considered in the definitions of literacy. There is still discussion as to whether students based in these languages, especially ASL, can be fully literate by current education standards. New definitions of literacy should be created to account for these alternative language systems. Regardless of the definition there are students who are left out or left behind. The goal of both educators and librarians is to create an expanded definition of literacy that includes those traditionally marginalized.

As literacy is now defined non-traditional students who are quite literate are considered illiterate because of their inability to perform on the standardized tests and/or in traditional classroom settings. Educators have two options to teach literacy skills: phonics or whole language. These techniques are not designed for the disabled students. Those with physical or learning disabilities are assumed to be less literate because they do not perform in a standard fashion. With more and more emphasis being placed on performance on standardized tests teachers have less time to develop alternative teaching methods that will allow them to reach and properly evaluate all students. Consequently those that are outside the norm are pushed aside or labeled incorrectly.

Children with learning disabilities are often assumed to be students unable to learn. These children can be just as literate as any other children; they just need to be taught using different techniques. Many students do not realize that their literacy problems are related to how they learn until far into the school system. These children are told they are not trying hard enough, not smart enough or are ‘trouble kids’. These kinds of labels cause children to write off literacy as something ‘not for them‘. It gives them a dislike for reading and reading comprehension. The more they fail by standard definitions the less they are willing to try. This creates students who do not have the desire to learn. These students need to be identified early in their school careers and taught by methods that coincide with their personal learning techniques and abilities. All children learn in the way that is best for them. It is an innate ability that children develop early in life and continue to use throughout life. Teachers have to tap into this individual method to be able to fully reach their students. These groups of students are getting some of the help they need by working with LD specialists within school systems. Unfortunately, budget cuts and time restraints mean these specialists are not as effective as they could be.

The physically disabled child often learns as other children do. Those whose disability is related to physical mobility usually have no problems with the teaching methods now in use. When the disability is a major one such as blindness or deafness special schools have been designed to deal with their special needs. Those children whose disability is only partial, such as those who are hard-of-hearing or slightly blind are often unidentified within the system. For these students the standard education system will fail them. For example the hard-of-hearing student is be able to read and comprehend at a high level but may not be able to read out-loud. They are unable to perform certain classroom tasks and are punished for this. They are labeled as illiterate by the definitions noted above. Even when the child’s disability is acknowledged there is little the already overwhelmed educator can do to help the student. Rarely is a school or teacher willing to create new standards that can accurately measure these students’ literacy. Likewise the partially blind student needs special environments in order for them to succeed. Large print books, extra lighting or raised letter books are usually not available. These students, like the hard-of-hearing students, may not be able to read aloud, or perform in other activities such as kinesthetic elemental projects but are still able to perform alternative tasks and comprehend literature.

Literacy is an important facet of education, but when it excludes students it is detrimental to their education. Educators need to be aware of the special needs of some of their students and work to include them in classroom activity, even if it is a diminished capacity. Alternate activities such as writing discussion questions and leading group discussions can be substituted for reading aloud. It is important to not single out an individual student for their disability; but to work to make these students feel like part of the classroom community. Inclusion will assure educators that a child who is ‘different’ will not feel that they are sub-standard compared to other students. By instilling confidence these students will exceed expectations and learn to embrace literacy as an important part of their lives.

How to cite this document:
Ganz, M. (2005). Who gets to be literate? BiblioTech, 3(2). Retrieved [insert date here], from: http://www.sir.arizona.edu/lso/bibliotech/2005nov_vol3_no2

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