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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 7, May/June 2005

Literacy + Learning = Hope & Success: What every student deserves

by Donna Kozak

When travelling through airports, I am drawn to the bookstores as a respite from pre-travel anxiety, destination jitters, or boredom. In words, new-book smells, catchy titles, and colourful cover designs, I find a buffet of sensual opportunity. It’s all about the potential of a new world, courtesy of someone else’s written words, which I can decode, understand, learn from, and be entertained by.

A quotation on the wall of one bookstore caught my attention: "Where is human nature so weak as in the bookstore?" (Henry Ward Beecher 1813–1837) I was struck with the realization that my adolescent literacy learners risk never experiencing the enjoyment of circling a bookstore, allowing the senses to run free, in the company of the many voices and stories.

The simple experience of bookstore wandering reminded me of the reality of not being a reader and of how much learning has been missed through the lack of interaction with print by the time adolescence rolls around. Being print literate is more than just a practical survival skill; it is also the gift of passion and possibility, where transforming thoughts into lovely prose, ideas into information, and ramblings into magic for another’s enjoyment is a powerful key to success and survival.

When I try to walk in the heavy shoes of my students, who after years of exposure to the written code are still foreigners in a foreign land, where their mother tongue is accessible to them only through speech, and words they try to speak in print remain elusive, I feel a claustrophobic angst. As each day of their school life passes, the compounding accumulation of learning deficits is the equivalent of seven or eight years of not practising the skills of reading, not engaging in learning through print, not expressing ideas through print, not learning through print at all. A lifetime of illiteracy—with all the pitfalls, disadvantages, and lost opportunities that come with inaccessibility to print—has begun. After years of interacting with a confusion of symbols, non-readers’ motivation, self-belief, and spirits are badly bruised. Repeated failure at what appears to be a basic human task decides their membership in the club of academic have-nots.

In their 2004 book, I Want To Read, Booth, Green, and Booth talk about what it means to journey through the school experience without learning how to read: "Non-readers tell us stories of punishment and pain, where books never metamorphosed into friendly objects, where worksheets and controlled readers caused reading worlds to turn into dark, unfriendly places... Learning to read and write is a constructive process, and emotional connections control what can happen. A sense of despair can inhibit or even prohibit literacy growth... Students know their failures in comprehending and composing text; they live with failure every day in subject areas. Some have spent a dozen years hiding their incompetencies, acting as if reading and writing don’t matter, missing class, not completing assignments. They feel like failures, and so they behave like failures because they can’t read. They become disinterested or defeated."

Non-reading adolescents arrive at our ARC program (Another Reading Chance) at Constable Neil Bruce Middle and Glenrosa Middle schools, in SD 23 (Central Okanagan), with extremely fragile and broken belief systems about what it means to be a student and a learner at school. They may have already given up on themselves as learners and on us as teachers. Giving them the basic tools to read is more than just a few lessons in phonological awareness and phonics; it is about overcoming their self-doubt and giving them a taste of hope and success. Hope gives us optimism, optimism allows us to risk-take, taking risks gives way to opportunity, opportunity propagates motivation, motivation lights the way to success, and with success comes new hope. Hope is definitely something every child is entitled to experience through learning, and hope is exactly what illiteracy erodes every day in the life of a student who cannot read.

ARC, in its third year working with struggling adolescent literacy learners, has achieved exceptional results, proving that skills can be taught and learning and print can be made accessible to students whose learning deficits have been accommodated, but not addressed, for years. ARC can teach adolescents to read, but it cannot fill in the gaps of years of missed learning. ARC has proven that adolescents can find success with print and can overcome their feelings of despair and disappointment, but it cannot turn back time and make up for lost learning opportunities. ARC is not the best answer. It is reactive, takes enormous amounts of time, and is almost too late. Wouldn’t prevention make all our lives much easier and less painful? Prevention at least seven years before adolescence would be ideal.

What does it mean for adolescents to have another chance at learning to read? It means having to accept that their school career thus far has been a continuous trying to catch up with their literate peers and experiencing school from the sidelines, never really being in the game. Another chance at reading means finally coming to terms with how far behind their peers they really are and accepting that the only way to close the gap is to start working at it now. It also means putting faith and trust in their capacity to surmount what seems insurmountable and also suspending their negative self-belief system in exchange for allowing themselves a second chance at learning to deal with print. For most of the students, another chance at reading allows them to experience the joy of decoding a word with more than five letters, finishing a simple book from cover to cover, laughing aloud when a connected thought is humorous, or expressing wonder when a question has been answered in print. Access to literacy for the adolescent struggling learner transforms the spirit and the mindset, building enough confidence to rekindle the light of hope. Once hope takes hold, doors open, detours are rerouted in minds, and the world is once again within reach. Literacy is more than just learning to read and write; it is having the power through confidence to engage in learning and to become responsible for making that learning one’s own.

What is more fundamental than the right of all children to command a range of skills complex enough to contribute to the shaping of their world or perhaps simply to experience the pleasure of wandering through a bookstore?

Donna Kozak is a district literacy teacher at two middle schools in Kelowna.



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