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By Wayne Campbell
“Reading should not be presented to children as a chore or duty. It should be offered to them as a precious gift.” – Kate DiCamillo
According to Robert Jenkins, UNICEF Chief of Education, just reopening schools is not enough. Students need intensive support to recover lost education. Schools must also go beyond places of learning to rebuild children’s mental and physical health, social development and nutrition. The nation is still in the midst of an educational crisis. The crisis is global. However, locally our problem is worsening by our low literacy levels, especially in those institutions which have been neglected and where violence negatively affects teaching and learning.
As a society, we do not read enough. Our non-reading culture has been compounded by the advent of social media and the COVID-19 pandemic. The unexpected shift from face-to-face instruction to more technologically mediated interaction and emergency remote education (ERE) was especially challenging for both teachers and students. The acquisition of reading literacy is critical for further learning in other school subjects. Students learn to read by means of formal school-based instruction, including homework, as well as in their leisure time through informal reading activities.
Reading is more than just word recognition. Reading involves comprehension, fluency, and automaticity of the material being read. Alberta Education defines literacy as the ability, confidence and willingness to engage with language to acquire, construct and communicate meaning in all aspects of daily living.
Unfortunately, the pandemic disrupted the traditional avenues regarding the acquisition of reading literacy. According to the United Nations Children’s’ Fund (UNICEF), globally, disruption to education has meant millions of children have significantly missed out on the academic learning they would have acquired if they had been in the classroom, with younger and more marginalized children facing the greatest loss. UNICEF states that in low- and middle-income countries, learning losses to school closures have left up to 70 per cent of 10-year-olds unable to read or understand a simple text, up from 53 per cent pre-pandemic.
The role of gender in language and literacy acquisition
Educators often overlook the role gender plays in literacy and language development. Educators need to have a sense of gender awareness regarding how girls and boys learn and develop. Globally, policymakers and educators should not underestimate the importance of normative gender prescribed roles regarding the development of deeply embedded gender norms. It is important to consider the cognitive and affective formation of gender identity, which develops in early childhood. The types of skills, personality attributes, career aspirations and learned gender socialization impacts the learner. Additionally, our boys are not socialized to remain still. There is a ‘boys must be boys’ culture which dictates that the rules for boys must be different from that of girls. This gendered approach to socialization affects boys negatively in both the medium and long term.
There is still an unwritten rule that says reading is for girls. Boys who display an aptitude for scholastic achievement are often ridiculed and their sexuality challenged. There is a culture which dictates to boys that reading is anti-masculine. Sadly, this sub-culture is reinforced by popular culture, and has turned off many of our boys from education in general and reading in particular. This apathy towards reading must be addressed with a sense of urgency. Disturbingly, boys who display school smarts are often ridiculed as effeminate by peers and even adults in areas where academic excellence by males is typically devalued. The construction of Jamaican masculinity is rooted in a thug culture far removed from education.
We live in a culture where boys learn from very early that the roadmap to success and wealth has multiple pathways. Society does a great job in mapping the various pathways available, especially for males to travel. In a society which celebrates and glorifies the attainment of ill-gotten wealth, our students are quick to learn the get-rich-at-all-costs lesson, more so than the pedagogy associated with literacy and learning in general.
More literacy support is required
Educators who are in the trenches know what is happening. When one is timetabled to teach literacy with little or no support, it becomes a herculean task. While it is true that all teachers can teach reading in their specific Content Area, not all teachers are equipped to teach literacy. Regrettably, this leads to frustration on the part of all stakeholders: the students, teachers and parents. Many parents try. However, they do not know where to turn to seek the assistance to help their children improve their literacy skills. Teachers try too. However, it becomes counterproductive when you have a class of thirty or more students who are reading below their grade level or who cannot read at all. Those who make policies must be mindful of the various indicators which impact teaching and learning when placing too many students with varying reading levels, behavioural traits and learning styles within the same classroom. A culture of frustration runs counter to a culture of literacy acquisition.
In pursuit of voice technology to teach reading
In recent times, there have been a growing number of edtech companies that have leveraged the advancements in voice-based artificial intelligence (AI) to help improve foundational reading skills for learners from kindergarten right up to fourth grade. It is obvious that the way forward in teaching reading rests in voice technology software.
Olina Banerji, in an article in EdSurge states, “These systems act as guides for students, and as they read a text, analyze their speech to identify the proficiency level of the reader. They try to replicate the experience of a teacher listening carefully and identifying potential problem areas in comprehension, pronunciation and letter recognition.” Voice technology, especially the use of an AI bot that talks back to the learner, has injected reading practice with the kind of feedback that was only possible with one-on-one tutoring before.
Banerji argues that from an instructional point of view, voice tech seems to cover two important bases: it is interactive, and it’s able to act as a “wingman” to teachers in a classroom. This is an important point in that, in many instances, there is no teaching assistant in these overcrowded and hot classrooms. Voice recognition tools provide instant feedback which is necessary for both the student and the teacher. This instant feedback tells both students and teachers what progress has been made and the areas in which more work is needed.
There needs to be competent, professional and supportive literacy coordinators. Each staffroom should have at least one printer dedicated to the printing of resource material for literacy. Each school should have a fully equipped literacy lab with the necessary and latest software and computers.
The State of the Global Education Crisis: A Path to Recovery report by the World Bank, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the United Nations Children’ Fund (UNICEF) paints a troubling picture. “The global disruption to education caused by the COVID-19 pandemic constitutes the worst education crisis on record.
The crisis exacerbated inequality in education
The State of the Global Education Crisis: A Path to Recovery report states, globally, full and partial school closures lasted an average of 224 days. However, in low- and middle-income countries, school closures often lasted longer than in high-income countries, and the response was typically less effective. Teachers in many low and middle-income countries received limited professional development support to transition to remote learning, leaving them unprepared to engage with learners and caregivers. At home, households’ ability to respond to the shock varied by income level. Children from disadvantaged households were less likely to benefit from remote learning than their peers, often because of a lack of electricity, connectivity, devices, and caregiver support. The youngest students and students with disabilities were largely left out of countries’ policy responses, with remote learning rarely designed in a way that met their developmental needs. Girls faced compounding barriers to learning amidst school closures, as social norms, limited digital skills, and lack of access to devices constrained their abilities to keep learning.
Literacy and behaviour modification
Education is primarily concerned with changing the behaviour of the learner. It is well researched that those students who give the most problems are those with lower levels of literacy skills. Often these students engage in maladaptive behaviour to disguise the fact that they have problems reading, or sometimes these negative behavioural traits being displayed is a cry for help. Some theorists are of the opinion that both reading and behavioural problems cause each other. Both factors might be reciprocally causative over time, leading to a negative feedback cycle of increasing problem behaviours, school disengagement, and academic failure. McGee; et al., 1986.
Additionally, the acquisition of reading literacy is also intrinsically linked to more positive behaviour among students. Students who are able to manipulate and navigate their literacy journeys have a higher degree of self-confidence and will perform better academically.
Educators as data-gathering specialists
As educators, we know what is working or not working in our classrooms and, indeed, the school. As a result, every educator can become their own data specialist. Undoubtedly, as educators, we need to go a step further by sharing our thoughts. Many of us as educators will agree that parents who are more highly educated are better able to support their children and foster their children’s reading socialization more holistically. Anecdotal evidence suggests that more boys than girls struggle with literacy.
It can be argued that the socio-economic and socio-cultural factors of the family also play a vital role in determining the acquisition of reading literacy. As educators, we have also seen that students from families where reading is normalized and where books are readily available do have a more extensive and engaging vocabulary than their counterparts on the other level of the spectrum. It therefore means that more needs to be done to close the income levels in society in order to have a more equitable and inclusive society.
Private public collaboration
Boys’ underachievement in literacy is more than a policy programme. We are all concerned about the high levels of crime and violence in the society and rightly so. One practical way in which we can all help retake Jamaica is by more investments in education, especially in literacy. There are numerous schools across Jamaica which are in dire need of support regarding their literacy programmes. There are also many companies in Jamaica that are assisting, and this is commendable.
However, there is a need for more private public collaboration in order to scaffold literacy programmes in our schools. There are teachers who need training, which comes at a cost. There is a need for stationery and equipment to make the job of the teacher a bit easier. Parents also require a database of service providers to help them assist their children.
For example, many parents are unaware of where they can go to have their children tested or evaluated, and this is problematic. There is also a space for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to work with other stakeholders to offer help in building out the literacy capacity of our nation. Much more work is needed as the harvest is ripe and the labourers are too few.
The trust regarding literacy skills rests in establishing a rich language and literacy environment both at the school and in the home. An investment in our human capital will pay big dividends and prevent many students from slipping through the cracks into a life of crime and violence.
In the words of Brad Henry, no other investment yields as great a return as the investment in education.
Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and or gender issues.