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March 1, 1997
Vol. 54
No. 6

In Australia / New Avenues to Literacy

Print and visual images are everywhere—from magazines to billboards to the Internet. It's time for schools to broaden their literacy efforts to help children negotiate these new realities.

Frank Smith (1971) coined the phrase "you learn to read by reading." Smith's memorable quote was both simple and true. But could Smith have imagined the increasingly complex meaning of literacy as it is emerging in the 1990s? The very word literacy doesn't mean what it once did. Literate people don't simply read and write any more. Today, teachers are concerned not just with teaching children to read and write, but how to help students use their reading and writing skills in all the forms necessary for a fulfilled life.
Literacy is not a single skill; rather, it is a social practice that takes many forms, each with specific purposes and contexts (Cairney 1995, Luke 1993, Welch and Freebody 1993, Gee 1990). Being truly literate requires one to navigate different forms with some fluidity—to respond appropriately to an e-mail message, to convey meaning to others through images as well as text. At the same time, literacy helps us inform, persuade, and express our feelings.
In the 1990s, we need to be able to navigate the multiple sign systems of our world. Someone who "surfs the net" may have to read print, interpret diagrams, draw, talk, listen, and write as part of one learning activity. This requires being comfortable and proficient in drawing on the resources of language, typographic devices, and images (photos, videos, graphics, or diagrams). As we rely more heavily on technology for information sharing, communication, and learning, this will become even more important.
Consider the forms of literacy encountered by a typical preschooler. The 3-year-olds of the 1990s experience multimedia literacy as they play at home, visit the shopping mall, and travel in the back of their parents' car. They "read" myriad pictures, images, words, and sounds as they observe others using auto tellers, writing letters, collecting faxes, reading messages on mobile phones, and playing video games. Increasingly, they observe members of their families purchasing products via computer; answering e-mail; interacting with their televisions; and downloading images, recipes, and other documents from the Internet.

The School's Role

How are schools responding to the changing meaning of literacy? Largely in quite traditional ways. The reading and writing that children experience in schools is fairly similar to that experienced 30 years ago. The most common pathway to literacy in schools has been through narrative texts, typically read to and with children. Teachers encourage writing in many 1st grade classrooms, but often only in the form of narratives or the simple description of daily events and activities. Even when they bring different forms of literacy into classrooms, they seldom combine them in a fluid, integrated fashion. Rarely is music, drama, drawing, and mime used in combination with reading and writing—certainly not in the diverse forms that children experience outside of school.
We need to seek other options for developing children's literacy abilities, options that draw on multiple sign systems and reflect a more integrated focus. Instead of relying primarily on written narrative texts, we will need to be more concerned with helping students understand and analyze such things as videos, charts and diagrams, news photos, and mathematical signs—many of them in combination.
What might this look like in practice? One possible approach is to engage students in firsthand, concrete experiences using an inquiry-based method. For example, a colleague of mine had her 1st and 2nd graders care for some chickens, from day-old chicks to mature birds. The children observed the chicks daily, recording their observations in individual log books. They kept factual records of their growth and development, noted their food intake and waste output, and drew pictures of their developing wings. They wrote narrative accounts about chickens. (One child wrote a radio commentary based on a football game played by—you guessed it—chickens!) Some students sought out factual texts to help inform their observations, the teacher read some well-known chicken stories, and several groups produced their own research projects on chickens.
In other classrooms, teachers have found that oral storytelling is a good basis for early literacy development. In this approach, teachers use storytelling more centrally in their programs and then encourage students to use drawing, reading, drama, writing, and even crafts to respond to the stories.
Film and video are entry points to different forms of literacy. In classrooms I have visited, teachers begin by sharing a specific film or video. Students use drawing, dramatization, and numerous forms of reading and writing to explore their growing understanding, appreciation, or criticism of the content.
  • starts with a central concern for students to engage in learning, not simply literacy;
  • uses multiple sign systems interactively with more conventional forms of literacy; and
  • involves the use of literacy for clearly defined social purposes that match those of the wider world—not simply schooling.
Rather than seeing these new forms as threats, we need to embrace them as new pathways to literacy. If we are to offer our children the maximum potential to acquire the many forms of literacy that they need for life, then we need to broaden the range of literacy options in our schools to more fully reflect the diversity in our world.

Cairney, T.H. (1995). Pathways to Literacy. London: Cassell.

Gee, J. (1990). Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses. London: The Falmer Press.

Luke, A. (1993). "Stories of Social Regulations: The Micropolitics of Classroom Narrative." In The Insistence of the Letter: Literacy Studies and Curriculum Theorizing, edited by B. Green. London: The Falmer Press.

Smith, F. (1971). Understanding Reading: A Psycho Linguistic Analysis of Reading and Learning to Read. New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston.

Welch, A.R., and P. Freebody. (1993). "Introduction: Explanations of the Current International Literacy Crises." In Knowledge, Culture and Power: International Perspective on Literacy as Policy and Practice, edited by P. Freebody and A. Welch. London: The Falmer Press.

Trevor H. Cairney has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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