The low literacy level of the students at my prac school was something that surprised me and was quite confronting. I’ve always been a reader, and although I find reading academic texts difficult (it’s a very different style of reading that I am still coming to terms with), I tear through a novel or two a week and have for as long as I can remember. Seeing students who, in Year 8, have trouble comprehending basic texts and writing their own name was quite shocking.
I asked my mentor teacher about some of the students. Are they in any remedial program? Are they usually in the learning support class and are being integrated for the electives? What’s being done about this problem? Is anything being done about this problem? The answers varied depending on the student I was referring to. Some students were from refugee families who attended ESL classes. Some students were in the LSC, having been formally identified as needing intensive, extra help with their literacy and numeracy. The students that worried me the most were those not in any of these programs. As my mentor teacher put it, ‘some students just fall through the cracks’.
During prac I observed numerous occasions where low literacy led to disengagement or behavioural issues. I saw a student spend an entire English lesson with their head on a desk, refusing to participate or even look up; students who would not attend class on certain days, knowing that was ‘theory’ day and there would be reading/writing involved; students who put a lot of effort into part of their assignment, but never handed it in because they couldn’t finish the writing component; and students who would deliberately misbehave in order to get sent out of class and avoid reading and writing. These were students with low literacy and not currently in a program that provided them with strategies to help them manage.
As a teacher, I found it incredibly disempowering to see these students and not know how to help them. I did implement some strategies to help students, such as always providing oral explanations of any handouts, reading out what I had written on the board, and helping students with their assessments by reading out the questions and then writing down their answers. However these aren’t permanent solutions to basic illiteracy. It’s a temporary fix as students aren’t learning to read, they are being given information in different formats. Also, strategies such as individually assessing students verbally were only possible because I was there observing and could do the assessment while my mentor teacher was with the rest of the class.
So I think what I am really interested in is strategies that can be used effectively in a classroom situation, not one-on-one, and strategies that go beyond giving students information in non-written formats, and help them learn to read the written word. I am aware that my definition of literacy for this purpose is quite traditional, and not particularly specific to my discipline of music. However, I don’t feel I can blame ‘the system’ and it’s cracks and offer short-term solutions to the students who are really struggling, then send them ont heir way at the end of the year. Also, teaching basic literacy doesn’t mean that other literacies can’t be covered. I know there is so much to teach and so many interruptions, but how can I (or any educator) watch a child who can barely write their name disengage from school, and not do anything about it?
Sure, you can argue that someone else should have done something earlier, but I what can I do now?