Understanding the power of literacy [05-01-2023]

It is only fitting for the first installment of this blog series to establish a collective understanding of literacy, what it entails and why it is a valuable means for an individual’s growth and expansion. Often literacy is referred to simply as one’s capacity to read and write, and while this is true, it is cognitively speaking so much more. Literacy has been deemed one of the strongest predictors of success as it enables people to finish school, secure jobs, impact well-being and increase life satisfaction. If language is the instrument through which human collectives convey beliefs, values, traditions, events, knowledge and narratives they consider meaningful in understanding the world – in its written form this is history. Acquisition of a language requires one to discern phonemes (sound units) and attain a familiar phonemic awareness of sounds inherent within that language system. Reading proficiency allows an individual to become an autonomous learner – independently capable of accessing information that satisfies personal interests and  desires. Too often the pedagogic delivery in classrooms around the world treat a cohort of learners as a single unit – the nurturing of future community members capable of contributing and endowed with a set of prescribed laudable characteristics (not unlike the product output of an assembly line). However, each class is comprised of learners diverse in their life experiences, cultural capital, academic readiness, social awareness and perceived values. Explicitly teaching phonemic awareness has a direct and significant impact on children’s reading development, considerably more than pedagogic strategies which rely upon memorization of vocabulary or focus on comprehension strategies alone.

Linguists estimate that the world’s languages comprise 800+ phonemes or sound units (for a deeper understanding refer HERE).  Any given language will utilize a subset of these; the ability to hear and differentiate speech sounds (phonemes) allows us to acquire languages easily.  It is interesting to note that in their sensitive period, infants are capable of discriminating all…

“Babies all over the world are what I like to describe as ‘citizens of the world.’ They can discriminate all the sounds of all languages, no matter what country we’re testing and what language we’re using.” ~ Patricia K. Kuhl

While this blog series and the “Marcus” texts referred to, focus on tools and strategies to enhance English literacy, this in no means suggests that the author considers English literacy as preferable or superior in any way, for literacy in any form, is a powerful enabler.  That said, from an historical context and based on the hegemonic structure of the global economy in place over the last few centuries, English has become the most widely spoken language worldwide including native and non native speakers.  Though there is no guarantee this trend will continue into the future (indeed change is the only constant), it does mean that a good amount of world literatures have been translated and are widely distributed in English, thus ensuring that readers around the world have access to cultural perspectives and points of view different from their own.

In the 1960’s the children’s books written under the pseudonym Dr. Seuss became a popular resource providing a creative, fun, and interesting way for children to play with sounds and learn about mapping sounds to print. These books were targeted for pre-Kindergarten – grade 1 students, for whom the frequent repetition of sounds not only help in mastery of this skill, but do so through engaging stories which used limited vocabulary—an ideal combination for beginning readers. Perhaps the publication success of the Dr. Seuss books combined with their efficacy in igniting that love of reading in children, was the catalyst ensuring that children’s literature and language textbook publishers began consciously publishing a genre of materials that focus on a limited range of familiar vocabulary referred to as the Dolch Sight Words list.

2023 seems as good a time as any to reconsider whether limitations should continue to be applied as regards scope and range of vocabulary appropriate for elementary school readers.  Once a child has a strong phonemic awareness he/she no longer requires the same limitations – in fact, what at an early stage served to inspire the desire to read, could now be perceived as boring.  Most children (to be honest most people) do not necessarily find continued joy in what is familiar and comfortable – we are constantly wanting to expand and grow and demonstrate greater complexities of competence. That of course does not mean scaffolding be removed altogether – after all, we do not expect a child to go from learning to walk to immediately running marathons as this would not be a logical progression. Phonemic awareness, phonics skills (resource HERE) and syllabification of words (more likely to follow phonetic patterns than whole words) ensure that young readers have the capacity to independently decode and decipher pronunciation of new words not previously introduced. It is important to understand that decoding of new vocabulary is not synonymous to comprehension, but endows the reader with confidence to seek comprehension.

If you are a parent, mentor or teacher, I hope you will join me in re-igniting the love of reading among the children in your care. Please  feel free to introduce friends, family and colleagues to join as well. The blog entries that follow in this series will focus on introducing activities, tasks and resources you may use to assist you in this valuable endeavor.  Thank you for your interest, I look forward to engaging with you. If you have questions that you would like addressed in future updates, or experiences you would like to share with the community here I encourage you to leave your comments below.

The next update will be published on 1 June 2023!

Stay blessed,

L. Malungu



8 Comments on “Understanding the power of literacy [05-01-2023]”

  1. What an engaging read indeed! The journey ahead is going to be exciting undoubtedly. The key point (especially phonemic awareness) highlighted in this article is the core essence that educators around the world should focus on to make our children literate in the truest sense. Reading is a crucial element of every child’s education, a fundamental activity for children’s development & we teachers should make it ‘engaging’ and ‘fun’ so that the digital natives of today don’t forget to pick up a book for both as an escape & adventure.
    “Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope”. —Kofi Annan

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts; I’m delighted that you resonate with the ideas presented in this forum. To the extent that we can equip young people with skills necessary for them to access collective wisdom – reading an important one among them, they then become agents of their own destiny. A book that greatly inspired my own journey as an educator is Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire –

      “The more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world. The more completely they accept the passive role imposed on them, the more they tend simply to adapt to the world as it is and to the fragmented view of reality deposited in them.”

  2. How thoughtful and insightful!
    I really liked how you acknowledged the historical context of the dominance of the English language, but also emphasised on the value of literacy in any language as a powerful enabler. The discussion of the Dolch Sight Words list and its limitations for elementary school readers is particularly interesting, as it highlights the need for ongoing growth and complexity in reading skills.
    Thank you for reminding us about the importance of literacy in fostering comprehension, confidence, and personal growth. I look forward to reading future entries in this series.

    • I am so very thankful for your contribution and grateful that my intention to present literacy as a global concept not confined to any one language (despite an obvious focus on English as a reference point) was communicated! If children from a young age are nurtured to acquire independent reading skills – there is no limit to what can be learned, and to what future civilization can become! Namaste!

  3. So true. Reading enables each child to reach out and touch the multitude of vistas in life. It makes their journey in life interesting and enjoyable. If a child turns to grasp a book during his hours of solitude, we can be assured that he will find the right course in life. Reading maketh a full man said Francis Bacon, and that maxim holds true even today.
    We can be assured of a better civilization and the world a better place if reading take over electronic gizmos in those little hands.

    • Thank you for your comment. Regardless of how inspired a set curriculum may be, it will never satisfy the growing and evolving desires of each and every learner in the cohort. If we focus on equipping students with an arsenal of tools that enable them to be independent learners, capable of co-creating in meaningful ways with others, adapting to new experiences along the ever expanding growth continuum… – there is no limit to the scope and breadth of what they can learn. Like you, I love the visceral feeling of a book – turning the pages, taking joy in the movement of the bookmark at different stages in the journey and even the small tinge of sadness as the end approaches… Perhaps, this is a comfort that I’ve grown to love – but youth born in the digital age may find the same degree of comfort in consuming literature in its digital version, regardless of form the power of literacy is palpable!

  4. Wow, your article on literacy is truly insightful and engaging! Your explanation of literacy as not just reading and writing, but also phonemic awareness and language acquisition, is particularly enlightening and something that I am very interested in. It’s incredible to think about how language is the instrument through which human collectives drives beliefs, values, traditions, events, knowledge, and narratives they consider meaningful in understanding the world.
    I appreciate your emphasis on the importance of recognizing the diversity of learners and catering to their unique experiences and backgrounds as we need to respect learning styles. Your argument for the explicit teaching of phonemic awareness as a key factor in children’s reading development is also very persuasive.
    It is interesting your explanation about the history and significance of English as the most widely spoken language worldwide, and how this has impacted the accessibility of literature and cultural perspectives. And your call to re-consider the limitations on vocabulary for elementary school readers is an excellent point – once a child has a strong phonemic awareness, they should be able to tackle more challenging and diverse reading materials. I am a supporter of scaffolding methodology.
    For sure I’ll read more from your blog series. Thank you for sharing your knowledge of literacy and for inspiring others to join the importance of reading among children. Keep up the great work!

    • Thank you for commenting; it is always wonderful to connect with individuals passionate about the nurturing of learner autonomy – reading being a powerful tool in its accomplishment!

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