Thinking and writing about reading and stuff

As a lecturer at a regional university in Queensland who spends her days teaching academic writing in a preparatory program I am delighted that 2012 has been declared the National Year of Reading because it draws attention to the absolute importance of the skills of both reading and writing. The challenges facing Australia in terms of its slipping literacy levels were discussed in Louise Maher’s piece for The Drum earlier this week. As an educator whose work cuts across this area I believe it is absolutely vital for Australia to fund programs of the sort she described which cater for those people who cannot read or write to a level that would allow them to easily manage daily tasks. I find myself facing slightly different, although not unrelated, challenges in my teaching. University preparatory programs (sometimes also called access or enabling programs) cater for people who want to enter the world of academia in order to better themselves. Sometimes they want a degree to help build a secure future for themselves and their families. Sometimes they want an education for its own sake. Both of these are admirable goals and the motivation I observe in so many of my students is inspiring. That being said, it can be challenging to teach academic writing to students who, in some cases, have fairly average literacy skills to begin with. How do you explain paragraph and essay structure to someone who can’t tell if they have written a sentence or a fragment? How can we expect them to be able to write and edit their own work to a standard expected in tertiary education? I’ll tell you. We go back to basics. For instance, on more than one occasion I have found myself explaining the difference between “it’s” and “its”. The look of amazement on the faces of many students is a sight to behold. The light bulb finally turns on. That’s not all though. We also explain things like the difference between “affect” and “effect”, between “personal” and “personnel”, between “definitely” and “defiantly”. Together, we spend time in class working out the difference between “they’re”, “their” and “there”. It’s wonderful. But wait, there’s more. In the first week of term I joyfully introduce a group of adults (who can be aged between 18 and 80) to the fact that we are going to have a spelling test three times a week for the next twelve weeks. I ignore the groans, frowns and scowls. Then I wait. Because in just a few weeks, these same adults are taking great pride in the fact that their spelling and vocabulary is improving. Soon they are recommending books to me instead of the other way around. They start asking me if I saw a particular documentary, or a story in the newspaper. If this tells us nothing else, it tells us just how empowering improving literacy skills can be. Now you may think that none of this should be necessary for adults, many of whom have completed their secondary schooling, attended TAFE, held jobs of considerable responsibility and in some cases, even been accepted into undergraduate degrees. I suspect the answer to that question is more complicated than simply blaming technology or the telly. The sad fact for us though, is that it is necessary. Does this tell us anything? Well, if we maintain the same benchmark for measuring literacy skills that was employed before these technologies had such an impact on the way we communicate, technology might well be the culprit. Although, maybe we need to acknowledge that the way literacy skills have been taught for the last couple of decades has not actually connected with the wider context in which students live, study and work. For any learning and teaching to be effective it has to connect with the world of the learner. So, rather than harking back to the good old days of the three Rs, we need to find ways of reconciling the value we so rightly put on a literate society with a culture that is also now technologically literate. Perhaps, what is needed is a way of embracing the change technology has brought to literacy skills and working with it instead of against it. If, as a nation, we made that our goal, then perhaps the focus of my work in a university preparatory program would change also. I could stop worrying about stray apostrophes and confused conjunctions. Until then, university preparatory programs need to continue, they must be consistently and adequately funded and they need to be recognized for the excellent work that so many of them do. The flow on effects from a concerted commitment to improving the nation’s literacy skills can be great indeed. (I like to think that I make a very small contribution to those skills). As a reader, writer and teacher, the National Year of Reading warms my heart; but, we need to face the fact that a long term, coherent approach to the shifting literacy landscape is no longer optional. It is essential. A year is an excellent start but it is not enough. It might take a generation.

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