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Literacy Challenges for the 21st Century

Posted on 01/02/2013

Literacy Challenges

Literacy Challenges for the Twenty-First Century (www), the fall issue of the journal The Future of Children (www), contains several pertinent articles for policymakers and educators on preparing the American workforce for the 21st century. Some of the issues raised in the journal are described here.

The comprehension required of workers in the early 21st century goes well beyond that required in earlier years. It is not that the reading scores on standard assessments have declined over the last 40 years, rather the requirements for competency in the workforce—as well as for competent citizenship—have escalated. In fact, the average reading scores for white children over the past few years are similar to those of white children born in the 1960s. Moreover, black and Hispanic children now score considerably higher than their peers of that decade. At the same time, the gaps in reading scores between students of high and low socioeconomic backgrounds have widened significantly.

Research is conclusive that reading deficiencies are not, at least initially, school-based. Literacy gaps are significant before children begin school. Furthermore, in some instances these non-school factors appear to continue to exert an influence as children progress through school.

Especially troubling is the fact that the gaps between black and white students on reading assessments increase between kindergarten and third grade and grows even wider by eighth grade. Hispanic students, on the other hand, start school with proficiencies below their white peers, but these gaps narrow or stabilize after a few years, perhaps due to non-school factors such as strong families. (Sean Reardon and his colleges have identified these trends both in an essay in this volume and in other scholarship.)

The articles in the journal make clear that learners, their families and schools are confronted with a significant two-part literacy challenge: (1) the universal need to better prepare students for 21st-century literacy demands and (2) the need to reduce disparities in literacy outcomes between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those who are more privileged. To address these problems, literacy must be redefined to take into account the heightened demands of the 21st century: Reading as a tool to access knowledge, synthesize information from various sources, understand and evaluate evidence and differing interpretations and points of view for credibility, and gain a deeper knowledge of the components of our increasingly complex world. This redefinition differs profoundly from the current, limited definition that focuses teaching and other school practices on developing reading speed, decoding and summarization skills and the ability to answer multiple-choice questions rather than developing deep comprehension.

Instructional practices must be re-conceptualized to reflect this redefinition of literacy and retooled to develop the requisite proficiency in students to meet the challenges of today's world. For example, reading instruction must become focused adequately on the specific knowledge bases of various disciplines and practices. The consensus among the journal's authors is that, due to the multifaceted nature of the problem, there is no single answer for correcting the deficiencies in literacy instruction. There is agreement, nevertheless, that improving the quality of teaching is the most promising single initiative for ensuring effective literacy in the U.S., and that schools can and should be responsible for addressing differences in literacy achievement even if the original source of differences rest with out-of-school factors.

From the OVAE Connection (www), newsletter of the Office of Vocational and Adult Education, U. S. Department of Education, November 29, 2013.