In preparing for active research project between a couple of my graduate classes, I was fortunate enough to be directed to an article that appeared in a July 2008 copy of English Journal. In the article, “Research Matters: Authentic Literacy and Student Achievement (NCTE membership required for viewing),” Rick VanDeWeghe describes how important it is for English teachers to push students to achieve authentic literacy. Using the research of Mike Schmoker, he defines authentic literacy as “the ability to read, write, and think effectively.” This is accomplished when “students engage in deep reading based on provocative questions posed before reading and then have opportunity to ‘argue and support an interpretation from one or more texts’ in writing.” I would also add that it’s possible for students to have that opportunity to argue and support interpretations through class discussion, as well.
This can all be done through, as VanDeWeghe argues, close readings, rereadings, writing and whole class discussion. It’s not that one activity or process is the best way to push students toward acquiring high-level cognitive skills. Instead, it’s a combination of all the aforementioned strategies, as well as others, that work together give students a chance to achieve authentic literacy. For instance, rereading can take place before a close reading, which leads to a whole class discussion where students are directed to summarize or finalize their thoughts on the discussion in a written response.
But why is authentic literacy necessary? Well, VanDeWeghe argues and I agree, that whether it’s to improve test scores, increase lifelong reading and learning or improve critical thinking or writing, students need to be pushed toward that authentic literacy. It’s something that, if possessed, can touch on many different learning goals, with the most important being a benefit for student achievement.
Through lessons where “students read many interesting texts, create arguments based on evidence from those texts, write to explore understandings, reﬁne interpretations and bolster arguments,” teachers can push students and student can succeed.
I’ll leave you with this passage from Schmoker that VanDeWeghe uses in his piece about the importance of writing in the classroom:
When we help students write and revise, we are helping them to create and reﬁne meaning itself, to make connections and see patterns that are at the heart of sophisticated thought. These connections lead to insight, invention, and solutions to problems in every realm—social, professional, and political. With reading as its raw material, writing exercises the intellect as it moves from amorphous understanding toward precision and practical application. In the end, writing allows us to discover and produce thought in its clearest and most potent form.
I’d say this could be done at times through class discussion. But isn’t unwritten thought incomplete thought? Then maybe it’s necessary to combine the reading, thinking and writing seamlessly for the benefit of student achievement.