“Born Ready”: Literacy Ability as Nature or Nurture?

Picture of a girl sitting and reading

by Dawn Kirby

Last month, prior to her graduation from high school, my daughter was preparing for her Advanced Placement (AP) test in Literature and Language. Because of her high school’s scheduling quirks, AP tests occur an entire semester after she takes some AP classes. Busy teenagers can forget lots of academic material in 18 weeks.

“Are you prepared for your AP test?” I asked her a few days before the test, as would many parents.

“I was born ready,” she replied.

I laughed, and she was pleased to have dispensed with any more of my questions about AP test preparation.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about the confidence apparent in her answer. My daughter is a smart, inquisitive person who “does school” well. She loves to write fan fiction, her blog, and journal reflections; she even dabbles in poetry. Similarly, she’s one of the most avid readers I know. She loves word play and has a sharp sense of irony. Where did she get these traits?

Literacy as Nature: Being Born a Reader and Writer

Although having two university English professors as parents probably didn’t hurt her literacy abilities, I question whether my daughter was “born ready” to excel in reading, writing, and critical thinking, hallmarks of the American secondary school literacy curriculum. Was some of her ability in her DNA? Probably. Did heredity (“nature”) make her a “born” reader and writer? I doubt it. She needed quality teaching and interactions with a variety of texts to have the confidence she now feels about her literacy abilities; and fortunately, she got it—from her teachers and her parents.

Unfortunately, too many students don’t have quality interactions with texts or with people, for that matter. They are taught that they are failures at reading and writing and at “doing school.” Too many students of all ages think that those who read and write well are “born” that way. Effective readers and writers have the gift; others don’t—and that’s the end of the discussion about why Johnny or Juanita doesn’t excel in English class.

Except that it isn’t.

Literacy as Developmental Processes

I have long advocated that effective readers and writers are taught rather than born. While it’s probably true that not everyone has the innate talent to become the next Ernest Hemingway, Maya Angelou, or J. K. Rowling, almost everyone can be taught how to become decent readers and writers. My philosophy is “Because we English teachers can teach it, our students can learn it.”

One of the keys to effective reading and writing is to see these literacy activities as processes that develop over time rather than as one-shot-and-done, sink or swim endeavors. A child who does not have early contact and interaction with lots of reading and writing materials and texts may, nonetheless, learn to read and write effectively in school and in a range of classes, not just in English class.

Nurturing Literacy

At its best, schooling provides opportunities for success, and teachers and parents provide reassurance and positive backing when the going gets rough.

Teachers would really prefer that their students are successful, highly literate learners. Many teachers don’t want to spend over one month of the available instructional time in prepping students for those mandated, high-stakes tests. They would love to devote some time in class each day for students to read for enjoyment or write something they care about or talk in groups about the great book students read recently. Teachers would love to be able to promote literacy as useful, yes, but also as entertaining and personally satisfying activities.

Making time to read and write because we want to do so is a key role for teachers and parents. It’s how we model literacy for our students and children, respectively. Dispelling the myth that reading and writing are b-o-r-i-n-g is a significant responsibility for teachers and, hopefully, for parents who want to raise literate children.

My advice is to find something you like to read and let your students and children catch you in the act of reading for fun. Write with your students and, as parents, take an interest in what your children are reading and writing in and outside of school.

Literacy is contagious. The ability (nurtured by teachers and parents) and motivation (nurtured by personal successes and the interest of others) to improve their reading and writing capabilities need to be available for all students. Without them, my daughter would not delight in reading and writing for their own sakes. She would not have been able to find the interesting and pleasurable parts of challenging school assignments, which in turn, helped her to be more and more successful as a literate person and learner.

She would not have felt “born ready” for success and delight in literacy, and what a shame that would have been.

Dawn Kirby is Senior Associate Dean and Professor of English in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Utah State University. She began her career as a high school English teacher and is deeply grateful to the English teachers she and her family have encountered as students and as colleagues. Her books offer a plethora of innovative strategies for teachers actively to support literacy, teach writing, and follow best practices without selling their souls.

3 thoughts on ““Born Ready”: Literacy Ability as Nature or Nurture?

  1. Your essay reminds me of the preface to a music theory text on contrapuntal harmonic technique that I read years ago. The author agreed that few had the innate genius of a Bach–but that people of ordinary ability could learn to compose a passable piece of music. I think you (and he) are right!

  2. Pingback: Nurturing Literacy, Not Test-Taking | Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care

  3. Pingback: Nurturing Literacy, Not Test-Taking - Literacy & NCTE

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