Nurturing Literacy, Not Test-Taking

By Dawn Kirby

Literacy as Nurture: Learning, Improving, and Having Fun

Try a mini-experiment. Think about activities in which you engage for fun, for pure joy and pleasure.  Mentally list a few.

Now, consider these questions:

  • Does anyone officially grade you on that activity?
  • Are you required to write a paper about why you like to engage in the activity?
  • Do the state and federal governments mandate hours of annual testing that you must pass in order to engage in the activity?
  • Must you pass a test before you are allowed to set more challenging goals for yourself and improve your abilities to perform your activity?

Most importantly,

  • If all of the above were true, how long would you consider your fun activity to be, well, fun? How often would you spend your scarce spare time doing it?

Unless your spare-time, pleasurable activity is being a pilot or performing surgery, none of the above conditions would probably motivate you to participate in the activity of your choice for the delight of it all. Is the same true for students who actually like to read and write? Absolutely.

Think also about students who struggle with reading and writing. Do batteries of tests motivate them to try harder, read more books, write more essays? Do they feel good about themselves when their test scores are low?

Resoundingly, no.

Photo of a girl sitting in a field and writing. Photo reads, The Harvest Writer

Photo to John O’Nolan

Modeling to Nurture Literacy

It’s a basic rule of human nature that people do what they enjoy. When students are encouraged to think, to see value and delight in reading and writing, they will read and write more often. Simply put, practice guided by knowledgeable teachers and parents who talk about what they read and write for business or in their spare time increases learners’ capabilities with texts and literacy. Teachers and parents are instrumental in modeling for students that reading and writing are enjoyable, informational, and beneficial, even if not always easy.

When families watch the news together, discuss the content of a magazine article, debate the virtues of a main character in a novel they’ve read, and talk about how the internet is changing the very notion of “text,” they are engaged in authentic literacy practices. They make literacy a normal and important part of everyday family life.

Teaching to Nurture Literacy

Literacy abilities improve when teachers and students are free to engage critically with various types of texts, analyze specific techniques of writing that authors use, interact with ideas generated by texts, and enjoy reading and writing as forms of expression and communication. Why? For one reason, practice makes us better at what we do.

Teachers and parents alike may be thinking, “What?! Take time away from real teaching? Use in-class time to read and write for pleasure?”

Definitely. That’s a key practice for nurturing literacy.

If we want to nurture life-long readers and writers, we need to put the high-stakes tests away in favor of authentic assessments; allow  teachers to use best literacy practices in their classrooms rather than teach to the test; and foster productive relationships among parents, students, and teachers to promote an enjoyment of reading and writing.

It takes some effort to find the types of texts that students may enjoy reading and writing. Often, teachers use Reading Interest Inventories and casual conversations in and out of class to help students discover topics and genres that they would enjoy exploring. Once students are hooked, providing in-class time for pleasurable reading and writing helps foster their nascent literacy habit.

Nurturing Literacy through Testing?

Anyone reading research on high-stakes testing discovers that such testing doesn’t necessarily improve learning. While Hillocks (2002) found that what is on the test gets taught more often than material not on the test, other researchers (Kohn, 2011; Bower & Thomas, eds., 2013) have found that the culture of mandated testing is detrimental to quality learning environments. Mandated high-stakes tests, often created by those who are not educators, may actually impede learning.

I certainly support having high expectations and standards for learning and teaching. Nonetheless, squeezing the joy from learning in order to succeed on high-stakes tests is a trend that needs to change—fast—if we are to have a literate populace. Cast your vote on educational issues in favor of learning, not false testing and mandates that masquerade as educational progress. Let’s make literacy, not testing, the goal of a quality education.
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.

4 thoughts on “Nurturing Literacy, Not Test-Taking

  1. Well said! You’re so right that high expectations and joyful, motivated learning are not opposites. But when tests made by corporations and mandated by those who have never been educators are inflicted on our students, it’s no wonder so many young people hate school, are frustrated by boring test prep, and avoid any more reading or writing. Your ideas for nurturing literacy are ones I hope parents adopt. –P Dunn

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

  3. I love reading and writing a lot – I am dedicating my life to teaching these skills – but I know when I do assignments for classes where I will be graded on my reading and writing, i certainly feel a lack of motivation to this school work. And of course, as teachers there are some assignments you need to give because of government requirements. I like your comment about taking time away from “real” teaching, because that is something I have heard constantly. Why is federally assigned classwork any more real than authentic forms of reading and writing or leisurely enjoying them? In reality, the latter may be more real than what we are required to teach, and finding a balance between the two while keeping students engaged is certainly tough.

  4. Reading and writing outside of the classroom for students is incredibly important. When you mention the encouragement of students by their teachers to see reading and writing as valuable learning experiences that can be fun and enjoyable, it makes me think back to many of my own teachers from high school. Most of them were good in the sense that they taught the curriculum they needed to, but they were also bland in the sense that they never really gave me and my fellow students at the time the tools we needed to see reading and writing as activities meant to be cherished and loved. I think the emphasis on expression and authenticity will certainly help to show students the value and wonder that comes from reading and writing as an enjoyable pastime rather than a hunk of labor that has no real value to them on a personal level.

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