Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Evolving Notions of Literacy

Notes on Chapter 4 of
Jim Burke’s
The English Teacher’s Companion


In our increasingly complex world of multiple literacies, urban learners need to develop textual intelligence.  Judith Langer defines literacy as, “the ability to think and reason like a literate person within a particular society.” Though Burke refers to four literacies, he fails to simply define them. I have identified them as: 

  • Communications Literacy – Ability to read, write and comprehend
  • Information Literacy – Ability to access, sort, comprehend, integrate
  • Tool Literacy – Ability to use tools and hardware to facilitate all other literacies
  • Cultural Literacy – Ability to understand the ethical, social, group and personal impact of literacies

Teaching a Range of Texts

Urban learners need to be able to read a range of texts, not just literary texts. There are four categories of text types:

  • Functional/expository – “literature of daily life” such as textbooks, business documents, guidebooks, newspapers, menus.
    (Death of Innocence, Star-Tribune Newspaper, Huffington Post)

  • Narrative – novels and assorted narratives
    (Invisible Man, Jazz, American Born Chinese)
  • Dramatic – plays, musicals, monologues and other scripts
    (The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, A Raisin in the Sun)
  • Poetic – blank verse, sonnets, Haiku and various other formats
    (Lucille Clifton, Langston Hughes, Walter Dean Meyers)

Reading for Appreciation

Urban educators must cultivate in students an appreciation of stories and a love of reading. The more an urban learner reads, the better reader he or she will become. Burke highlights five strategies:

  • create a large, diverse in-class library
  • allow learners choice in reading
  • use literature circles
  • connect text to the real lives of learners
  • translate stories into dramatic or artistic events

Teaching Poetic Texts

“Few other texts offer so much substance, such rich fare as poems” says Burke. “Nor are there many other texts, Shakespeare included, that challenge teachers and, of course, students as much as poetry can.” Urban learners and urban educators are uniquely challenged by poet texts. Burke details the following general instructional approach:

Look for clues in the title. 
Read straight through. 

“Start with what you know.” 

Look for patterns. 

Identify narrator. 

Reflecting in writing.  


“Find the crucial moments.” 

Consider form and function. 

Consider language. 

“Go deeper / call it quits.” 

Return to title. 

Why are students reading this poem? 

Explore activities beyond the page.


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