The power of literacy can never be overstated.
“Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society. It is a bulwark against poverty … Literacy is a platform for democratization… Literacy is, along with education in general, a basic human right…. Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realize his or her full potential.”
― Kofi Annan
The literacy potential.
As a young child I remember climbing up the steep steps to Murray’s Monument – A tall stone obelisk in honour of classical scholar and linguist Alexander Murray (1775 – 1813) – to have a Sunday picnic with my family. Upon reading about his life, even as a young child, I was in awe of what this man had achieved.
He was the son of an impoverished Galloway shepherd. Due to his extreme short sightedness, it was clear that he would never be able to follow in his father’s footsteps as he would not have been able to tend his flock of sheep. Career opportunities in rural Galloway would have been extremely limited yet he managed to build one for himself. After just a few months of formal schooling, he embarked on an astoundingly impressive programme of self-education in the late 1780s becoming Professor of Oriental Languages at the University of Edinburgh. He accomplished this because he could read.
It is amazing what can be achieved, if you are literate.
For some students, learning to read can be hugely challenging and after a while they can begin to give up on themselves. By the time they reach upper primary, and most definitely by the time they reach secondary school, they stop trying. They don’t see the point; they can’t do it, so don’t bother. This is a form of learned helplessness. They believe there is nothing they or anyone else can do to change things; it is out of their control. They are the students who leave school with poor literacy skills many possibly illiterate. Their life chances and opportunities are severely limited because of this learned helplessness.
It is devastating what cannot be achieved, if you have developed learned helplessness.
Learned helplessness is a vicious cycle. It becomes self-fulfilling. When students consistently feel there is nothing they can do to take control, they make less and less of an attempt to do so. As they make less and less of an attempt, we, as empathic professionals, tend to do more and more to help them. As our efforts increase, their effort dissipates as they have learned that, ultimately the answer will be handed to them or they will be provided easier tasks that are well within their capability. They learn that they don’t really need to work at it and so stop trying. Ultimately, they fail! By waiting to be handed the correct answer or easier work they fail to engage with their learning and therefore fail to truly progress.
Are we supporting learned helplessness?
Let’s think about this; When it comes to learned helplessness, is it the student who fails or us as teachers? Are we actually supporting learned helplessness by making things too easy, when we should be preparing and shaping their learning in a way that provides a certain amount of struggle and challenge that encourages active engagement and independence?
We all know that a student who continually fails quickly begins to think, “I can’t do it so there is no point in trying.” If this cycle continues, the students will more often or not become the class clown, the disruptive student, the excluded student as a result of giving up on themselves and accepting this learned helplessness. ‘’This is how it will always be and there is nothing I can do about it”.
Can you imagine how quickly you might find yourself in this frame of mind if you were that child who found reading difficult, and the reading tuition you are receiving doesn’t make sense to you. You see yourself falling further and further behind your peers. You would, I fear, soon find yourself accepting learned helplessness, finding yourself in that ‘out of my control” state of mind.
There are two points I am trying to make here.
- Literacy can provide an escape route for anyone finding themselves in a situation of disadvantage, and can prevent learned helplessness. Alexander Murray would never have become a shepherd; this was out of his control, but he was able to use his literacy skill as his escape route to become successful, and out of a possible learned helplessness situation caused by his poor eyesight.
- We cannot afford to allow children to continually fail to develop literacy skills and allow them to develop learned helplessness. We need to ensure high quality literacy instruction is provided for all. Everyone has a right to be able to read. So we shouldn’t spend our time trying to find easier text and easier exercises for them; we should spend our time not just teaching them to read and understand words but, explicitly teaching them how to read and how to make sense of words, finding the meaning for themselves. Teach them how and they will continue to learn to read and understand more and more challenging text for themselves.
Teaching to read vs teaching how to read.
In my opinion, there is a huge difference between teaching a child to read and teaching a child how to read and understand. If we teach them how to read, they continue to develop and progress further, independent of teacher input . Perhaps that is why many students experience reading failure when they hit the secondary phase. They have been taught to read in primary school but not taught how to learn to read, so when the text becomes more complex, they find themselves struggling and there is no one there to help them. English teachers teach English, they do not teach reading; they were not trained how to do this.
Everyone can read and understand the vocabulary if taught properly. Too many vulnerable readers are arriving in secondary schools and do not receive appropriate support; that’s when disaffection kicks in.
Learned helplessness is a psychological frame of mind which can be changed if the appropriate teaching and learning methodologies are implemented. It is our responsibility to be creative; to build processes and methodologies that encourage students to struggle, just a little, and show them what to do when they don’t know what to do. To think about the problem for themselves and solve it.
We need to teach students how to learn and that starts with teaching them how to learn to read.