Why Rigorous Literacy Instruction is Essential for Lifelong Learning

By Eileen Murphy Buckley

For my entire career as a teacher, I tried to instill a love of lifelong learning in my students. I wanted them to enjoy all the benefits and pleasures of an intellectual life long after they had left school. I considered it an essential goal of my work, not just an ideal. Today, the term “lifelong learning” has taken on an entirely new meaning to me–now it’s clear that it is an absolute imperative for economic success.

Artificial intelligence and innovation are rapidly polarizing the workforce in every industry. Medium-skilled jobs are disappearing, while high- and low-skilled job opportunities are growing.

High-skilled jobs require a very specific set of lifelong learning skills. The most valuable are the abilities to consume information, think about it critically and express one’s point of view effectively. From learning a new software to complex problem-solving to writing a sensitive email, success depends upon these skills. I wish it weren’t so, but these are reeeaaallly hard things to teach and learn!

To provide equitable access to these vital literacy skills, we must provide rigorous, high-quality literacy instruction in scalable ways.

Some argue that technology has already democratized access to information or that tools for creating and sharing expressions on a global scale are available to anyone with a smartphone. But the truth is, these innovations alone won’t level the playing field as much as everyone thinks, and the myth of access may even be exacerbating the divide between the haves and the have-nots.

3 reasons learning to learn is hard:

  1. Google returns millions of complex texts in a search. While the audience of this blog may scan, evaluate, and read these texts effectively in seconds, remember that there are 32 million functionally illiterate adults in the U.S. who cannot perform this seemingly everyday task.
  2.  The sheer pace of change means that knowledge demands are greater. Fry’s lists of 1,000 sight words once enabled learners to read 90 percent of texts found in elementary schools. Today, whole new specialized discourse communities exist in cyberspace and make their way into the mainstream at a pace like never before.
  3. While reducing complexities in many ways, multimedia texts introduce new complexities in the interplay between media.

3 reasons why critical thinking is, well, critical:

  1. I’ll let you fill in the political candidate of your choosing here.
  2.  Here you might debate whether fake news is a new phenomenon or a recently re-labeled threat to democracy.
  3. Some forms of critical reasoning are what separate humans from machines—at least for now—and are what will be valued most in an increasingly automated world.

3 reasons why writing is becoming more of a basic human right than simply a lifelong learning skill:

  1. Texting, email and social media are critical means of communication for us all in our personal and professional lives.
  2. Innovations like chatbots will become key tools for reducing service costs in many industries, including finance and healthcare, leaving many unable to communicate on matters of critical importance at their job and in their personal lives.
  3. Many basic tasks performed in service occupations now require sophisticated reading and writing skills.

Increasing Rigor Isn’t Just about Preparing for Standardized Tests

Just as the printing press and the public library didn’t completely eradicate illiteracy, access to content and tools on the internet alone will not provide learners with the more complex literacies that have the power to open or close doors for them.

In short, because we can’t precisely predict what students will need to know and be able to do in the future, there is an even greater imperative to equip learners with the means to teach themselves new skills and information. We must equip all learners with rigorous literacy programs designed to help students learn to navigate complex texts in all genres, collaborate with others to build knowledge, solve non-routine problems together by exploring multiple perspectives, and share their reasoning effectively through speaking, writing and other media.

Without strong literacy instruction and explicit training in critical thinking and language, lifelong learning will become another moat to power for too many.

For more on literacy, see:

Eileen Murphy Buckley is the founder and CEO of ThinkCERCA, and a former English teacher of 15 years. Connect with her on Twitter: @ThinkCerca.

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