Schema Aka Literacy

The path to literacy is not easy.  At one point, everybody had a tabula rasa before they became literate, if such a term could be applied to them.  The nation is in an uproar about the literacy crisis, because America’s youngsters are scoring substantially low on standardized and I.Q. tests, and it seems that the same ethnic groups consistently score low on these tests. Debates of whether these tests are discriminating against these ethnic/social groups have risen, and school boards are trying to figure out what to do with their children.  An overwhelming majority of school officials, politicians and citizens believe that the debate is the struggle between the phonics and the holistic systems.  Some say the phonics system is more efficient in teaching kids how to read and write; others say the holistic method is better.  I would dare say that of all the essays I have read, the authors, from professor Don Gray to Chris M. Anson, would agree that the root of literacy is not so much in the instructional methods of teaching kids how to read. The heart of literacy lies in the actual content provided by school curricula. 

The literacy canon in our high schools, for example, is so outdated, not to mention the fact that some books students read in high school are not even well written.  No teenager these days could relate to Shakespeare’s work, and Maya Angelou is not the best role model of writing a sentence or paragraph. Francine Prose mentioned these works of literature to exemplify the kinds of “trash and semi-trash” our kids are exposed to.  She states that a teacher no longer suggests a book for its intrinsic value as a work of art composed of words, or how the choice of the words inform and delight the reader. Prose is not the only one who believes that insufficient attention is given to the curricula. Professor Don Gray advocates more substance to the curricula to enlarge tastes and habits.

In his article, “Talking to People Not Like Us,” Gray noted that readers who are not like us, namely  “readers on the trolley,” are already at a more advanced level than readers who are, for example, English majors or people who intend to go to graduate school. As a professor, Gray feels that he is in control in his classroom, but when he goes out and meets people who select their own readings, he finds that the ball is in the court of off-campus readers “who have already made a lot of discoveries on their own” and “whose reading tastes and practices are pretty well-defined.”  Part of literacy entails discovering a surprised joy, when the reader finds that he can relate to what he is reading, that there is some real-life relevance in the piece of work.  Part of the literacy experience is talking to people unlike ourselves, therefore detracting ourselves for a moment from our own worlds to learn about others. We often think of general education not as a chance to talk to readers unlike ourselves, as Gray stated, but to mold others to become like us. However, expanding our horizons would help improve curricula and unite the two kinds of readers: the readers on the trolley and us.

Bottom-line, literacy is about understanding what one is reading.  We derive our schema, the background knowledge that we store in our minds, from the people we talk to, from personal experience and from what our teachers, parents and peers have taught us. As children, we take in all this information and bring what we know to the classroom. Unfortunately, according to Hirsch, by the time kids grow up to be seniors in high school, these kids do not possess nearly enough schema because in their early years, no one bothered to challenge them with new ideas or even new vocabulary. Not enough information is relayed, and therefore older kids get discouraged about reading because they can’t relate to the literature. Kids lose interest in reading, and if they’re fortunate enough to have someone come into their lives and revive a spark for reading, they would be really lucky. Anson describes the path to literacy as one of risk, inefficiency and struggle. However, struggle is necessary, and we need to teach children that it’s OK to make mistakes because it’s all a part of learning. Once we can disengage kids from overwhelming feelings of guilt or failure, we can move them on to the next step. Before any progress can be seen, the school districts and policy makers must decide to implement a lot more substance to school curricula and stop underestimating what children are “capable” of learning.