Tips on enhancing literacy

For nearly twenty years, Emily Pendergrass , Ph.D. has taught elementary school both second and fourth grades. She started teaching students with learning disability before she moved to teach 14-16 year old middle school students. After finishing her Ph.D on Literacy Education, she joined higher education where she works with preservice and early career development teachers. She is active in building personal and home libraries that provide students with comprehensive view on literacy. She currently runs multiple book clubs for over 300 students across the US.

GenevaLutheran interviewed her for an insight on several issues around literacy education.

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Students in middle school struggle with school based reading. Such struggles create reading apathy in most students. What are the tools you employ in easing these challenges?

I believe that pre/early adolescents need highly engaging texts. Texts that they are interested in reading not texts their teachers or other adults are interested in reading. Reading has to start where the kids are and with the students’ interests, if it is going to be influential and make a difference in their lives. As students get older there is a ton of research on how they lose interest in reading because of what counts as reading at school. Literary analysis and essay response are very traditional options from a huge range of ways that students can show they understand what they are reading. But in many classrooms and schools we only focus on literary analysis and responses that are devoid of meaning beyond the English classroom. We have to expand out repertoire of what we ask students to do with the texts they read to include creative, artistic, digital, and other alternative responses to literature. Kelly Gallagher, A California English teacher, says that often teachers commit “read-a-cide”, which is the slow killing of the love of reading. We have to avoid this at all costs, and we can do that through student choice! Choice in what students read and how they respond are the two most important tools to keep students reading into and beyond adolescence.

Could you elaborate more about linking literacy as a social justice issue? 

Literacy is a social justice issue. Literacy is a critical practice in our world today. All levels of citizens and employees need to be able to participate in our ever-changing literacy environment. Oftentimes, schools are set up in such a way that many students fall through the cracks simply because of their or their parents’ educational or social status; students are labeled early in their school career, and these labels often are adhere permanently, leaving major learning deficits, perhaps when expectations are lowered. We strip students who are struggling of high level, engaging texts and reduce literacy to a set of basic skills that need to mastered. These students are not met with high-level instruction and experiences that builds their confidence as readers and learners. We have to use what the students have and the knowledge that the students bring with them from their experiences in life as entry into curriculum. We have to deliver content up to their curiosity and embark on a journey together with high level support and engagement so that growth can occur. If a learning task would not be used among the “elite” (i.e. a scripted program or curricula) then we should not use it with students who have been marginalized. If we continue to offer low-level, skill based practices to our students who need the very best instruction, the cycles of oppression will continue. Perhaps the goal of teachers could be “to empower children to give active shape to their life’s contingencies” (van Manen, 1991, p. 3).

Technological advancement is now said to have a double edge sword on reading and learning habits. Are there approaches you embrace to help people overcome the negatives?

The field of literacy is rapidly changing, so much so that as Leu, et al (2013) argued, to be “literate yesterday, in a world defined primarily by relatively static book technologies, does not ensure that one is fully literate today where we encounter new technologies” on a continual basis. Wired magazine recently reported that globally people are producing 3.6 trillion words a day through email and social media. Teachers are wrestling with these changes.  A former student and now ELA teacher emailed recently that she is adjusting her instruction to “allow students to both build and express the ways in which they connect with and dissect texts in creative and non-traditional ways.” She notes that her students are challenged to develop greater depth of understanding using multiple modalities with varied texts.  While some may think that the advent of technology diminishes the need for literacy, the opposite is true. The avalanche of more and more words cascading through and in multiple media expands exponentially the literacy demands facing young people today.

Literacy for me goes beyond simply recognizing words and decoding texts. I encounter people who feel inadequate (skill wise) to access the world of knowledge; synthesize information from different sources, present arguments from total new subjects. These seem to be the contextual definition of literacy. What is your take on this?

Reading, for me, is a complex process using available tools in organized ways to build up shared meanings, knowledge, and experience. It is connecting and arranging – ideas, images, objects, etc.  — together in ways that make sense, to make meaning, of and in the world around us. This differs from traditional definitions of literacy that characterize the act of learning to read and write using cognitive processing skills following basic decoding skills. Reading now is so much more complex. Most people have the ability to acquire basic literacy skills, skills that let them say the words on a page and very likely answer simple comprehension questions about those words. But in a world that is rapidly changing with technology, evolving definitions of what literacy is and what counts as literacy must also evolve. We have to make use of the institutional, cultural, and social practices and resources that are established and available while considering the new thought processes needed to make sense of the shifting world. Reading is just one component of literacy, a situated practice that is social and political in nature.

There are readers who easily make sense of a Shakespeare drama, but struggle to read a chemical engineering text; or perhaps someone that struggles to read a music score, but can read a basketball play with ease.

Paulo Freire (1990), a Brazilian educator and philsopher developed an activity in rural Brazil to demonstrate to rural workers how much knowledge they really held, which I think can easily be adapted to many situations that help ALL people realize that they have very much to contribute to the world around them. For example with middle schoolers, the students would ask me a question to which they do not think I know the answer, and I would try to answer it. If I could not provide the correct answer, the students score a point. Then I would ask a question, if the students are unable to answer, I would score a point.  The hidden agenda: prove to the students that they possess an important expertise to offer others. Being 15 years older, I was positive that they would not be able to stump me ten times, but they did. We tied 10 to 10.

What are the parental responsibilities in enhancing literacy within the family unit?

Parents and caregivers can participate in many literacy-related ways with their own children.  In a child’s early years, parents can read books, tell stories, share experiences from their day, ask questions and wait for answers. They can read the same favorite book again and again; eventually having the child read (recite) it back. Parents can ask the child to write a shopping list, create a puppet to go with a book, write a story with disappearing ink (i.e. water on a warm day), sing songs, etc.

So much language is developed before students officially start school around the age of 5 or 6, so the best thing for adults to do is talk and engage in questions and answers. Just about any experience can have a literacy component. For example, when walking together down a street, point out things and ask questions about what you see. Things like: “look at that white birdbath in the yard. I wonder why it’s called a birdbath” and let the child brainstorm some possibilities. Working together to also come up with other uses for the birdbath and think about what other animals might use the birdbath. It doesn’t have to be a birdbath, it could be a flag, a car, an anvil, a pinecone, a bicycle or whatever you see! Making meaning in the world around us is the heart of literacy!

Have you written any book or would recommend any to members of our congregation for further insights into your work?

This is a video the university produced about my work:

Here are some blogs/websites that I run:

This site brings together literacy professionals on Twitter to press on notions of what counts as literacy and how we can expand those definitions.

This is a list of list. Different lists of books based on different topics that can be used to recommend books to students or classroom teachers/librarians.

and some blog posts:

Pendergrass, E. (October 30, 2017). How to Trap Bugs and Other Stories from Our Youth

Pendergrass, E. (March 22, 2017). Harry Potter and the Transmedia Immersive Literature Class.

YA Wednesday. Available at transmedia-immersive-literature-class

(Blog post traffic for seven days 3/22-29/2017: 3,482 page visits and 996 unique individual ip addresses visits.)

Pendergrass, E. (November 21, 2014). It Takes a Village. Nerdy Book Club.

Available at

(Courtesy Kiki Lawal)