December 3, 2023

Jose Luis Vilson: The Problem With How You Discuss Reading

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Teacher, author and scholar, Jose Luis Vilson offers some thoughts about what isn’t being discussed in the current round of reading debates.

What we mean by literacy might be the most glaring hole in how we discuss reading. We have different definitions of reading, but generally, reading is the ability to decode text and make meaning of the text. Reading, however, is not the same as literacy. Literacy, by comparison, is a more expansive set of acts related to how one decodes, interprets, and communicates through a medium. Literacy includes writing, listening, speaking, and making meaning of a whole communicative experience. For example, you can read an article and understand the words, but depending on the medium (book, blog, article), the author, and your experiences, you might have different interpretations of the same text. In the way of another example, a teacher might be trying to teach a student the English language, but the student might associate “English” with negative experiences they’ve had with authority figures before they get to the classroom.

Literacy, then, is as much about what “text” we produce and consume and how we produce and consume it.

The “reading” problem isn’t new, either. The idea of the fictional “Johnny” not being able to read has been around since the 1950s, but history suggests that this country would rather place the onus on the “other” rather than take inventory of the environments and situations we’re placing students in to help them accelerate their reading. While I agree that we need to do as much as possible to uplift learning experiences for students across the board, I also think society is doing a poor job of ensuring that students have equitable environments and resources for learning.

More succinctly, maybe our students can’t read, but they can read us. They can read us all.

But for decades, schools that work with children, particularly children in poverty, have been forced to do more with less. In New York City, this means the mayor has proposed another devastating round of budget cuts to places where students would have more opportunities to develop their reading skills, like schools and libraries. In fact, our libraries, already struggling from consistent cuts over the years, are now closed on Sundays across the city. In addition, the infamous Moms for Liberty has sought to elevate its profile here as well, a boon that’s already disrupted schools across the city from teaching children to learn from one another.

And that’s the thing, right? Society wrongly assumes that children who can’t read according to a standardized test given in March can’t read how society treats them and their aspirations. But they can read what’s happening around them.

Read the full essay here. 


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