Literacy's Yin and Yang

lincoln ss15.JPG

I have lived many lives in my profession – primary teacher, literacy coach, literacy coach developer, instructional & systems coach. Through it all I have worked alongside teachers puzzling over the complexities of literacy. We’ve struggled with the literacy challenges of students and the “right” approach. We’ve struggled to find the time to teach all that’s required and to do it in ways that serve students well. And we’ve watched students struggle to be fluent and flexible in all they’re asked to learn. There is no doubt that ensuring each student’s ability to read skillfully and with comprehension is foundational to achievement and that it is a complex undertaking. What I’ve come to learn and continue to discover, though, is how the complexity can be naturally simple and less of a struggle.

The Economy of Literacy
I once had the privilege of working alongside Margaret Mooney, one of my mentors in literacy acquisition and development. She often spoke about economies – the economy of language, the economy of teaching, and the economy of learning. I approach the interconnectedness of reading and writing as the economy of literacy. Literacy is like math. In math there is a basic concept of reciprocity – adding and subtracting, or multiplying and dividing. In the case of reading and its inverse, writing, the reciprocity is demonstrated through decoding and encoding. Once students discover this, they are able to unlock the codes of literacy. The relationship of the parts, the yin and yang as reading and writing, builds, an understanding of the whole – literacy. 

I’ve just started to explore the idea of being a writer. I am learning that while writing I more often than not use my skills as a reader – not just to reread what I’ve written but as a reference for the structure of language, the words I choose, the format I select. As a writer, I understand more deeply that my models of writing come from my reading. How often when writing do I quickly reference, either literally or mentally, what I’ve previously read to help me craft what I’m trying to say? On the flipside, I now find myself thinking about my writing and who I am as a writer while reading. The relationship of the two has become clearer in my mind and I’m coming to know them intimately: the yin and the yang.

Learning through Example
Approaching literacy holistically economizes the teaching of reading and writing. It makes their acquisition and application more manageable and logical. In contrast, separating and isolating them in classroom practice does students a disservice. It fragments their understanding of literacy’s purpose and robs them of the power of reciprocity as an avenue to build the essential capacities of literacy, in particular, reading. Reading skillfully and with comprehension requires students to think about their reading, to not just be able to read text, but to also consider its construction, to wit:

-  As readers, students need to think about the features of text and how those features help them predict what they may encounter in the text. How do the features work together to add or clarify the text’s meaning? As writers, how might students use features to help the reader gain greater meaning from what they’re trying to communicate? What features add the right amount and type of detail to enhance the text? 
-  As readers, students need to examine writers’ perspectives. They need to compare a variety of viewpoints on the same topic and the evidence that supports a claim. How does the writer’s choice of evidence help the student understand the writer’s perspective? How might they use what they’re learning from their reading to write a strong statement about their own perspectives?
-  When students struggle in their own writing – developing an introductory paragraph for example – how can the writing of others serve as models? As a reader, deconstructing an author’s successes can help students push through their own challenges. How do various authors begin their paragraph? How do they conclude it? What do they have in common? 

The Synergy of the Yin and Yang
Reading and writing are synergistic and together comprise literacy. Approaching them as two parts of a whole enables students to strategically use one skill to deepen another in true interdisciplinary fashion. The yin and yang of literacy develops the power of literacy for students through conceptual redundancy in the context of meaning. It also reduces the complexity of literacy acquisition to a reinforcing equation that promotes the simplicity of the whole. While I would never underestimate the complexity of literacy acquisition for any student, teaching those skills through the confluence of reading and writing leverage their synergy and, in turn, make literacy less of a struggle for everyone. It is then that the whole truly becomes a sum greater than its parts.