Literacy: An essential component of 21st century education

Guest Blog by John Clark, Science Teacher, Deltona High School, Deltona, FL

Common Core Literacy Standards are here—embrace them. Reading feeds the mind. Writing focuses it. Applying these skills develops critical thinking capability. What better reason to make literacy an essential component of 21st century education. Our students need to learn today to think critically in tomorrow’s world if they are to be productive and successful citizens.  Small minds talk about people and social networking drives the dialog of small minds. Students are proficient at playing with technology and we, as educators, must strive to make them productive with it while simultaneously showing them how to exercise good digital citizenship. The literacy errors of today’s youth are stored in a digital cloud forever. For our global society to succeed in the 21st century we need a higher level of interpersonal interaction. The responsibility for that transition lies with a cooperating community of schools, educators, community leaders, and parents.

 Where else but school will our young people learn how to self-scaffold their way from the divisive discussion of gossip to the demanding dialog of true discourse? Educators are on the front line to face this mental malaise growing in our schools. Students need to be engaged in a thinking process that creates reflection and revision to their words and actions. We can teach them that. We need to embrace “I don’t get it” as a teachable moment. It is a student’s quiet plea for literacy skills. We can hear it if we listen and Common Core Standards now empower us to address it.

Literacy supports the development of maturity in the decision making of young people. We as educators must offer young people the opportunity to grow and learn from their mistakes in a safe environment. They have the ability to think but lack the mental maturity to reason things through. Maturity moves young people from meaningless social dialog to meaningful social discourse. It raises academic achievement from getting by to getting ahead. Educators are the pathway for that development and it makes literacy an essential component of our curriculum in any class.

I have a passion for reading. I devour the New York Times and still get excited when I have to reason out the meaning of an unknown word. I want my students to feel that way, but the statistics suggest otherwise.  Given the numbers, I feel literacy must be an essential component of education in any century. It just takes on a staggering level of urgency in the technology driven twenty-first century. According to the 2006 NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress], about 38% of all fourth grade students in the United States scored at a level below basic (in literacy skills.) Those students are now entering our high schools. At Deltona High School where I teach, two-thirds of our students cannot read at grade level. According to the most recent National Adult Literacy survey, 43% of American adults cannot read or write well enough to meet the literacy requirements of a typical job.  One-third of those lack the skills to read a medicine bottle or train schedule. College or career ready these individuals are not.

A 2006 report by the National Center for Educational Statistics suggests the situation is even more critical for students from less advantaged backgrounds. The reading failure rate is 60-70% for children who live in poverty or are from ethnic minorities that attend urban high schools. Even affluence is not a guarantee of literacy success. Based on an NAEP study, California enacted a series of laws to reform reading when the study revealed that 49% of children of college-educated parents earned a literacy score of below basic.

As a science teacher, two of my goals are to get students excited about science and to encourage students to pursue careers in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math.)  I started a “Science Writes” competition at our school to promote student learning gains in both science and literacy. Students who read succeed, and I know that success in a STEM field is out of reach for a student who cannot master basic literacy skills.  I am committed to meeting the literacy challenge because the doors to the wonders of science remain locked to students who cannot open them without the proper reading key. That is why I’m involved in our school’s Literacy Leadership Team, why I’m involved in content-area literacy, and why my curriculum includes students reading and writing every day. It appears that the authors of the Common Core Standards had similar thoughts.


John Clark teaches chemistry, physics and environmental science for the Volusia County School District at Deltona High School in Deltona Florida. He is Volusia County Schools Literacy Leader of the year for 2011. The award is given annually to a content area teacher or administrator who makes the greatest contribution to the advancement of content area literacy at their school. John is also the 2011 Volusia County Schools secondary science teacher PRISM award winner for innovative teaching in science and the 2012 Florida Association of Science Teachers Outstanding High School Teacher of the Year.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s