Nurturing Literacy, Not Test-Taking - National Council of Teachers of English
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Nurturing Literacy, Not Test-Taking

The following excerpt from Dawn Kirby’s post on the blog Writers Who Care is reprinted by permission.


booksLiteracy as Nurture: Learning, Improving, and Having Fun

Try a mini-experiment. Think about activities in which you engage for fun, for pure joy and pleasure.  Mentally list a few.

Now, consider these questions:

  • Does anyone officially grade you on that activity?
  • Are you required to write a paper about why you like to engage in the activity?
  • Do the state and federal governments mandate hours of annual testing that you must pass in order to engage in the activity?
  • Must you pass a test before you are allowed to set more challenging goals for yourself and improve your abilities to perform your activity?

Most importantly,

  • If all of the above were true, how long would you consider your fun activity to be, well, fun? How often would you spend your spare time doing it?

None of the above conditions would probably motivate you to participate in the activity of your choice. Is the same true for students who actually like to read and write? Absolutely.

Think also about students who struggle with reading and writing. Do batteries of tests motivate them to try harder, read more books, write more essays? Do they feel good about themselves when their test scores are low?

Resoundingly, no.

Modeling to Nurture Literacy

Teachers and parents are instrumental in modeling for students that reading and writing are enjoyable, informational, and beneficial, even if not always easy.

When families watch the news together, discuss the content of a magazine article, debate the virtues of a main character in a novel they’ve read, and talk about how the internet is changing the very notion of “text,” they are engaged in authentic literacy practices. They make literacy a normal and important part of everyday family life.

Teaching to Nurture Literacy

Literacy abilities improve when teachers and students are free to engage critically with various types of texts, analyze specific techniques of writing that authors use, interact with ideas generated by texts, and enjoy reading and writing as forms of expression and communication. Why? For one reason, practice makes us better at what we do.

Teachers and parents alike may be thinking, “What?! Take time away from real teaching? Use in-class time to read and write for pleasure?”

Definitely. That’s a key practice for nurturing literacy.

It takes some effort to find the types of texts that students may enjoy reading and writing. Often, teachers use Reading Interest Inventories and casual conversations in and out of class to help students discover topics and genres that they would enjoy exploring. Once students are hooked, providing in-class time for pleasurable reading and writing helps foster their nascent literacy habit.

Nurturing Literacy through Testing?

Anyone reading research on high-stakes testing discovers that such testing doesn’t necessarily improve learning. While Hillocks (2002) found that what is on the test gets taught more often than material not on the test, other researchers (Kohn, 2011; Bower & Thomas, eds., 2013) have found that the culture of mandated testing is detrimental to quality learning environments. Mandated high-stakes tests, often created by those who are not educators, may actually impede learning.

I certainly support having high expectations and standards for learning and teaching. Nonetheless, squeezing the joy from learning in order to succeed on high-stakes tests is a trend that needs to change—fast—if we are to have a literate populace. Cast your vote on educational issues in favor of learning, not false testing and mandates that masquerade as educational progress. Let’s make literacy, not testing, the goal of a quality education.