This article was first published in the June 2021 issue of the SCMP Good Schools Guide under the title, “The Gateway to Well-Rounded Learning and Comprehension”.
By Dr. Ipsita Mitra
‘Hey Siri, spell January.’
‘Why do I need to learn how to spell, when I can just turn on spell-check?’
‘I am on my fourth audiobook today.’
These are snippets of my conversation with some of the students I work with as a Literacy and ELL Teacher. My work involves teaching literacy skills – writing, spelling, reading and comprehension – to students.
There is no doubt in my mind that over the past few years literacy skills have gone through a tremendous change. Technology has brought a huge shift in the way we read and write. It takes place much more on screen and far less on paper. Our brains now rely on software such as predictive writing, auto-fill and auto-correct, making us active thinkers but passive writers.
Although technology has offered benefits to the way children learn and use language, it also raises an important question: has the use of technology rendered traditional literacy skills redundant? With software doing most of our writing and reading, do children still need to spend precious school time honing their literacy skills?
I believe that literacy skills will always remain relevant, with or without technology. These skills are not just about being able to read and write. They also help in developing an expansive vocabulary that are the vehicles to put ideas into words. They are the building blocks for creativity and inspiration. Some aspects of human written communication are also unreachable to software, such as the message, tone, voice and intention of a piece. Traditional literacy skills are far from obsolete – here are five powerful reasons they still matter.
First, literacy skills are the gateway to all higher learning. The foundation for learning any language is the ability to recognise, read and write a pattern of letters into words and string them into meaningful sentences. Imagine a grade one student, blending sounds together, reading words and then writing answers independently because they understand these basic mechanics.
Now think of this grade one student picking up a book and reading it out of curiosity. They are delighted by the story, becoming immersed in an imaginative world of magic, or rapt with facts about outer space. Literacy skills are the gateway to all scholarship because they open up a world of knowledge before the child, stoking inquiry and interest. This is the positive relationship with literacy that most educators aim to achieve.
There is some debate if handwriting is now an unnecessary art form, a throwback to our analog past. Make no mistake, handwriting still remains an important literacy skill. Research shows that cursive handwriting helps build important sensorimotor pathways, helping us encode and remember information through the very movement of our fingers. Moving the pen on paper and writing in different scripts has more than just aesthetic appeal. It is a process whereby our bodies help our mind actively integrate knowledge – a powerful tool for learning and studying, and one further reason why literacy skills are far from obsolete.
Writing words out by hand has also proven to be an essential skill to leverage when delivering phonics training to children with learning challenges. Programs like the Orton-Gillingham approach follow a systematic method that helps in building fluency and automaticity at word level. I recall one of my students who had been diagnosed with dyslexia, working out how ‘b’ is different from ‘d’ by writing the word ‘bed’ over and over and the spark in his eyes while learning through repetition.
Another important literacy skill is editing: improving one’s work to ensure that the writer’s ideas are being clearly communicated. This revision requires more than ‘accepting all’ spell-check changes. It requires purposefully going through each sentence, ensuring that not only spelling and grammar are correct, but also that the overall message is clear and the arguments are sound. Predictive writing can clean up work, but there is no way it replaces the fundamental skill of encoding and decoding words to communicate ideas convincingly.
Finally, one of the most exciting ways phonics comes alive is when we try to read a non-English word written out phonetically and add a whole new word to our vocabulary. Words like etcetera, avatar, yoga and tsunami are part of our everyday English because we are able to decode them using the basic letter-sound associations. Young readers thus have an opportunity to build themselves as members of the global community by learning words from different cultures, just like you can read my non-Western name using your knowledge of phonics.
Literacy skills cannot be replaced by the computer, because reading and writing is still processed by the world’s most powerful graphic chip, the human mind. Although we must embrace technology as a de facto part of education, we must also retain those traditional skills that underlie and augment our core understanding of language, reading and writing. We need to sharpen the human mind and harness its power to enable our children to become active thinkers, writers and readers. Literacy skills matter now, more than ever.