Once upon a time, libraries were the hub of all wisdom and a good book to read. Schools and universities were full of hungry researchers diving into their various topics. Then technology swept in and altered our universe. These hubs have had to reinvent themselves both physically and operationally. The librarian now needs to be able to navigate platforms that offer an online gateway to digital learning and resources. Alongside this challenge is the responsibility of supporting the continuum of literacy, which is at the core of their work.

Maintaining young people’s interest in reading is becoming challenging. The competition between a good book and watching a movie starts early, as young children are drawn to the dopamine fix that comes with playing a video game. As they enter their teens, scrolling on apps becomes an added feature.

The jury is still out on whether there is a direct impact regarding online time and low literacy levels. Studies appear to show that finding a balance is more important, and the damage caused by online time is more likely to affect a child’s lack of social development.

UNESCO’s definition of literacy “is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society.”

Schools have a responsibility to ensure that literacy is front and centre in the continuum of learning, even more so in a digital age full of distractions.

Literacy is front and centre in the continuum of learning, even more so in a digital age full of distractions

When a teenager texts in acronyms “tbh” or “Idk”, they are eroding their writing skills. I hear a student say “we won’t be writing job applications, we will record ourselves and I can always use chatGBT”. Yet this shortcut approach lacks the eloquence and originality that come with the art of communication that needs constant practice.

The more we read and write, the more we develop our ability to communicate according to purpose, audience and message. Despite the bite-size communications of WhatsApp, messaging or e-mail, learners will still be assessed by demonstrating knowledge through erudite and appropriate language. There will be times when a careful note, a formal letter or an essay will be required, and we need to ensure that this skill is not lost.

Many schools are tackling this issue with a rigorous literacy programme. At Verdala International School (VIS), we recently made a three-year commitment to revamping our approaches to literacy in our elementary school. Through the ‘Writers Workshop’, pupils from pre-kindergarten to Grade 5 have begun the journey of exploring what it means to be an author. We aim to heighten the pupils’ skills in drafting, editing and publishing, in other words, sharing work they can be proud of, setting them on their way to be able to competently write on any topic.

A key intervention has been to examine what books we expose our students to, both in the library and the classroom – physical books that can be handled, looked through and read. As a foundational resource for teachers, it is recommended that alongside the library, each classroom has up to 700 available books – fiction and non-fiction – that tie into the units taught. Therefore, VIS has invested in 5,000 additional books for our elementary school, with another big order planned.

A poster at the school with a self-explanatory statement by US children’s author Dr Seuss.A poster at the school with a self-explanatory statement by US children’s author Dr Seuss.

As we move into the next phase, the ‘Reading Workshop’, we will deepen our pupils’ understanding of what it means to live a readerly life. Literacy is a foundational skill that both provides access to our curricular content as well as the opportunity to express thoughts and ideas about a variety of topics. This approach is integrally balanced with our edtech ambitions, so our pupils can develop all the skills needed for the more complex expectations of middle school.

Our staff have been open-minded and ready to join in a programme that dovetails well into our school’s goal of investing in a learning journey to enable student success. Whether we are children or adults, “the more we read, the more we know” (Dr Seuss).

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