Sept. 8 was International Literacy Day, and as we head into a new school year, it’s timely to reflect on the centrality of literacy in education.
My wife teaches grade one, and, as with all primary teachers, one of the most critical aspects of her job is ensuring that her pupils become readers. Countless studies have shown that early literacy is the key to future academic success. As the American psychologist William James put the matter, “So it is with children who learn to read fluently and well: They begin to take flight into whole new worlds as effortlessly as young birds take to the sky.”
To motivate her pupils, she uses a cleverly devised “Golden Apple” prize, a gold-colored metal bookmark in the shape of an apple. At the beginning of the year, she shows this glittering prize to her new class. She tells them it’s theirs to keep and take home if they read 100 books by the end of the school year. She warns them that they need to earn the prize and can’t purchase it at the mall or online. (The news that some things in life can’t be bought but must be earned can come as a shock to 5- and 6-year-olds.)
Throughout the school year, her pupils are encouraged by being given the honor of reading to the principal at 25-book intervals, sustaining them on their quest for the Golden Apple.
The Golden Apple Prize is a worthy ambition, and it dramatically concentrates the minds of her young scholars. The monetary cost of purchasing these little baubles is minimal. However, its motivational value, as the advertisement says, is priceless.
Ideally, of course, educators want intrinsically motivated students who take delight in learning for its own sake, who are eager to explore the world around them without a thought to prizes and awards. But in the early years, one can’t take any chances. As Socrates famously put it, “The beginning of any enterprise is the most important part, especially for a young and tender thing.”
My wife hopes that the extrinsic motivation of winning the Golden Apple will habituate her pupils into becoming avid, lifelong readers, thereby laying the foundation for their success in schooling, and indeed, in life.
It’s difficult to exaggerate the benefits of early literacy for educational attainment. And here, it’s worth mentioning the relationship between education, language, and mind.
At its most elemental, and when stripped of all the fraught ideological rhetoric surrounding schooling and teaching, education (as opposed to vocational training) strives to expand students’ minds. We want them to be able to understand, appreciate, and imaginatively engage with their world. And the primary means by which we do so is via the acquisition of language.
Literacy and the expanding vocabulary that comes in its wake are the keys to educational opportunity and upward mobility. As we expand our students’ vocabulary, we also develop their ability to make sense of their world. Fundamentally, the quality of our thinking depends on the quality of the language we have at our command. Understanding any subject matter—American muscle cars, Ming Dynasty vases, or dinosaurs—necessitates acquiring a vocabulary that allows for increasingly fine distinctions and discriminations. Have you ever noticed how every young dinosaur enthusiast can name and tell you the crucial differences between, say, a T-Rex and a Triceratops?
In other words, to speak with knowledge, insight, and understanding about any topic demands that we possess the requisite words to pick out the inherent distinctions in the subject matter. I think this is something all of us know at some deep level.
For example, consider the broad category of “art.” It’s difficult to say anything meaningful about such an amorphous term. For a start, are we referring to the plastic arts or the performing arts? And if the former, are we talking about oil paintings? Sculptures? Ming Dynasty vases? To speak about oil paintings requires that we distinguish among landscapes, abstracts, nudes, and so forth. But notice what is happening: Introducing more categories allows us to make distinctions, leading to a deeper and more meaningful exchange of ideas.
And this holds across the curriculum. To act as an educator, then, is in some significant and fundamental way to provide students with a rich and expansive vocabulary, allowing them to pick out essential aspects of the world.
The American scholar E.D. Hirsch said, “It isn’t overstating the case to say that the most secure way to predict whether an educational policy is likely to help restore the middle class is to focus on the question: Is this policy likely to expand the vocabularies of 12th-graders?”
I would only add that in schooling, as in other parts of life, we should start as we mean to go on. And there’s no better way to improve the vocabularies of 12th-graders than ensuring literacy in the primary grades.
As in life, no formula guarantees success in education. Perhaps the closest thing we have to a magic bullet is promoting literacy. It’s fitting that on Sept. 8, we recognized and celebrated literacy as the bedrock of education.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.