Notions of Literacy Must Reflect Cultural Shifts

Dear Dr. Fournier:

My son/daughter (circle one) can’t/won’t/isn’t (circle one) reading. What can I do?


Multiple parents, multiple states

Dear Parents:

Perhaps reading isn’t the national pastime, but it certainly has become a national preoccupation.

With children back in school, I brace myself for the onslaught of stories concerning “Why Johnny Can’t Read” or “Why Johnny Won’t Read” or “Why Johnny Isn’t Reading Nearly Enough.” Educational questions and observations along these lines concerning children’s reading habits are mainstays in my inbox.


Let me begin by reaffirming the importance of reading as a basic skill. However, at the risk of alienating both educators and parents, the wrong questions are being asked dealing with our preoccupation with literacy, and they are leading to erroneous answers.

When a parent asks the question, “Why isn’t Johnny reading more?” The snap decision educators have made is to simply assign more homework, more novels and more chapters in textbooks. I simply cannot comprehend this emphasis on counting quantity rather than considering the quality of what schools ask our children to read. Quantity does not equal quality. We should instead be asking, “What is the new expanded definition of literacy that will allow Johnny to be successful in school and in life?” That is the tough question, because the concept of literacy – like many things in our society – is changing.

For my generation, literacy meant comprehensive reading, and being literate was the same as being “well read.” But here’s the reality of our culture: Our children will not be able to read everything. For them, literacy is and will continue to be a matter of selective reading, thinking and creating. Children must be able to access the essential data in what they read, turn it into information through personal paraphrasing that is unique to each child, and then demonstrate that they have achieved mastery of the data when they use it to create new knowledge.

If you don’t agree that literacy is changing, think about the ever-changing ways that information is gathered. For everyone who grew up in my generation, if we were assigned a report in high school on whales, we would have consulted the “W” volume of the encyclopedia and checked out books on whales from the library. If someone beat you to the book you wanted, it was just too bad, and you had to hope it came back in time for you to use it.

For my son’s generation, instead of going to library, cutting edge students elected to go to a computer, insert a CD-ROM encyclopedia disk, type in the heading “whales” and see a list of every single encyclopedia entry that uses that word. At the end of his scholastic career the disk was out, and a student simply had to go online and search the Internet for the information one was looking for on an interconnected network. Today, this can all be achieved with even greater speed, more easily, and now wirelessly with everything from an e-reader to a smart phone.

Now comes the hard question:

“How do we prepare Johnny to make the leap to the new expanded definition of literacy?” Knowing what to read is as important as knowing how to read. This is not achieved by assigning more, but by teaching your children to extract more precise substance from what they read.


Changing the focus from comprehensive reading to selective reading involves three important steps:

1. Selective reading must begin with purpose.

In the business world, employees begin with a project after defining an objective, a strategy and steps of action to reach the project’s stated goals. The same should be true of reading or research project, children must first define its purpose; only then can they determine what they need to read, not how much they are required to read.

2. An assignment should be identified as either selective reading or comprehensive reading.

Parents can help their children realize the difference between quantity and quality when it comes to the reading assignment given at school.

In a typical comprehensive reading approach, the teacher assigns a report requiring a certain number of bibliography sources. This approach focuses on the quantity of reading but does not ensure quality reading. In other words, reading the number of assigned sources replaces reading the number of needed ones.

Assignments like these can turn our children away from reading. These quantitative assignments do not prepare today’s students for tomorrow’s workplace. Their employer will not assign them ten books to read. Instead, employees will be required to create ideas and determine for themselves what they need to read and how much of it they will need to retain.

Even when students are forced to complete a comprehensive reading assignment, insists that they begin by stating the purpose and then designating the priority for each reading. In the arbitrary number of entries for a bibliography, some readings will be essential and others will be superfluous. However, by recognizing the purpose and priority of each reading assignment, the student will be better prepared to learn how to read selectively.

3. Assignments should recognize the uniqueness of each child’s reading approach.

After the purpose has been stated and the readings have been selected, now comes the time for the task of reading to begin. It is also the time for us to acknowledge that no two people read alike.

The concept of “reading pace” is a concept of the past. Some people read slowly because they construct a visual picture of the concept and see it as they read. Others read more quickly because they search for the global idea and then go back to pick out pertinent details. Still others read only portions of a text, knowing they can hypothesize about the rest because they use their thinking, logic, and creative capacity.

Some readers look first for the main idea but then go back to scrutinize key words and phrases, questioning the author’s motives, word selection, and intent. All of these methods are valid, and go to show that there is no “right” way to read.

Keeping this in mind, talk to your child not just about what she reads, or how much, but simply how she reads. What goes on in his mind when he reads? What brings the readings alive for her? What does she search for? A child who scores low on a reading test because of a different “reading pace” may be better equipped for the thinking, learning, and creativity skills required for selective reading.

Most important of all, learn to look at reading as a tool. Reading page by page in a book was the way of my generation, but it is not the way our children today use reading, scanning, and the find function on their computers to cruise through cyberspace and the ever expanding sea of text that can be found on it.

Dr. Yvonne Fournier
Dr. Yvonne Fournier


Yvonne Fournier
Dr. Yvonne Fournier has been a pharmacist, public health administrator, demographer and entrepreneur. She has followed her own roadmap in becoming arguably one of the most prolific of educators and child advocates in America today.