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Written By

Stephanie Schierhuber


College of Arts, Society and Education

Publish Date

8 September 2020

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Inequity in literacy education

The move to online education for many school students around the country has presented a number of equity and logistical challenges for teachers, parents, and children. For International Literacy Day, JCU Associate Professor of Education Jennifer Rennie speaks about the challenges that are being experienced in literacy education during the pandemic, and suggests some simple ways that literacy education can be included in busy family life.

Before COVID the most familiar form of literacy education took place face to face in the classroom. “Most schools have dedicated time they spent in literacy education,” Jennifer says. “Kids would have had teachers, who would have had parents and other people assisting, so children would have had more targeted instruction with smaller groups and with individual instruction.”

The switch to online education has thrown up a number of challenges for teachers. “Teachers are very good at working in different situations and working with what they have,” Jennifer says. “But when you’re in a classroom, you’re sitting with a book on your lap, you can touch it and you can access the embodied nature of reading. I think there is a lot of learning, and connections, and relationships that are lost when you’re trying to teach online.”

The loss of that embodied aspect of literacy education is particularly heightened in remote communities or towns where technological infrastructure is lacking. “In some cases, you have multiple families living in the same house, or you’ve got several children in the house with only one device. In some communities there is no internet, or the internet is not necessarily stable. So, all of that infrastructure is going to have an effect.

“When you’re working in remote or disadvantaged communities, relationships are such an important part of literacy education. In a place like Maningrida, for example, which is one of the most multilingual places in the world, they have teachers and folk from the community who are fluent in many of these languages working alongside the teachers. Moving that online is likely something that would have been very challenging.”

Family with two children reading a book
Teacher with group of students
rainbow coloured books

Managing the literacy essentials

The switch to online education has been difficult enough for households with reliable internet access and a device for each child. For families who are juggling financial struggles, work demands, and infrastructure and technology issues the challenge is much more difficult. Thankfully, literacy education isn’t dependent on the classroom and children’s literacy abilities can continue to be developed during the course of daily family life.

The most important way to keep children’s literacy abilities developing is to read. “Right from the time a child is born just read for ten minutes per day to them,” Jennifer says. “It widens vocabulary, it opens up new worlds. Reading allows us to enter into other people’s worlds, to understand the world a little better. It doesn’t have to be the kind of thing where you say ‘oh you got that word wrong’, just the whole experience of sitting down and reading for pleasure, reading to find things out, reading for entertainment.”

Another alternative, Jennifer says, is writing on paper or on the computer. “Find out what kids want to write, or get them to help write the list of things needed at the shop, or write a letter to family or friends that can’t be visited at the moment.”

Finally encourage your children to talk. Talking is an essential part of literacy education and also has the added advantage of helping children to work through any feelings they have about their changing lives during COVID. “Explore ideas or work out problems together,” Jennifer says. “That’s about literacies as well, talking, thinking about things, and encouraging children to ask questions.”

Literacy education doesn’t have to mean being sat at a desk for hours on end. It can be included in your daily routine (whatever that looks like now) in simple ways. Most important is to remember that as long as children are reading, writing, and talking literacy development is happening. As Jennifer says: “It doesn’t hurt to take a break every now and again. They’re still going to end up as doctors and lawyers, and scientists and everything else. Nothing’s going to change that.”

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