Webster’s Dictionary defines literacy as “the ability to read and write.” The simple definition belies a complex process that includes the ability to decode words on the page and understand what they mean in the context in which they are written.
In their Lead for Literacy memo “Literacy Unpacked: What Do We Mean by Literacy?” the team at the Language Diversity and Literacy Development Research Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education look at the various elements involved in ensuring that children learn to read with both comprehension and fluency. The memos in the series are informed by “Turning the Page: Refocusing Massachusetts for Reading Success,” the 2010 report commissioned by Strategies for Children from Professor Nonie Lesaux, who leads the research group.
Defining literacy as “reading, writing, speaking, listening,” the one-page memo notes that skills-based competencies – such as print concepts, alphabet knowledge, word reading and fluency – are “highly susceptible to relatively brief instruction” and are typically mastered by third grade. Developing the knowledge that is the foundation of reading with comprehension, on the other hand, “requires sustained instruction, beginning in early childhood” and is acquired over a lifetime.
“With adequate instruction, skills‐based competencies are mastered by third grade for the average student. Yet the development of knowledge‐based competencies must be supported with good instruction throughout schooling. For many children, especially from academically vulnerable populations, knowledge‐based competencies are more likely to be key sources of academic difficulties,” the memo states. “Skills‐based competencies are necessary but not sufficient for early literacy development; later reading comprehension and academic success depend mostly on strong knowledge‐based competencies.”