What is Authentic Literacy?

March 1, 2010 3 comments

Teachers often talk about incorporating “authentic literacy activities” in their classrooms, but what does that mean? To me, authentic literacy is any activity that “real” readers and writers would do outside of a school setting. The activity parallels the type of work that happens in “the real world,” and the opportunities for continued engagement in the activity extend far beyond school hours. The model is consistent with a reader’s and writer’s workshop approach, and it avoids stereotypical school activities such as worksheets and book reports. Instead, consider these examples of authentic literacy activities:

  • A student reads and enjoys a book by the latest fantasy author, and he feels that other students might enjoy reading it, too. Rather than writing a book report on it, he creates a book review for a class or school publication that models the format for book reviews found in the New York Times or Entertainment Weekly.
  • A recent event such as the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile prompts sudden student interest in the topic. Students begin to research different aspects of earthquakes with some students scripting and creating a podcast that explains how earthquakes happen and other students producing brochures about earthquake preparedness or how to help earthquake victims. These podcasts and brochures are then shared with other classes and families in the local community.
  • A classroom studies the craft of writing screenplays during awards season and students attempt to adapt a favorite book or short story into a screenplay. Students are then given the opportunity to produce scenes and share their films with other classes.
  • The school is preparing for open house and students create a flyer to be distributed to parents that highlights the unique features and accomplishments of the school.
  • Students script and produce the content for a daily school news program or a weekly newsletter.
  • A student is interested in a new pop artist and can’t stop singing her songs. She analyzes the lyrics, looking for common themes in the songs and making comparisons to other songs or poems. She then attempts to write a song of her own that mimics the message and style of the singer.

Too often, the work that happens in schools is divorced from the types of literacy activities that happen at home. When students are expected to learn through basals and worksheets, they’re denied the meaningful work that readers and writers do daily. Our goal as teachers should be to create an environment that encourages students to become lifelong readers and writers who are able to solve problems and support others through the use of texts. Such learning facilitates transfer as students make more meaningful connections between their school work and their everyday lives. It empowers and motivates students to read and write because they have both a purpose and an audience.

This blog will be devoted to information, ideas, resources, and suggestions for building an authentic literacy program in an elementary classroom. Please feel free to join the conversation and offer recommendations or ask questions. In the meantime, I highly recommend the article “Authentic Literacy Activities for Developing Comprehension and Writing” (Duke, Purcell-Gates, Hall, & Tower, 2006). Their work has pioneered much of the initial research on this topic, and the article provides a more in-depth explanation of what authentic literacy is and is not.