Focusing on literacy and numeracy

Each school year, prior to the start of students, our entire staff comes together as one community and I have the distinct pleasure of providing opening comments. Due to the structure of the day this year, I was able to provide more of a presentation around our three priorities as opposed to simply making opening remarks. Over the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing some of our division’s work addressing our strategic priorities, beginning today with literacy and numeracy.

There is no doubt of the importance of students possessing strong literacy and numeracy skills. Reading, a component of literacy, is essential for present and future student success. The transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” cannot be stressed enough. In my presentation, I showed this short video that hammers home (literally) the reality that reading opens so many doors. Last year, we hired our first learning coach to coincide with our priority and this year we’ve added a second coach to work with our teachers, especially at the division I level. The research is clear about the importance of reading competently by grade 3 and so our focus remains on those early years. We’ve also purchased Fountas and Pinnell resources and provided significant time for teachers to administer the assessments. We will also continue to host grade level meetings where teachers work collaboratively, interpreting the results in order to review their instructional practice.

But we know that strong literacy skills cannot be fully developed with only a focus on reading. Writing and other forms of communication literacies must also be attended to in order to provide the breadth of literacy learning. In past years, we’ve provided time for teachers to collectively mark writing samples to better understand standards and this is a practice we are hoping to continue into the future. In discussion with our Director of Learning and our two learning coaches last week, developing writing standards throughout the grades and system and building in collective professional judgment in assessment is a goal.

As teachers and parents, it is easy to support a literacy focus in our schools and homes but the importance of numeracy cannot be ignored. In fact, there is evidence that numeracy is a better predictor of school success than literacy.

“Good numeracy is the best protection against unemployment, low wages and poor health.”- Andreas Schleicher, OECD

Research from the UK paints a bleak future for those who don’t possess adequate numeracy skills.

  • People with poor numeracy skills are more than twice as likely to be unemployed
  • There is a strong correlation between poor numeracy and poor health and depression
  • 14 year olds who have poor math skills at 11 are more than twice as likely to be truant
  • A quarter of young people in custody have a numeracy level below that expected of a 7-year-old, and 65% of adult prisoners have numeracy skills at or below the level expected for an 11-year-old

The development of a common math assessment by our own teachers from grades 1-9 has been instrumental in our journey. The assessment is again a springboard for conversations amongst our teachers around instructional practice. I remember when Alberta Education officials visited one of our grade level meetings with me and heard one teacher openly say, “My students didn’t do well on this concept. Who had good results on that concept and how did you teach it?” That was so powerful and it demonstrated the level of trust built within our grade level groupings. This year we have partnered with the University of Lethbridge to offer further support to our teachers on math instruction through our locally developed collaborative peer mentor program.

Before you think that our focus on literacy and numeracy is a call “back to the basics,” I want to reiterate how our priority is articulated.

All students will develop literacy and numeracy skills that will prepare them for a changing future.

Developing literacy and numeracy skills in themselves is what I consider a floor level practice. It is non-negotiable and should be foundational in every elementary classroom. However, the expectation in our Division is not to be satisfied with floor level practices but rather aspire to ceiling level, which are characterized as engaging and enriching in order to take those literacy and numeracy skills to prepare students for a changing future.

Literacy and numeracy instruction plays out differently in junior and senior high school. Underpinning this instruction and guiding the work in schools is Alberta Education’s Learning and Technology Policy Framework. The framework has five policy directions which are integrated and infused at various levels in our schools. Additionally, the work of C21 Canada and the CEO Academy in the development of the 7 C’s: Competencies for Learning and Leading provides support in preparing students for an ever-changing future.

Going forward we know there are critical considerations for our students. They will be entering an unknown, ever-changing world, with new careers, new opportunities and new problems to solve. They will be required to work in environments that are collaborative, innovative, with different hours for work, and possibly working remotely or from home. And students will need to have an inquiry, questioning approach to learning. Literacy and numeracy is not a jazzed up version of reading, writing and arithmetic. It is much deeper, far more intense and increasingly complex…and it is what our students need and deserve in schools today!  


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