Combatting Aliteracy: Mentoring Today’s Students to Become Tomorrow’s Avid Readers

By Gravity Goldberg

According to a 2021 Pew Research study 23% of adults surveyed say they haven’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year, whether in print, electronic or audio form. When we look at the surveys of school age children we see reading volume begins to drop by age 9. Only 35%  of nine year olds report reading five to seven days a week compared to 57%  percent of eight year olds (Scholastic, 2019).  These two studies and many others point to a larger issue of aliteracy in this country. 

Aliteracy refers to people who can read but choose not to. While the national narrative has focused on those who are struggling to learn to decode the words (which of course also needs to be addressed), we cannot forget this other group who have not identified as readers and do not see the value of time spent reading. 

We have likely all sat around the dinner table and teacher’s room lamenting social media and smartphones as the cause of so much aliteracy, and of course books are competing for attention with our devices. But, since smartphones are likely not going anywhere, we must look at what we can control – how we frame reading instruction, how we mentor readers, and what we can do to make sure all students graduate understanding not just how to read the words but how to use reading to make lives better. 

Photo courtesy of Pan Xiaozhen via Unsplash

We know there is always a lag between culture and curriculum. Just because something changes in our current culture does not mean we immediately see a shift in what or how we teach. The summer is a great time to reflect and make an action plan for how we can bring our curricular approach up to date. How can we make our literacy approach relevant for our students today so they also become the avid adult readers of tomorrow?

Literacy Habits of Mind

What it means to be literate is always changing given the context we are living within. In Performative Literacy: The Habits of Mind of Highly Literate Readers, by Sheridan Blau (2003), he explains that reading is more than a set of skills. Blau lists the habits that readers must have to be highly literate which include

  • Willingness to suspend closure—to entertain problems rather than avoid them
  • Tolerance for failure—a willingness to re-read and re-read again
  • Tolerance for ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty
  • Metacognitive awareness–capacity to monitor and direct one’s own reading process

If your current approach solely focuses on reading as a set of skills, consider how and where you can integrate the dispositions needed to be highly literate too.

Critical Digital Literacy 

With access to technology and a push for more interconnectedness, being literate also includes critical digital literacy practices. Reading and writing no longer simply include a book or article you can hold in your hands. Reading has broadened to include reading a video, podcast, infographic, and photos etc.

According Hinrichsen and Coombs (2014) successful literacy learners need to engage in four roles to be critically digital literate. They need to be:

  • Code Breakers– How do I crack this text? How does it work?
  • Meaning Makers– How do the ideas represented in the text string together? What are the cultural meanings and possible readings that can be constructed from this text?
  • Text Users–How do the users of this text shape its composition? What do I do with this text, here and now?
  • Text Analysts– What is this text trying to do to me? In whose interests?

If your current approach focuses mostly on finding the  messages “in the book” consider how you can include more multimodal texts and teach students to be more critical thinkers within and beyond the texts. 

Community and Advocacy 

Youth and adults today use the power of social media to form connections and become advocates for the causes they believe in. Being literate includes an interconnectedness to a community who uses language in nuanced and purposeful ways. Readers need to understand the implicit meanings and tone as well as the perspectives that the community holds. They also need to use information to create narratives that inspire change using a variety of mediums. When students understand that reading and writing are powerful tools that allow them to impact others they begin to see their larger value.

Being a member of a literacy community means:Becoming an advocate means:
I bring my full identity with me.I curate the texts I consume.I choose the conversations I want to join.I set goals for myself.I ask for feedback.I see my role in the communities I am a part of.I know and name challenges my communities face.I use texts to understand, empathize, and problem solve.I contribute through listening, speaking, writing, and doing.

If your current approach does not explicitly set all students up to be contributors within a community, think about who and what is being centered so you can make a different set of choices.

Am I Teaching Students to Be Literate Today? 

If we are serious about combating aliteracy we need to teach students that reading is relevant right now. It can bring joy, create connection, and answer questions. Reading cannot simply be about reading levels, test scores, and standards. Students must see the value and purpose of reading within and beyond school if they grow up to be adults who choose to read.

Take some time this summer and fall to reflect in a community around the following questions and then make an action plan for how you will contextualize reading differently this school year. What follows are a few ideas to get you started. 

Reflection QuestionsAction Plan
What are the literacy habits of mind that readers will develop this year?Add literacy habits of mind into curriculum maps Model these literacy habits such as navigating ambiguity, rereading, and leaning into problems by making your own reading process more visible Confer with students regularly and ask them to share their process and habits with you
How will you support students in becoming critical consumers and producers of a variety of texts?Create digital text sets for and with studentsStudy mentor texts that include audio, video and print and discuss the norms of eachModel and coach students inVerifying the accuracy of informationUnderstanding the author’s worldview and perspectiveComparing information across sourcesSynthesizing information from multiple textsMoving between different text types and modalities 
How will the curriculum create space and mentorship for students to be contributors in their communities? Make sure students have access to texts that include positive representative of all identities and communitiesAsk for and center students’ questions that they want to studyIntegrate community-based learning into unitsModel how you use reading and writing to make your communities a better place Include more student work in data meetings that contextualize and humanize students beyond numbers

I can’t help but think of the current humanitarian, political, environmental, and health related crises we are facing. Most days I wake up overwhelmed and some days even hopeless. But then I remember I am a literacy educator and there is much I can do.  None of today’s global or local challenges can be solved without having these literacy dispositions because being literate is not only about the books in our hands, but the ways we think and act. No matter what this next school year brings, please remember, our goal is not simply to create better readers. Our goal is to help students use reading to make their worlds better. 

Dr. Gravity Goldberg is an educational consultant, author and founder of Gravity Goldberg, LLC. While based in the New York / New Jersey metro area, Gravity supports school districts across the country. She specializes in literacy, special education, curriculum, assessment, and learning with technology. Her work ranges from demonstrating lessons and leading workshops on balanced literacy to working with administrators developing curriculum and customizing professional development programs. She works in classrooms from pre-kindergarten through college and in a variety of settings, both urban and suburban. Contact her at

Author: CCIRAblog

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One thought on “Combatting Aliteracy: Mentoring Today’s Students to Become Tomorrow’s Avid Readers”

  1. This is such an important focus, Gravity, and I’m so glad to read this post…looking forward to your book!


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