We Shouldn’t Give Up on Literacy-Based Learning

In the push for active and learner-oriented instruction, let’s not abandon classic methods of reading, writing and lecturing, Matt Ayars argues.

June 17, 2020

One of the first books recommended to me as a green Ph.D. student was How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, by Charles Van Doren and Mortimer J. Adler. In embarking on a journey marked by reading, reading and more reading, I had to become a better reader. And when I say “better reader,” I don’t necessarily mean a more efficient reader, although that’s a part of it. What I really needed to get better at was understanding what I was reading. Even more to the point, I needed to become a better, stronger and more sophisticated thinker.

Many of us have had the experience of listening to a professor lecture on classical Western literature. I remember as an undergraduate student listening to a professor give a lecture on Homer’s Odyssey. I couldn’t believe how much meaning he got out of it. I remember trying to read it myself and just being confused and frustrated.

Going back even further, I remember my first encounter with Shakespeare in high school. I loved the idea of Shakespeare, but I just didn’t understand it. When I complained to my English teacher that I didn’t understand the reading assignment, her response was, “Why not? It’s English.” I also remember my first attempt at a John Grisham novel when I was in sixth grade. It was way over my head, but I was determined to read every word in that book, and I did, and the process made me better.

What’s my point? Reading is still a viable way of learning.

This seems so obvious, so why do I say it now?

I read an article on Inside Higher Ed recently about how university educators are concerned about moving to virtual learning environments because of COVID-19. The big question is, can active learning co-exist with physically distanced classrooms?

As I read the article, I detected a hint of an assumption that interactive learning is superior to the classical pedagogical methods of reading, writing and lectures (instructor-oriented methods as opposed to learner-oriented methods). Furthermore, as a career educator in a graduate school of theology, I regularly come across enthusiastic (sometimes militant) appeals to replace the traditional, instructor-oriented methods of teaching with learner-oriented models (e.g., adult interactive learning). While I appreciate the breadth and scope of learning styles, I have strong reservations about appeals to fully abandon the traditional methods for the “new and improved learning experience.”

As an introvert, I have always shied away from interactive learning. I don’t particularly like working in groups and find it more effective for me to learn through reading and listening. I know that there are different kinds of learners out there and that, for some, interactive learning is most effective. What I will certainly and happily concede is that for certain kinds of content, interactive learning is undoubtedly the best. On-the-job-training is essential, especially for learning how to do things. You can only master painting by doing it.

However, there is another kind of “content” that I believe is best acquired literarily. Let me unpack this in a roundabout way.

Many seminaries and Bible colleges have debated the importance of biblical languages in ministry training curricula. When alumni are surveyed about which parts of the curriculum they used the least after graduation, the majority of them said biblical languages. They just don’t have a need for Hebrew and Greek in ministry. Because of this, no small number of educators are proponents of striking biblical languages from ministry training curricula, having classified the languages as an artifact of an obsolete and outdated ministry training curriculum from a bygone era.

One simple and convincing rebuttal to this argument is that people called to full-time ministry must be serious students of the Scriptures. And, to be a serious student of the Scripture, you have to know the original languages.

I’m satisfied with this argument, but there’s another argument for keeping the languages in the curriculum: that it requires concentrated discipline and exercises the brain. Taking the time and effort to stretch our minds to think differently through language acquisition changes us. Does it teach us how to use a computer or resolve conflict? Not necessarily, but it does mature how we think, and how we think brings a lot to bear on the tasks that we face each day.

Even beyond this, we cannot fall into the trap of thinking that good education is always entertaining. On the other side of that same coin, good education doesn’t have to be boring, either.

The content-specific book that I read as a Ph.D. student was Michael O’Connor’s Hebrew Verse Structure. It is a massive tome. As I sat and carefully read (and reread) those pages, something inside me was changing. Pushing through the fatigue, looking up words I didn’t understand, doing further research to fill in the context he was speaking into did something to me. It stretched my thinking. Now take this experience and multiply it by several thousand books and articles, and four years later I’m a much more sophisticated and nuanced thinker.

Against this backdrop, I believe that literacy-based learning is not only a valid and viable learning method, but that it is also in no way inferior to interactive learning. As educators, we have to challenge students to learn to read. We should inspire students to take up books, articles, journals and essays to shape, sharpen and challenge their thinking.

To help my writing style as a Ph.D. student, I read Stephen King’s memoir, On Writing. In that book King says that writing is refined thinking. He also said that the most frequent question aspiring writers ask him is how to become a good writer. The answer is simple: read a lot and write a lot.

Reading (and writing) helps us to be better thinkers. Is it important to have skills? Yes! But it’s just as important to be strong thinkers. Want to be a strong thinker? Read (and write)!

One last story from my time as a Ph.D. student. I spent every summer at Tyndale House, in Cambridge, England. Tyndale House is a place of high-powered learning. It’s essentially a library reading room where scholars do research. Like a library, it’s quiet. It’s wonderfully and beautifully quiet. I remember having to buy a new keyboard after having arrived at Tyndale House because the one I had was so loud that my typing was disturbing others in the area!

Tyndale House is quiet because people are learning. Some of the most intelligent and sophisticated thinkers I’ve ever met were (and still are) studying at Tyndale House. The funny thing is that as expert learners, folks at Tyndale House are not working in groups using adult interactive learning models. There are no mind maps, no group activities, no modeling clay or drawing pictures, no skits, no animated videos or fancy software or smartboards. The learners and educators at Tyndale House go deeper in their thoughts through reading. They sit and listen. They sharpen their minds, clarify their ideas and refine their thinking. They read.

This is an appeal to educators. Don’t write off the importance of literacy-based learning. Use this time of social distancing to teach students how to read. And they will become better thinkers.

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Matt Ayars is president of Wesley Biblical Seminary.


Matt Ayars

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