Skills versus tasks: A false debate that obscures a perverse reading pedagogy (part 1 of 4)

I had a couple of exchanges this week that touched on a similar topic, and that is the literacy technique that was developed for use in the international literacy test, and then carried into the Essential Skills framework, the OALCF, spin-off tests like the ESEE and OALCF Milestones, and learning activities. People may refer to the technique as a task-based approach or an applied approach or an approach that emphasizes reading to learn.

The technique is seen to be different from learning to read or a skills-based approach. A skills-based approach, goes the argument, may help people develop particular skills and strategies, but it can’t reveal how people use their literacy. This reasoning is appealing; it is very useful to know how people draw on their literacy abilities in various situations. Unfortunately, a task-based approach derived from international literacy testing won’t reveal this. What one does in the context of completing a test task (and all other tasks that follow the same design principles) does not readily transfer when engaging with similar texts, like an email message for example, outside the testing/learning situation.

An off-shoot of the debate is a polarization of school-based literacy learning and work-based literacy learning, including an emphasis on the importance of developing literacy for work and a de-emphasis on the importance of developing literacy for school and educational goals. This has led to a devaluation of the kinds of reading done in schools (and in people’s lives) such as reading fiction, poetry, and a variety of subject-based texts. At the same time, there is an over-valuation of the kinds of reading done in a workplace such as reading procedure manuals, technical schematics and email messages. We can see this valuation discrepancy play out in the OALCF, the Milestones and ESEE, all of which incorporate mostly work-related texts and pretty much disregard fiction. (There are other reasons for the reliance on work-related texts that are related to the broader societal efforts of international literacy testing carried out by the OECD. I will look at this in future posts.)

A devaluation of school type texts and associated learning approaches is a major pedagogical problem, since the majority of learners in LBS programs are there to enter and re-enter Ontario’s school system at the secondary and postsecondary levels. Their immediate goals do not normally include learning particular workplace literacy skills such as reading schematics and procedure manuals. Never mind the fact that reading fiction and texts focused on particular areas of knowledge (e.g., history, politics, art, sports, fashion, science, etc.) are pursued for personal enjoyment and interest, and are likely the very activities that fuel a lifelong engagement with reading and overall literacy development.

At this level, we can see how the skills versus tasks debate does more harm than good, as it is a false and misleading debate. It has led to highly questionable pedagogical decisions in the context of the OALCF that disconnect the LBS system from the broader education system. If educators actually follow the OALCF as intended, adult learners are prevented from engaging with a variety of texts and reading pursuits. In addition, when we dig a little deeper and examine the ways that the skills and tasks concepts are put to use in testing and learning materials, we uncover the creation of a perverse pedagogical approach to developing literacy, and the connection to a larger societal project.

In Part 2, I trace the development of the information-processing technique that comprises the task-based approach, and reveal what it was actually designed to measure.

In Part 3, I explore how the difference between a task-based approach and a skills-based approach plays out in an example test task.

In Part 4, I look at the development and implications of a perverse pedagogy.

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