Tony Gurr

Is Literacy REALLY Enough? (or What the HELL is it, anyways?)

In Our Schools, Our Universities, Technology on 28/08/2011 at 5:39 pm

If you take a look at the popular press in many “developed” democracies today, you’ll probably come across stories about the “Crisis of Literacy” or the “Illiteracy Epidemic”. The writers of these stories are quick to uncover scapegoats for this awful “sickness” – our schools, our curricula, our teachers (more often than not)!

Others place the blame squarely at the feet of “uncaring and uneducated” parents, the “rise” of learning disabilities, unilingualism in homes (those bloody parents again) and poverty (oh, yes – let’s throw in the recent UK riots, too) – there are others who point the finger at all that “damn bloody technology”!

Personally, I think a lot of these commentators (while trying to meet deadlines and earn their pay cheques) often downplay the impact the “literacy divide” has on very real human beings or, at the very least, confuse illiteracy with “aliteracy” (the state of being able to read but being uninterested in doing so) – but then again, who am I?

The problem is that we are often not really told what writers mean when they talk about “literacy” – as if we all just “know” what it means.

Part of the problem is that the definition of literacy varies depending on who’s discussing it. While we probably all know that at the heart of most definitions is “reading” (and more often than not “reading something with understanding”) – what else are people talking about?

Let’s have a gander!

The National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) in the US defines literacy as:

 “…using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.”

This is probably what we might call Traditional Literacy (or what Lankshear & Knobel call the “text paradigm”):Functional Literacy, Prose Literacy or Document Literacy.

However, when we look at what UNESCO has to say, we see another component and another “additional literacy”:

This “Quantative Literacy” (what you and I might call “Numeracy”) also makes a lot of sense to us all (as does “writing”) – but also seems to flag that we need to get ready for a whole lot of “mushrooming” in the number of “literacies” we need to be thinking about. But, hey – it all makes a great deal of common sense (especially to our parents – and those educators we love to hate):

But, wait! We ain’t finished yet…the recent Rose Report (the UK’s recent publication on the renewed primary curriculum the UK needs so badly – to prevent further riots) tells us that literacy is also:

“…the four strands of language – reading, writing, speaking and listening.”

The Scottish Government agrees – and introduces us to yet another literacy:

Come on, guys – give us a break!

They do…

If we look closely at the Scottish definition, we see an emphasis on “making decisions and problem-solving” – surely that deserves another literacy?

Actually, we can’t complain – this also makes sense! After all, wasn’t it Brian Cox who asked:

Is it enough to help children and adults to achieve literacy if this simply means they read only sufficiently well to be seduced by advertisers and tabloid newspapers?

Brian Cox (1998) – Literacy Is Not Enough: Essays on the Importance of Reading

This Critical Literacy is “critical” (sorry about that) – it touches on a whole range of abilities. As parents and teachers, abilities that we would love to see in all our kids.

Tell me if you disagree:

OK – so we may not have created any new literacies here but we have a whole load of abilities (or was that skills or competencies – or something else)…Don’t worry, we have more coming.

Obviously, all societies (you’d thunk) want to have “critical citizens” and all education systems want to create “critical thinkers” of their students. This is where our next set of literacies come from:

  • Socio-economic Literacy
  • Social Literacy
  • Mathematical Literacy (Numeracy was not “good” enough)
  • Scientific Literacy
  • Academic Literacy

And this is where we also see the “real” mushrooming:

Do I really have to explain all of them? There are many more besides, these days!

That having been said – I must admit, as a teacher, I do rather like the sound of “Educational Literacy”!

Now, probably around now you have begun to ask yourself:

Come on – that’s not entirely fair! Everyone should be entitled to have their “own” literacy – how else would so many academics justify their positions?

The problem is that another group of people began to step onto the literacy stage – you guessed it, all those “technology-lovers” and their “literacy claim” went something like this:

  • Literacy as a goal is necessary, but far from sufficient! 
  • Technology is everywhere, it is getting easier to use and it can help us learn more – faster than ever before! 
  • This technology is creating a “new breed of kid” – the Digital Native!

And, before you could say “where’s my delete key?” – it happened:

There you have it!

Gotcha! Not really – there was another group (or three)!

One group, obviously getting a bit fed up, began asking whether we really needed all these literacies. These people (and forgive the over-simplifications, if you are reading) basically started saying, “Wait a minute – we know that…”:

  • …there are multiple worlds and multiple ways of knowing (or habits of minds)
  • …information can be presented in multi-modal formats (with technology – graphics plus sound plus print)
  • …there are numerous literacy genres (e.g., fiction, nonfiction), situations (e.g., literacy at home vs. in school) and practices (e.g., using and assessing multiple sources of information or “inter-textuality”)

Let’s just start talking about “Mulitiple Literacies” – and have it done with it!

Mmmm, that makes sense, too…

The problem was that some buggars began causing more trouble – like those guys at the 21st Century Fluency Project (and, you know how much I love my “sardines”).

They noted:

And, explained their logic:

In a nutshell, while they were agreeing with the logic of Multiple Literacies, they were saying that:

  • What is important is how literacies “converge” to allow us to “do” something effectively.
  • It is when we see the “convergence of literacies” to “make or do” things that we talk of “fluency”
  • …and it is fluency that brings forth rewards, recognition and success in today’s world.

Not to be outdone, there were a few other guys who wanted to do what the Multiple Literacy bods had done – but under the label of “Learnacy” (Damn that Claxton bloke):

Essentially, this notion of Learnacy (the capacity to use, in real life and professional contexts, the skills and knowledge you have about how to learn; to be able and willing to go on learning from your own and others’ experience) – or in more common-sense terms:

  • the ability of “knowing what to do, when you don’t know what to do”

…did not really clash with the idea of Multiple Literacies or even the 21st Centuries Fluencies. They “worked” really well together – for teachers, students and (even) parents!

What really baked the noodle of many (more traditional) educators, however, was when Claxton told them:

  • Learning is LEARNABLE – we have a duty to “teach” it!

OMG! What are we going to do with the curriculum, the classroomthe tests?

  1. Hi Tony – What an amazing blog post – what I can’t really believe is that I’m the first commenter on it. Actually, that is quite concerning given that literacy is probably and I would say is the most central element of all educational practice. So you’d think we’d know what it means by now wouldn’t you? Here lies my point really that it might be best to stop trying to define it, as all we end up with is ‘multiliteracies’ along with plural everything else, like identities etc. Just to let you know I’m having a crack at this discussion through a different angle where I’m going to draw on different perspectives of understanding literacy as a means to better get to grips with literacy and the implications for classroom practice.

    Great blog Tony, really pleased to have discovered it.
    Best wishes

    • Thx Richard – for dropping in and dropping a comment, too. Yes – I think this is why I did this one, too. Like I said – I was more interested in the notion of Educational Literacies 😉

      Looking forward to your post 😉


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