Monday, April 20, 2015

What is Literacy?

My staff discussed "literacy" during our Friday PD session last week. One of our tasks was to write six beliefs about literacy. My beliefs are outlined below:

1. I believe that literacy is a basic term referring to the ability of an individual to use letters to communicate. 

The impetus for our discussion was a collection of articles that Alberta Education has been using to create their own definition of literacy. Currently, the Alberta Ed (2010) definition reads as the following:
"Literacy is acquiring, creating, connecting and communicating meaning in a wide variety of contexts". 

This definition is different from the Government of Alberta vision in 2009:

"Literacy is more than the ability to read and write. It involves the knowledge, skills and abilities—the competencies—that enable individuals to think critically, communicate effectively, deal with change and solve problems in a variety of contexts to achieve their personal goals, develop their knowledge and potential, and participate fully in society."
Both definitions stray from a classical perception of literacy. The root word of literacy comes from Latin word littera/litera meaning "letter." Quite literally, a literate person was "one who knows the letters." I am a bit of a traditionalist with language. I don't like when words are misused. If literacy is co-opted to this new meaning, how will we describe a literate person? What words will we use to identify a person who can read or write?

2. I believe that literacy has become a metaphor for an individual's knowledge of language and cultures. 

The 2009 definition speaks to this new metaphor; literacy is everything. The ability to do anything requires "literacy". The definition is describing intelligence or aptitude - not literacy. I am not saying that various "new literacies" such as technology literacy and art literacy are not important and valued skills for students to develop. Rather, I don't like using a misnomer like "literacy" to describe what the human mind does when it engages with a new tool or attempts to understand artistic impression.

This new concept of literacy has gained credence thanks to philosophers like Paulo Friere who argue against dichotomizing reading and writing from knowing (2005).  Of course, Friere's approach to knowledge was very much that of a counter-culturalist attacking a system which he perceived (rightly) to subjugate large groups of people. My problem with his work is not that he is incorrect, but that he, ironically, has "named" the wrong tool for education: literacy.

3. I believe that Alberta Education's definition of literacy is too broad to be effectively developed in my classroom.

4. I believe that literacy can be improved by identifying its constituent components and teaching these skills - not by promoting "literacy" as some kind of holistic skill.

Most language arts educators are familiar with the whole language-phonics debate. On one side we have education philosophers (like Friere) who argue that language cannot be reduced to parts and must be viewed holistically. On the other, we have language teachers who argue it is more effective to teach students specific concepts. Basically, it is a battle between top-down constructivists and bottom up behaviourists. This topic is worthy of a lengthy discussion, but suffice to say it is easier to teach behaviourally even though we naturally learn constructively. The classroom is not a natural learning environment; it is an artificial construct designed by the teacher. Behaviourist approaches are generally more successful in this type of space. The library or lab is a better space for constructive inquiry.

A similar debate has been fought over math instruction. A new "inquiry" approach to math has promoted critical thinking and problem solving over rote drill and math practice. This has been great for the brightest students in each class, but has led to a whole generation of students who must use a calculator to solve basic facts.

The problem with promoting literacy as this educational catch-all term is that it is too complex to be taught in a classroom. Certainly, language is learned holistically. The brain adds bits here and bits there, eventually forming knowledge. Equally certain, is that a teacher cannot teach in this manner. Teachers need identifiable "skills" that they can focus on. Without this chunking, I worry that language teachers may be heading down the same rabbit hole that their math counterparts fell into several years ago.

5. I believe that students must learn how to read and write in a variety of contexts.

6. I believe that basic reading and writing skills (such as capitalization, sentence building, grammar, and punctuation) must be practised and assessed in all classes - not just Language Arts class.

I agree with Alberta Education's cross-curricular approach to literacy. In an ideal world, all core curriculum would include outcomes related to reading and writing for that particular subject. Outcome-driven assessment has forced most science and math educators to abandon any type of assessment based on the quality of a student's written work. This must be stopped. Students must see and understand that the rules of language are present in all classrooms. This could be accomplished in a variety of ways. Our school could create a list of acceptable standards for written work which could be posted in every room (eg: All sentences must begin with a capital letter. All sentences require end punctuation.) Or, each department could sit down and identify the key literacy outcomes that they will assess in the classrooms, immediately giving these outcomes "currency" in the minds of (some of) their students. Even better, Alberta Education could mandate these competencies. The key is that students must begin to understand that language is everywhere, but that each context uses it somewhat differently.


Alberta Education (2010). Literacy First: A Plan for Action

Freire, P. (2005). FIRST LETTER: Reading the World/reading the word. (pp. 31-47) Perseus Books, LLC.

Government of Alberta. (2009). Living Literacy: A Literacy Framework for Alberta’s Next Generation Economy.