What Makes Us Literate These Days?

I love Twitter, because little nuggets continue to flow through my stream that stretch my thinking. One of those came from Scott Meech yesterday:

Great question, Scott! I would be interested in knowing more about the workshop Scott was attending. How did they define “literacy”? It seems the word is popping up all over the place. Michele Martin and Tony Krarrer have a new blog out that I follow called Work Literacy which asks good questions about the skills today’s workers need. Googling “literacy” gives you over 43 million hits, and the first is Wikipedia‘s definition, which states:

The traditional definition of literacy is considered to be the ability to read and write, or the ability to use language to read, write, listen, and speak. In modern contexts, the word refers to reading and writing at a level adequate for communication, or at a level that lets one understand and communicate ideas in a literate society, so as to take part in that society. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has drafted the following definition: “Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning to enable an individual to achieve his or her goals, to develop his or her knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in the wider society.”

Scott’s comment suggests – at least to me – a tie-in between “literacy” and what many call “digital literacy”. Are they one and the same now? Joan Vinall-Cox posted recently on “visual literacy.” How does that fit in? These questions are of interest to me as I am gearing up to lead a new Faculty Learning Community on Redefining Literacy for the 21st Century. The word Literacy is being used on multiple levels to mean different things, and that can cause confusion. I liked what Laura Blankenship said last week:

“I get the feeling that we’re trying to pidgeonhole, to say that learning is this or that, that literacy is this or that, instead of looking at what’s out there for people to engage with and figure out how to leverage that for learning.”

The reason I like what Laura said is that it keeps “learning” central. I really do not yet know the answer to what makes us literate today, and look forward to researching it with my team. Yet, I feel that literacy has evolved beyond the ability to read, write, listen and speak, and that at some level, Scott’s question as to why more did not bring laptops to the literacy workshop resonates with me. I would be interested in what you in the edublogosphere think about this – as it can help frame our start-up towards researching this topic.

{Photo Credit: thevoicewithin}

6 thoughts on “What Makes Us Literate These Days?

  1. Interesting food for thought. I like the emphasis on learning, but the comments about the specific equipment, i.e., laptop are also interesting. I wonder how long it will be before that represents and outmoded form of “literacy” or considered “old school” by those using their iPhones and other hand-held devices.

    In regard to visual literacy, I see that playing an ever increasing role. I would extend that to multi-media literacy as we try to communicate more in less space and time. Using the combined power of specific media is a form of “literacy” and perhaps the highest. Telling a story in a few words, with a limited number of images and sounds which convey information beyond background music require real skill.

    I look forward to further dialog on “literacy” and hope to improve my own.


  2. I agree with Britt and Bud, and I want to recommend Dan Roam’s “Back of the Napkin” for learning about, and how to use, visual literacy. I’m reading it, and practicing his methods, and am very deeply impressed. I recommend it.

  3. Kia ora Britt!

    An interesting post. Communication certainly seems to be the key theme here. I wonder if it’s a matter of category.

    Suppose we came across a human civilisation, hitherto unknown. No one, except them, would be able to understand their language. No one, except them, would be able to understand their symbolisms – call it writing. Would we deem them to be literate or not?

    It would be pompously presumptive to call them illiterate, though we would have no idea the depth and breadth of their own communications (language, writing) until we understood something of it. I’m assuming that there would be some commonality (ideas, objects, emotions, behaviours) that would permit some points of contact to be made so that communication experts could start some strategy of interpretation (I’m using the term communication experts in a broad sense here).

    But supposing the civilisation was not of the human kind. Arthur C Clarke is purported to have believed there would be less than 1% commonality between human civilization and any so-called alien civilization in their connected understandings of ideas, objects, emotions, behaviours etc. He felt that the severe lack of this would be one of the biggest barriers to making any headway at all in interactive communication. Despite any obvious intelligence, language, and ability to communicate with themselves, Clarke asserted that communication between them and us would be almost impossible.

    Today we debate about the drifting of language, pour scorn on new words and new spellings of old words, and in particular, pour scorn on the use of text language when it comes to assessing literacy. The recent debate on this clearly showed the inability of examiners to understand otherwise literate students.

    I believe that literacy is how we define it on the continuum of ability to communicate. This can be either in speech or in writing, by whatever means an individual uses to perform these. But we can only do this to any useful degree if there is commonality between the parties. That commonality between humans who speak and write in a particular language is essential before we can make any reasonable judgement about literacy.

    Given that soon there may well be a diverse range of platforms from which literacy can be defined, we may well have to embrace a new paradigm when it comes to understanding what ‘literacy’ is about. The ability to adapt and learn new language skills, and the proficiency of this, could well be what is seen as literacy in the future. The literate person could well be deemed one who has the ability to adapt and learn new literacy skills rather than just one who has an assessable proficiency in literacy at any particular level.

    Ka kite
    from Middle-earth

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