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E801: Week 1: Action 1.3: What is Literacy?

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Week 1: Activity 1.3: 'What is Literacy?': Consequences for Practice and Policy

Task 1: My Thoughts

Functional Literacy - learning to read and write for the purpose of work and training. An economic objective that will vary from culture to culture. To be functionally literate in the UK would be very different to being functionally literate in a rural area of India. In these two contexts the government would have different objectives in legislating or producing guidelines for educational institutions. In the UK, an adult who was having literacy difficulties would face a daily barrage of paperwork that they would struggle to understand and thus their self-perception would diminish; in rural India this would not pose as much of a concern as they would not face as much written information.

Cultural Literacy - the ability to understand a broad set of knowledge which defines the culture of the area in which the person is living or has come from. Everything from road signs, to slang, to historical references. This does not depend on educational levels. Taking into account a person's cultural literacy can assist a teacher to help them choose appropriate reading material. Policy-makers who closely prescribe texts and methods for literacy development can disadvantage learners who are unfamiliar with the cultural context and will need to first understand this before they can understand the text.

Critical Literacy - the ability to be able to engage with a text, think about it, discuss it, apply it to your own life and argue with it. I regard this as a developmental process which can begin with young children engaging with images and discussing them. Synthetic phonics and the literacy hour have been criticised as leading to children who can read effectively but do not chose to do so because they do not enjoy it. The prescription of the method by which they are taught does not lead to them engaging with the texts. Hirsch (1987) thought that education for the young should focus on content so that all learners could achieve cultural literacy.

Hirsch, E. D. Jr.(1987) Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Literacy Standards - are used to describe a literate person at various educational levels. The UK government have been criticised as equating the increase in points scores on tests to an increase in standards achieved by primary school pupils.


Literacy Crises - when the literacy achievements (or lack of them) come to public attention and force the government or policy makers to change pedagogies to satisfy public opinion. This link to sociological and political issues can cause change or lack of change despite the actual circumstances. In the UK only a small proportion of teaching involved whole book methods but when the attention of the public was drawn to literacy levels, the government discouraged this approach. In NZ the whole book method was widely praised and brought prestige and money to the country so the government ignored research reports that suggested that phonics may help improve literacy levels.

Task 2: Literacy: In Search of a Paradigm

Basic literacy skills must be emphasised over other literacy skills
Technical skills / experimental psychology

We must emphasise phonics based approaches rather than whole language approaches for early literacy development
Technical skills / experimental psychology
Ideological process - the dominant approach at the moment

We must prioritise higher literacy achievement for boys
Political purposes - men are still main wage-earner in our society, reinforces cultural stereotype
Social psychology / social anthropology

We need to use mixed methods and a variety of literacy programmes rather than one literacy programme
Could be psycholinguistic depending on methods used (cannot separate graphophonic, syntactic and semantic)
Probably sociolinguistic when writing for different purposes

Literacy difficulties must be addressed so that employers will have literate employees
Functional literacy
Political purposes - government wants to keep support of business sector
Human capital theory - people need to invest in themselves to make themselves more employable
Social anthropology

Teaching the decoding text should be our main priority, because literacy standards are falling
Technical literacy/experimental psychology, functional literacy, cultural literacy (our society perceives the need for 100% literacy)
Political purposes -  Government under public and media pressure to raise standards
Social anthropology

My initial field, biochemistry, research was paradigm-driven and I have found it challenging to come to terms with the debates and disputes in educational research. In order to justify an area (and thus funding) for research, educationalists have to prove that their idea is valid and different from other ideas. In my opinion this leads to disconnected and disparate research and not to the joined-up thinking that is required to examine an area such as literacy where it is so complex and inter-related so I believe I tend to agree with Rassool (2009) that literacy needs to be examined as a regionalised field of enquiry.

So much of teaching in universities now concentrates on giving the students alternative perspectives of their courses so that those who work best once they have an overview of the whole picture can see this at the start of a course; and those who prefer the course to work from the detail upwards can also do this. It works well when both learning styles are suited. Students are also encouraged to bring their life experiences into the course and these are valued.

Surely both of these also apply to learning literacy skills. Some learners like to see the whole picture and then break it down into parts. My daughters both loved reading words by 'look and say' and then breaking them down into sounds. My son could not always do this and spent more time going the other way and building up words from the phonemes. All of them loved having their experiences valued and pictures of their experiences made into books with writing underneath for them to read to friends and relatives.

Rassool, N. (1999) 'Literacy: in Search of a Paradigm' in in Soler, J., Fletcher-Campbell, F. & Reid, G. (eds.) Understanding Difficulties in Literacy Development: Issues and Concepts, London, Sage.



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