Defining Literacy

She said don't I know you
From the cinematographer's party,
I said who am I
To blow against the wind,
I know what I know
Paul Simon

I wrote this in a fury early this morning - comes of reading the web before breakfast instead of listening to Glenn Campbell and waking up slow.

It's always a bad sign, I think, when someone says they want to define "literacy". It means that, whatever else they say, they're going to insist literacy is not "just" reading and writing.


This is, I think, a new phenomenon. Before the 1960s, I think, to be literate - to be
lettered - meant one of two things. Either it meant being able to read and write, or it meant having read culturally important works like Shakespear or Faulkner. Most of the time, it was pretty clear which definition an author intended.

But then a "new literacy / -ies" came along. Too soon, any number of communicative acts were associated with the noun "literacy". Sometimes, it seemed "literacy" had nothing at all to do with letters and written texts. This third, fluid use of "literacy" makes my head hurt. It also interferes with my ability to attract funding and support for adults and children who want to get better at reading and writing words.

Anyway, here's this morning's rant....

What I said every day, until friends bade me stop, was that when everything counts as "literacy", it will be the most popular, the most fashionable, the least expensive, the least troublesome forms of communication that receive attention, funding, and support.

This morning, on the site of a man who calls himself "the literacy adviser", I read:

The definition of 'literacy' in [the U.K.'s] Curriculum for Excellence is “the set of skills which allows an individual to engage fully in society and in learning, through the different forms of language which society values and finds useful."
And I said to myself - because I have no cat to complain to - "language" is a pretty slippery term. A lot depends on how you define it. Then, I read the next bullet:

The Literacy framework recognises that the meaning of ‘text’ has to include the huge range of texts with which we engage on a daily basis, and that we should use a range of texts to reflect this in our learning and teaching.

Yes, well. "Range of texts" is a complete give-away, isn't it. The next bullet read:

We live in a society where the image is becoming the dominant means of communication, and where once we used pictures to illustrate our written texts, increasingly we are using written text to illustrate the pictures.

I don't know if I agree with that. In fact, I know I don't. But nevermind. What I want to draw attention to is this passage:

Most of us engage with moving image texts more than any other form of text in any given day, so the development of literacy skills in young people should recognise that fact.

There it is. "Text" and "language" have come to mean "moving images". And literacy, one supposes, is as much about appreciating cinematography as it is decoding grouped letters for meaning. Or, as he puts it, "developing the set of skills which will enable [learners] to engage critically with the range of narratives which are in the world." There's that "range" again: a range dominated by "moving image texts".

Now, in all fairness, the gentleman whose website I took this from also describes himself also as a "Teacher, Education Manager and Independent Learning Consultant with a particular interest in Literacy and Moving Image Education." So, there's a certain logic in him drawing connections between written words and film.

But, this isn't literacy.... Surely, this isn't literacy!

Look. I know I have no university degree. The government doesn't hire me to consult - has had second thoughts about hiring me for anything. But I do work in this field. Almost every day I interact with someone who can't read very well. Sometimes they can scarcely read at all. Sometimes they can read a little bit, but read far too poorly to do clerical work or pass a written test. Sometimes they read moderately well, but feel unable to write notes and letters.

These people, these adults and children, can watch movies. I promise you, television and feature films don't trouble them. Youtube is not a mystery. Video is not a source of social embarrassment or a barrier to health or employment.

They want and need to get better at reading and writing text. Real text. "Text" as we have for decades understood that term.

Not everybody has to be a supporter of literacy.

But, at the very least, they could have the decency to honour the meaning of the word.

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