"Fill In The Blank" Literacy



Science Literacy Requires Statistical Literacy. Talk by Milo Schield.
Google search of "literacy", page 17


It was a throw-away line. It didn't mean anything. Except, it meant everything about how our language has changed.

The tech reporter for CBC Saint John's Information Morning show was chatting with the host about police forces accessing information through cell phones. It is a new area, the reporter explained, where the courts haven't yet sorted out all the legalities. But it is also a reminder, the host pointed out, of how much information a pickpocket or thief might get from our phones. We don't seem aware of just how much personal data we store there, he said. Right, said the reporter. I mean, the host said, we think its just a phone. We don't think about all the other things it is. Right, said the reporter.

And then he said, "It's a literacy issue almost."



Health literacy, financial literacy, sports literacy, cultural literacy, computer literacy, critical literacy, political literacy, street literacy, arts literacy, visual literacy, media literacy, prose literacy, information literacy, digital literacy, environmental literacy, science literacy, physical literacy, statistical literacy, quantitative literacy... how-to-own-a-phone literacy.



It was a throw-away line. But it revealed that, finally, among the mainstream media, our most public voices, the word "literacy" means "understanding." It is the noun form of the verb, "to comprehend" or, perhaps, "to be competent with."


I know, I know. It's Wendell's weekly rant about literacy. Borrring.... *zzzzz*

But look at where we are, folks! And, you know what? Nobody did this to us. We got here one enthusiastic step at a time.

Here's a print exchange from 2004 that shows the imaginative, big-tent thinking that helped empty "literacy" of its earlier meanings.

First: ...I initially thought [literacy] was just about reading and writing, but I’ve come to accept UNESCO’s definition, which is to contribute effectively to your society’s development. I think that is closer to what literacy means to me now and I think those words are really important because if you’re not literate you can’t supposedly - and I believe this to be true—that you can’t effect positive change in your community. That’s how I define literacy now. That ability to communicate. Communication is a word that covers a lot of territory. What does communication mean if you have a power-engineering certificate in a pulp mill or if you are talking medical terminology in a hospital? That’s a different kind of literacy than what we normally call literacy. But this set of literacy skills is incredibly important to those learners if they want to effectively contribute. So that definition, in my mind, has become so wide, so encompassing of so many different skill sets. It is not the simple ABC stuff that I first thought literacy was all about.

Second: It really depends on the context.


First: Absolutely. Again that definition includes development of the community. Well, that’s a huge aspect of most people’s lives. What’s troubling is that a lot of people who aren’t effectively contributing don’t recognize that they are not.. But that’s another whole other issue.

Second: Even among people who are supposedly literate… [Conversation moves to workplace literacy.]


Let me do that again; not to mock but to clarify.

...I initially thought [literacy] was just about reading and writing, but [now I think it's about being able] to contribute effectively to your society’s development.

I'm not sure what that means since the speaker doesn't explain what they think might be barriers to contributing - nor, by the way, do I think people who can't read or write well are unable to contribute to their society. But the speaker believes this: because if you’re not literate you can’t supposedly - and I believe this to be true—that you can’t effect positive change in your community. That’s how I define literacy now. That ability to communicate.

That's a definite change: now "literacy" means "communication."

Well, isn't literacy part of communication, you ask, and vice versa?

Sure. But the terms aren't interchangeable. "Part of" isn't the same as. Baseball and hockey are part of sport, and sport is part of both baseball and hockey. But it's not sport we watch on Hockey Night in Canada, it's hockey. If it wasn't - if it was baseball - that'd be a problem for viewers.

The speaker notes that "Communication is a word that covers a lot of territory" but isn't troubled by that. In fact, in common with many big-tent thinkers, the speaker views this as a strength.

What does communication mean if you have a power-engineering certificate in a pulp mill or if you are talking medical terminology in a hospital? That’s a different kind of literacy than what we normally call literacy.

Quite so. Twenty years ago it would have seemed very odd to suggest the lack of an engineering certificate was a literacy deficit.

But this set of literacy skills is incredibly important to those learners [power plant workers?] if they want to effectively contribute.

Contribute... to power plants? I'm sorry. I don't mean to make fun. But this is clearly ridiculous!

So that definition [of literacy], in my mind, has become so wide, so encompassing of so many different skill sets. It is not the simple ABC stuff that I first thought literacy was all about.

I can't let that "simple" pass unnoticed. For some people, "ABC stuff" is not simple - it is life changing. That's something I would expect literacy workers to understand.


...Again that definition [of literacy] includes development of the community. Well, that’s a huge aspect of most people’s lives. What’s troubling is that a lot of people who aren’t effectively contributing don’t recognize that they are not.. But that’s another whole other issue.

Second: Even among people who are supposedly literate…

The best sense I can make of "people who are supposedly literate" is "people who can read and write adequately."

Let me be blunt. I believe this comes of being agreeable and imaginative, yes. But I also think it has to do with money and what happens when reading-writing literacy is forced into the marketplace to compete with other areas of learning or instruction (a.k.a., bringing business to the table).

Picture this: I do old fashioned literacy work, but you won't pay me just to help people learn to read and write. I say, literacy work can mean so much more. You say, well, I want to pay someone to train people to do XYZ. Can that be literacy work? Sure, I say. There's room for everybody. And so that's what I do - what I get paid to do. If someone still wants help with their reading, I'll try to find time on the weekends.

The importance of literacy work, in this new free-market world, is dependent on the context - whatever it is learners are becoming "literate" about, whatever word we add to " -literacy". Foremost among literacies are those government or business are most willing to fund. Hence the valuing of workplace literacy, so important to the business class. Hence the devaluing of non-school-focused family literacy, important only to parents and children.

And that's how it happens, how support for adults learning to read and write - that "simple ABC stuff" - gets left to volunteers and retirees while we pay staff in employee training programs and school-readiness centres.

After a decade of high profile promotion campaigns and conferences, accompanied with the marketing of literacy work, to be "literate" has come to mean "to fathom, to grasp, to cotton on to... something." Health literacy means understanding health. Media literacy means understanding media. Science literacy and financial literacy mean understanding science and finances. Cell phone literacy, unremarkably, means "understanding cell phones."

Now, tell me somebody. How on earth do we start to talk - to be heard - about literacy literacy?


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