"The whole movement of life is learning" (Krishnamurti). "To be an act of knowing, then, the adult literacy process must engage the learners in the constant problematizing of their existential situations" (Freire). "Once you learn to read, you will be forever free" (Douglass). "I can learn anything I have the desire to learn" (White, S.G.).

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Still Trying to Define Literacy

To me, literacy has always been a word that is easily defined. Based on my vocabulary, literacy has always been basically the ability to read, write and verbally communicate with people. The past two weeks of class have definitely challenged my "basic" definition, however the question of literacy has been troubling me for the past few months.

Last week my word was Cultural/Social literacy, it was in our reading and it came to me because of a conversation that I had recently with my Dad. My Dad has recently started tutoring adults who cannot, or have limited, writing and reading skills. The program is completely voluntary and free to people that want to participate, when my Dad first started the tutoring I asked him why these adults had chosen to join the program and learn to read and write now at this stage in their lives. One woman wanted to be able to read along with the hymnal at her church, another woman had a 7 year old daughter who she could no longer help with her homework, etc. The one person that I found the most interesting was a man who had just found out that he was illiterate (by society's standards). He's in his mid-thirties, and had always held a steady job (mostly, fast food, stocking, or construction). He grew up and lived in a low-income neighborhood in Richmond and although he hadn't finished high school, he was considered one of the smarter people in his family and neighborhood because he always had a job. I'm not sure of the exact details, however he recently took a literacy test to evaluate his reading and writing and his results showed that he had a reading writing level of a young elementary school student ( I don't know the exact age or level). For all of these years, he has been labeled as smart and literate in his community, now because of a test he is categorized as somewhat illiterate. Is he really illiterate though? In his culture he is considered literate; he communicates with his family, co-workers, and employers. He's always been able to hold a job, which his low level of reading and writing never affected. This situation brought me back to thinking about what literacy, or being literate, really means. I can't confidently define the word literacy anymore, it's a much broader word than I always thought that it was. However, I like the idea that there's not blanket definition for what seems to be a huge concept.


  1. Hey Lauren! I'm with you! I'm still wrapping my head around the ephemeral concept of adult literacy and what it's supposed to mean. Once I think know, the concept morphs into something else; something that can be called culture, behavior, development, learning, society, etc. I actually hoped for a blanket definition of the word. I've come to understand that it encompasses many aspects of meaning, but I also believe that by not having one is doing a disservice to the all the millions of people who are not in the field of education.

    1. Ah, Carol, But if we have too narrow a definition, that also is a disservice to those who are in our adult literacy classrooms, yes? Hang in there...We will reach clarity, though it will take some good constructivist effort to get there!


  2. We are all aligned. Through this class I have learned to see many words in various ways. Like Discourse and Empowerment, Literacy has many sub-groups. I am sure we will explore new definitions of literacy as we continue in class.


  3. It's interesting to think about what we have traditionally thought about as literacy, and turn that idea inside out. We assume that all learning comes from being reading-literate, but that's not the reality, is it? I grew up in a community of immigrants who were not traditionally book literate, but who all held jobs and had families and went to school and paid their bills. Our discussions, and this blog post, have made me think about that larger literacy picture! ---Caitlin

  4. Hello Lauren and all. Lauren--of course, on one level, that classic definition of literacy is fine: "the ability to read, write and verbally communicate with people." And once we are in agreement as to whose text, whose language, whose genre counts, then teaching skills such as fluency, comprehension and vocabulary, is extremely important. Maybe all this "unpacking" is an exercise in futility. After all, hasn't society already decide whose literacy counts? Well, stay tuned.... :)

  5. We live in a society that is VERY centered on the written word. I think that is why we automatically associate the word literacy with these discrete skills. Perhaps in his community, this young man has all of the skills that he needs to be considered literate. However, outside of his neighborhood, he might be confronted with obstacles that he cannot overcome due to his limited reading and writing skills.

    Recently, I attended a workshop on teaching strategies for oral learners, which focused on education in cultures who rely predominantly on oral tradition. The facilitator first taught us a few simple stories from a text and asked us to get into groups and tell them to each other, not memorized word for word and not looking at the text. For many of us, it was very difficult. We really wanted those visual cues! However, we were told that someone from an oral culture would pick up on the story with not nearly as much repetition. Therefore, because we do not possess all the skills that we need to participate in their preferred form of learning, we may be considered illiterate by them!


Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on this post. Diverse opinions are welcomed.