History of Literacy

What is literacy, and why does it matter?

Literacy has never been a fixed stable concept.  In the distant past, literacy meant the capacity to speak and sing, to use spoken language eloquently for public purposes.  As recently as 100 years ago in the United States, the ability to sign one's own name on a land deed or bank check was the socially accepted mark of literacy.  Merely being able to mark an "X" on a deed at times made one literate.

Literacy, the ability to sign one's complete name in a registry book, was a prerequisite for voting during the late 19th century in the United States.  This requirement kept many rural and poor adult citizens from voting.  A similar literacy requirement for voting was extended into the 1960's, though by this time voters had to pass a reading and writing exam.  Those individuals most likely to be excluded from the right to vote were rural, poor, people of color, and women.

In the 1990's, recent federal and state welfare reform coupled with English-Only laws once again threaten to deny U.S. citizens and residents, along with their families and children, basic human rights unless they can demonstrate a certain abstract level of English language literacy.  This concept of literacy can be further complicated when people speak of computer literacy, workplace literacy, school literacy, bureaucratic literacy, bilingual literacy, etc.

Young learners of reading and writing can be likewise disadvantaged by the social complications of literacy.  Children are not only affected by their parents' literacy and social standing, but may also be denied basic rights and dignities in their literate dealings with other children, with schooling, with teachers, and with everyday life.  We have all known children who were tracked into the "slow" learner class, who were held back a grade, who couldn't read English well enough to succeed in math or science, or even read comic books--although they could tell stories as well as any child.  Does telling stories count as literacy?  Should it?  Can you use storytelling and story listening as ways to learn and teach reading and writing to others?

Quantitative Definition of Literacy

According to this definition, a person is considered to be literate when s/he can read at a certain grade level (e.g. 6th grade).  This grade level literacy can theoretically be measured by standardized tests.  Remember those standardized tests in grade school?  These are, in part, literacy tests.  Similar tests are given to adult literacy and English as a Second Language learners.  A limitation of this definition is that it does not account for a person's ability to function in different social and human contexts.  If someone can communicate in their environment, shouldn't that be considered as literate?

Qualitative Definitions of Literacy

Functional Literacy

According to the functional definition, a person is considered literate when s/he has the ability to function within a predetermined context.  In many cases, the context is not selected by the learner.  Instead, socioeconomics, race, gender, or other factors may dictate the context of instruction.  For example, it may have been determined that learners need to complete specific tasks, write resumes, fill out job applications, or operate a certain piece of equipment.  One problem with this definition is that it transforms the learner into an object.  The educational context, within which learning will occur, has already been determined.

Liberatory (or Humanistic) Literacy

Building on the work of Paulo Freire, this definition names a person as literate when s/he has become politicized.  A politicized person is able to manipulate language (speaking, reading, writing, etc.) so as to comprehend his/her own self-identity in the context in which s/he functions.  The literate person (child or adult) does not learn to function in a predetermined context, but rather how to use language to function in different, multiple contexts.  The learner, together with the educator, decides the content of literate functioning, or at the very least has valued input regarding what is taught and what is learned.  This approach allows the learner to determine what they feel a comfortable level of literacy is and whether or not they are at that point or not.

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