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,
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?
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?
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
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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