8/13/2019 Autonomous Model of Literacy acquisition
0 1Levels and Autonomous
THE AUTONOMOUS MODEL OF LITERACY
Patrick J. Finn
Nineteenth century anthropologists divid ed the worlds societies into two categories: civilized andsavage. Civilized societies are large, diverse, logical, scientific, technological, have a sense of history, and
are regulated by impersonal laws. Savage societies are small, homogeneous, regulated by face-to-faceencounters rather than impersonal laws, and encourage solidarity. Twentieth century anthropologists keptthe same categories but renamed them: Literate societies and oral societies.
Written texts have many advantages over spoken texts: 1. You can examine two parts of a lengthytext side by side. You cannot easily do that while listening to an epic poem. 2. Written texts enable us tofind inconsistencies that might go undetected in an oral culture. 3. Writing permits us to check facts andsources, and so there is less tolerance for inaccuracy. 4. Speakers usually have some familiarity with theiraudiences. They can make allusions to the their audiences knowledge, beliefs, and opinions rather than statethem explicitly, and so much of the meaning of spoken texts is carried by allusion to shared knowledge,
beliefs and opinions. A writer, on the other hand, often cannot gauge the distant readers knowledge, beliefs,and opinions, and so they are more likely to state facts explicitly, to make descriptions and explanations more
precise, and to reason arguments in greater detail.
During Platos lifetime literacy in an alphabetic script became widespread in Greece. As Greecetransformed from an oral to a literate society, philosophy, science, and history burgeoned. Its society becamelarge, diverse, logical, scientific, and technological. Eric Havelock proposed that literacy was necessary forthese changes to take place and that these changes were inevitable because of widespread literacy . Its asmall step from believing that just as literacy causes a society to transform from an oral (savage) society to aliterate (civilized) society, literacy will cause the unlettered child to transform into a civilized person afully participating members of a literate society. Gee called this the a utonomous model of literacy
Low levels of literacy are associated with juvenile delinquents, convicts, people on welfare, highschool dropouts, teenage parents, the chronically unemployed, and people having minimum wage jobs.Higher levels of literacy are associated with solid, successful citizens. This observation leads many to theconclusion that illiteracy causes social ills and literacy cures them, and that if children of the unemployed,the underemployed, and those employed at minimum wage jobs learned to read and write, they would, like
Plato's Greeks, discover inconsistencies in their thinking and begin to engage in higher levels of thought. Asa result, they would learn to deal with and become part of powerful institutions such as schools, biggovernment, corporations, and professions that are built on and require high levels of literacy. They would,in short, get jobs or get better jobs, and poverty would disappear.
The trouble is of course that basic literacy does not lead automatically to higher forms of thinkingeither in societies or in individuals. Highly successful literacy campaigns took place shortly after theReformation in Sweden under the auspices Lutheran church. Protestant areas in France, Germany, andSwitzerland reached near universal literacy by 1800. None of the litany of higher cognitive functions,modernization, or progress happened in these places. It was literacy for domestication and thats w hat theygot domestication, not a riot of intellectual inquiry and progress.
All children who achieve a fourth level of reading can be said to be literate regardless of whetherthey are from poor, working-class, affluent-professional, or elite homes. Until fourth grade there are class-
based differences in reading scores, but they are small. Around fifth grade the reading performance ofstudents begin to diverge along class lines and the differences in their reading ability go far beyonddifferences in the ability to sound out words or write sentences. This is best explained in terms of the levelsof literacy students are taught and the levels of literacy that are commonplace in their communities
The lowest level is the performative level . It is simply the ability to "sound out" words and turnsentences that are typical of informal face-to-face conversation into writing. The next level is the functionallevel . It is the ability to meet the reading and writing demands of an average day of an average adult.Reading USA Today , filling out a job application, understanding directions for using a household gadget, andwriting a note to leave on the kitchen table for your spouse are some examples of functional literacy. Thethird level is the informational level . It is the ability to read and absorb the kind of knowledge that is
8/13/2019 Autonomous Model of Literacy acquisition
associated with school textbooks and to write examinations and reports based on such knowledge. Thefourth level is essay-text level . The essay is public rather than private. It is not addressed to any individualand the identity of the author is unimportant. It is intended for a large audience with whom the author is not
personally acquainted. The focus is on the content. Facts are stated explicitly; descriptions and explanationsare detailed, and arguments are spelled out precisely. It is revised and edited to eliminate redundancy.Unstated and frequently unconscious assumptions and implications are made explicit; inconsistentassumptions and implications are confronted and resolved, and as a result, new knowledge is created.Modern science, government, politics, economics, literature, art, and language were developed using essay-
text literacy. Powerful institutions depend on it in their day-to-day operations and development.The Autonomous Model of Literacy is a seemingly common sense idea that if you teach a person toread and write (performative and functional literacy skills) he or she will naturally acquire informationaland essay-text literacy as s/he continues in school. Generations of teachers have learned from experiencethat this is not true, and yet it seems as if it ought to be true, and so we think, "We haven't made them literateenough," and we pour on more p honics and writing worksheets and blame children for whom it is not true.
Discussion:1. Some authors have associated performative and functional literacy with working-class schools
and communities; informational literacy with the middle-class schools and communities; and essay-textliteracy with the affluent-professional and elite class schools and communities. How does the concept
comport to your experience as a teacher, student, parent, or citizen?
2. If you find the autonomous model of literacy valid, how do you account for the fact that, while itis not uncommon for working-class students and adults to acquire some facility with informational literacy, itis unusual for them to acquire essay-text literacy?