Beyond definition - central concepts for understanding literacy

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Beyond definition - central concepts for understanding literacy

Text of Beyond definition - central concepts for understanding literacy




    Abstract Direct denitions prove decient for understanding the complexity of lit-eracy. To examine the use of reading and writing, how it is used, and how it isappropriated, this paper looks at literacy in terms of mediation, multiple literacies,context and participation. A main argument is that access to literacy is accomplishedthrough interaction with other readers and writers and the appropriation of discourses.These discussions articulate further considerations that explore the consequences ofliteracy, how it is learned, and the notion of practice. It concludes with a look at some ofthe practical implications of these conceptualizations.

    Resume AU DELA` DE LA DEFINITION : CONCEPTS CENTRAUX POURCOMPRENDRE LALPHABETISATION Les denitions directes se montrentinsusantes pour la comprehension de la complexite de lalphabetisation. Andexaminer lusage de la lecture et lecriture, comment on lemploie, et comment on selapproprie, cet article conside`re lalphabetisation en termes de mediation, dalphabe-tisations multiples, de contexte et de participation. Un argument principal est quelacce`s a` lalphabetisation se fait par linteraction avec dautres personnes lisant etecrivant et par lappropriation de discours. Ces discussions forment larticulation deconsiderations ulterieures explorant les consequences de lalphabetisation et commentelle est apprise, ainsi que la notion de pratique. Larticle conclut avec un regard surcertaines des implications pratiques de ces conceptualisations.

    Zusammenfassung JENSEITS DER DEFINITIONEN: GRUNDKONZEPTEZUM VERSTANDNIS DER ALPHABETISIERUNG Direkte Denitionen habensich als untauglich zum Verstandnis der Komplexitat von Alphabetisierungsprozessenerwiesen. Dieser Artikel untersucht die Aneignung, die Verwendung und den Umgangmit Lese- und Rechtschreibfahigkeiten unter Berucksichtigung von Mediation, multi-pler Alphabetisierung, Kontext und Partizipation. Die Hauptthese ist, dass der Zugangzur Alphabetisierung vor allem durch die Interaktion mit anderen Lesenden undSchreibenden sowie durch die Teilhabe an bestimmten Diskursen erreicht wird. Imweiteren stellt der Artikel Uberlegungen zur Auswirkung der Alphabetisierung, zuDurchfuhrungsweisen und Praxiskonzepten an und schliet mit einem Blick auf diepraktischen Implikationen der vorgestellten Konzepte.

    Resumen MAS ALLA DE LA DEFINICION: CONCEPTOS CENTRALES PARACOMPRENDER LA CAPACIDAD DE LECTOESCRITURA Esta comprobadoque las deniciones directas no son sucientes para comprender la complejidad de lacapacidad de lectoescritura. Con el n de examinar el uso de la lectura y la escritura, elmodo en el que se la usa y como ha sido apropiada, este trabajo enfoca la capacidad delectoescritura en terminos de mediacion, multiples alfabetismos, contexto y participa-cion. Uno de los argumentos principales es que el acceso a la lectoescritura se logra

    International Review of Education (2008) 54:523538 Springer 2008DOI 10.1007/s11159-008-9104-1

  • mediante la interaccion con otros lectores y escritores y la apropiacion de discursos.Estas discusiones expresan consideraciones adicionales que exploran las consecuenciasde la capacidad de lectoescritura, de su adquisicion y de la nocion de practica. Concluyecon una mirada sobre algunas de las consecuencias practicas de estas conceptualizaci-ones.

    Literacy and its consequences

    Several authors have pointed out that literacy is hard to dene, notingthat direct denitions prove decient for understanding its complexity(Baynham 1995; Gra 1987; Kalman 1993). In harmony with this line ofthinking, this paper looks at literacy in terms of mediation, multiple litera-cies, context and participation in light of discussions pertaining to the con-sequences of literacy, how it is learned, and the notion of practice. Ratherthan simply comparing dierent denitions of what it means to know howto read and write, questions are raised about how concepts and issues areused and related. Given the depth and breadth of the eld, I have tried toarticulate those ideas that have been the most useful to me in my ownwork rather than present an objective recounting or exhaust the ongoingtheoretical discussions.

    It is believed by many researchers and policy makers that literacy is thestarting point of development (Pattison 1982; Street 1984). For centuries(Gra 1987), some have considered reading and writing key for achievingdemocracy, economic growth and stability, social harmony and, mostrecently, competitiveness in world markets. School has been promoted as theinstitution responsible for the education of new readers and writers who,according to this view, will learn the basic skills necessary for entering thework force, vocational or professional training and, eventually, placement inthe job market (Levine 1986).

    524 Judy Kalman


  • Besides employability, there is a long-standing conviction that literacy willpromote personal improvement and enlightenment as well. For example, JohnEaton, the Commissioner of Education in the United Status in 1882 addressedthe members of the Union League Club in New York, pitching for money tonance public education. He argued in favor of the use of federal funding todevelop public education in the territories, the south, and in some of themajor cities. In his presentation, titled Illiteracy and its Social, Political andIndustrial Eects, he posited that it was necessary to ponder the evil causedby illiteracy and work towards its eradication, noting the following impor-tant eects of knowing how to read (and write): literacy, he said, civilizes;insures democracy; creates prosperity; and enlightens and dignies.

    Another consequence of literacy has centered on the ethical developmentof the individual. Several authors have noted that knowing how to read andwrite is often linked with moral fortitude (Pattison 1982; Stanley 1972).Scribner observed that some societies bestow special virtues upon the literateperson, considering her to be honorable, spiritually enlightened, cultured andin a state of grace (Scribner 1988: 77). She further notes that these selfenhancing aspects associated with the ability to read and write are oftengiven a cognitive interpretation, and it is assumed that both concrete think-ing and learning diculties are attributable to illiteracy. Literacy denedsimply as the basic activities of decoding print has been related to height-ened moral and intellectual categories (Gra 2008).

    While it was assumed that knowing how to read and write were synony-mous with all of the above, only recently have educators and researcherscentered their attention on what reading and writing means or to how for-mal education processes facilitate or hinder learning. At dierent times inhistory a literate person has been dened as someone being able to:

    1. sign his/her name2. read/write a simple sentence describing his/her daily activities3. read and write, by his/her self-report (not based on a test)4. pass a written reading comprehension test at a level comparable to that

    achieved by an average 4th grade student5. engage in all those activities in which literacy is required for eective

    functioning in his/her community.1

    These characterizations of being literate are centered on the most rudi-mentary aspects related to reading, writing and basic education. In somepolicy documents, the emphasis on literacy as an individual trait and as apanacea for social ills has given way to a recognition of its social dimen-sions and its limitations as an independent catalyst for development andchange (Torres 2000). However, a longstanding version of literacy as a trans-formational force for cognitive, economic, and social development continuescurrent in international and national documents. This view of literacy iswhat Street (1984) has called an autonomous model of literacy, a paradigm

    525Beyond Definition

  • that conceives literacy as an independent variable, with context-free transfor-mative eects.

    Two recent denitions illustrate some of the many assumptions underlyingliteracy that resonate with the above. The rst one is from Bolivia and thesecond one from Brazil. Both are included in a recent international literacypolicy document (OEI 20072012).

    1. Literacy is understood as the theoretical and practical knowledge thatallow for sucient mastery of reading and arithmetic and their use forones further development.

    2. Literacy is understood to be the rst step towards returning to schoolfor young people and adults.

    Several important premises are implicit in the rst denition: it assumesthat literacy is an individual accomplishment and a rst step for furtherlearning. The rst denition supposes that reading and writing are to bemastered; without specifying what this might mean or involve. The secondone clearly links literacy with schooling, assuming that reading and writingis the path back to formal education for under schooled youth and adults. Apossible interpretation of this statement is that literacy (understood here aslearning the most rudimentary aspects of reading and writing) is a basic pre-requisite type of knowledge to be further developed at school.

    Pattison (1982) summarizes both the economic and moral consequencesattributed to literacy discussed above with what he calls a dogma character-ized by four axioms:

    1. Literacy is equivalent to skill in reading and writing2. Individuals who are literate by this standard are more cultured or civilized

    than those who are not3. That the skills of reading and writing should be propagated among poor

    people as a rst step in their economic and social development4. That skills of reading and writing should be preserved and expanded at

    home as a chief means of protecting democracy, moral values, an