[Robert Tinajero for English 6319: Dr. Helen Foster]
This chapter’s focus is Literacy: What is it? How is it a
complex issue? What can you as a student do to affect it? The chapter is
separated into three main sections that follow a theory of learning and dealing
with issues which is called stasis theory. Stasis theory suggests that
the writing and thinking about topics can be divided into three main concepts.
The first is defining a situation or problem, the second is deciding ethical
issues of what is right or wrong within that problem and the third involves
doing something about the situation. Throughout the chapter you will see
certain words and concepts highlighted, as with stasis theory above. This is
done so that you can do further research on that concept if you wish. Some of
them may come in handy in this class, other classes you might take or in helping
you deal with the world around you. Even though some terms are highlighted you
will notice that this chapter is not focused on you memorizing lists of terms
dealing with literacy but is more interested in being an introduction to how
literacy is such a large and powerful reality in our world. Even if you
memorize every word in this chapter you will not be an expert on literacy
because its aim is not to be an exhaustive summary of the field but I hope that
you come away from the chapter with a deeper, more complex understanding of
literacy and that a seed of action is planted in you.
I. What is Literacy?
Exercise 1.1 I would like to start the chapter
with you, the student. In this short exercise I simply want you to write a
short paragraph defining literacy and why it is important. Many people begin
talking about literacy by talking about illiteracy, so that may be a starting
point for you. Think about what literacy might mean to you, your community and
the world at large. Write a short paragraph expressing your thoughts.
Now that you have written down your thoughts on literacy
let’s see what others have to say about it. You may want to keep in mind
definitions and ideas that you find interesting because later in the chapter you
will be asked to re-write your definition, which will hopefully expand as you
make your way through these pages. Here are some definitions that I found and
some quotations about literacy that I thought were intriguing:
Literacy- the quality or state of being
literate (Merriam Webster)
Literacy- the ability to read and
Literacy- the condition of quality of being
knowledgeable in a particular
subject or field: biblical
literacy; cultural literacy (American Heritage)
As you may be thinking, these are rather simple and
straightforward definitions of the term, as most dictionaries are going to
produce, but literacy is too complex to fit into these small boxes as you
probably noticed when writing for Exercise 1.1. Here are the quotations:
Children’s desire to make sense of
the world is an important factor in literacy development. (Barnhardt)
Most experts also agree that we
cannot justify or excuse the large numbers of children who fail to become
successful readers (Teaching all the Children)
Comprehension, evaluation and
synthesis of text during reading and writing contribute to the attainment of
Literacy is a cultural
phenomenon. To be literate means to have access to social capital—that
which is valued by society. (Barnhardt)
The literacy crisis
concentrated middle-class fears of loss of status, downward mobility, and the
prospect of sinking into the working class or urban poor. (Trimbur)
These quotations point to the fact that literacy is a
complex and important issue in our lives. The very fact that you are sitting
here reading this text says much about your situation in the literate world.
You may be wondering what some of these statements have to do with literacy or
what they have to say about the world around us but I hope this will become more
clear to you by the end of section II.
Exercise 1.2 Now that I have introduced you to some
definitions and quotations on literacy I want you to do a little bit of research
so you can see how vast of a topic literacy is. You may decide to get on the
internet or go to the library (or both); either way both places have plenty of
information on this topic. If you choose the library, get on your Library’s
Catalogue Search Engine and do a search for “literacy.” You can also search
through academic journals and magazines like Newsweek or Time. If you choose
the internet, pick your favorite Search Engine and search for “literacy” once
again. A sight I found interesting was wikipedia.org which is a
web-encyclopedia that has a good and evolving discussion of literacy. Once you
have done a bit of reading write a few paragraphs about ideas, concepts or terms
that caught your interest.
Three types of Literacy
Functional literacy can be described quite
simply as literacy that serves some sort of purpose or function. This type of
literacy has been defined and discussed in numerous ways for numerous purposes.
Elementary teachers, businessmen and women, professors, politicians and parents,
among others, are some of the people concerned with functional literacy and
literacy in general. While there have been a number of proposed theories on
functional literacy and the creation of many terms describing different types
and variations of it, I would like to simplify things here a bit. I believe all
literacy is “functional” in one way or another, that is, reading, writing,
speaking and listening all serve a purpose for the individual that employs
them. The difference is in the level of literacy and the purpose it serves.
Diagram 1 illustrates different levels of literacy acquisition and use.
As the diagram indicates, there is a larger number of
situations (and people) that can be placed at the bottom tier. As literacy
levels increase and become more complex the numbers in both situation and
persons decreases. So, there are far fewer people reading and creating
documents at the level of the top tier than at the middle or bottom. Something
that should be pointed out is the fact that those with literacy skills at the
top level are not “better” than or superior to those at the bottom. This is an
important point considering instances throughout history of linguistic
elitism when individuals or societies have argued that those with “lower”
literacy levels were inferior or even uncivilized.
Technological literacy has to do with the
acquisition of skills and knowledge in the realm of technology. Like Functional
literacy there are levels to the technologies one may be able to use, understand
and create. If you have used your televisions guide or sent an e-mail you are
Technologically literate. And since technology is a growing and intricate part
of most of our lives, this type of literacy becomes more and more important and
useful each day. Diagram 2 follows the same concept as the previous diagram in
that it illustrates the existence of broader skills and knowledge to more
specific and complex ones.
You may notice that Technological literacy is a type of
Functional literacy itself and that in many cases it is bound up with it. You
may know how to send an e-mail, for instance, but writing the e-mail involves a
level of Functional literacy from diagram 1 but it doesn’t necessarily mean that
someone’s Functional literacy is at the same level as their Technological
The third type of literacy presented in this
chapter deals with a person’s ability to access information. This may be a less
apparent type of literacy for many of you but if you stop and think about it we
are constantly attempting to access information on a regular basis. What’s the
weather going to be like today? What time does my flight leave? Who’s playing
in tonight’s football game? What is the best way to calm a crying baby? When
did World War II begin? All of these questions involve us wanting information
then going somewhere to find it. Like the two other types of literacies already
presented, Information literacy also has broad and specific uses and people who
are able to function in them. Diagram 2 illustrates this.
Chances are you already have a good grasp on how and where
to find certain types of information and as you go through college and life your
Information literacy will probably grow. Pointing out the fact that Information
literacy exists may not seem very important to you but just imagine how your
ability to access information and resources has affected your life. And, you
may want to consider how lack in this type of literacy may affect others.
Exercise 1.3 The diagrams just presented are meant to be
introductions into your thinking about literacy in a more dynamic manner than
you may have thought about it in the past. These are not perfect, nor deeply
complex, examples of how literacy affects and is affected by people in society
but they are a good template from which to begin. In this exercise you should
try to think of other examples that you can place in each tier of the three
diagrams. Think about actions you take part in, or skills that you possess, and
where they might fit into these diagrams. Then with a partner(s) discuss what
you think are the most important literacy skills to possess and why.
Diagram 4 shows the interaction of the three
types of literacies within an individual. While the three ovals in the diagram
are of equal size, in reality, most people are going to have differing levels of
attainment of each type of literacy. It is also important to consider that
Technological literacy, for example, may not be important or accessible to some
and that access to Functional and Information literacy may be deprived for any
number of reasons.
Literacy in Three Metaphors
In an essay written by Sylvia Scribner entitled
“Literacy in Three Metaphors” she presents the issue of literacy in a more
theoretical manner than the diagrams you have just studied. Scribner was a
social scientist who published many articles dealing with literacy and
education. Her understanding of literacy helps us see that literacy is not
simply learning a set of skills that one can use but that it is a complex
reality that deeply affects our lives.
Before getting to her three
metaphors Scribner acknowledges that most people want to define literacy in only
individualistic terms. They see literacy as an individual accomplishment and
don’t consider its creation and existence within a society. Language and
literacy were created by people, for people; they are socially constructed and
continue and evolve always within a social setting. Think about how you learned
language use and how you use language. Both were/are in the context of a
society, of particular people. Written symbols (letters, words, sentences,
etc.) do not mean anything until we learn, through interaction with others, what
they mean. This may seem obvious but it took a lot of writing and thinking to
convince some of the social nature of language development.
Here now are Scribner’s three
metaphors for literacy and short explanations of each.
Literacy as Adaptation- In this metaphor, literacy is seen as being
utilitarian in nature. It serves a particular purpose and allows people to
function in a job or society at large. It is here that people focus on
Functional literacy and what should be considered basic competency. As times
and situations change, the level of literacy needed to function will change.
Literacy as Grace- Here, literacy is seen as a tool towards
self-fulfillment and as a necessary precursor to enjoying intellectual and
spiritual growth. You may want to think about how the written word has
influenced your inner-growth and also about how illiterate individuals in our
society are viewed.
Literacy as Power- This final metaphor attaches literacy to issues of
power, advancement and liberation. Throughout history, Literacy, and
illiteracy, has served as both a tool of oppression and of social change. It is
no coincidence that the poorest in the world are many times also the most
illiterate, and vice versa. One the biggest proponents of the liberating power
of literacy is Paulo Freire, a Brazilian scholar who advocates the belief
that being literate (as an individual or community) helps combat victimization.
These three metaphors illustrate another way of thinking
about literacy and serve as a good introduction to Section II of the chapter,
especially the third metaphor, Literacy as Power. This metaphor opens a window
to seeing literacy as a powerful tool that has been deprived to some and used by
others. And while you may not think the controlling and liberating powers of
literacy have anything to do with you the very fact that you were educated in a
school system in a particular society already places you in this web. And the
next time you have a job interview, try to talk your way out of a speeding
ticket or sing your favorite song, literacy and its power will be present.
Exercise 1.4 Before we move on to the next section of this
chapter let us go back to the exercise that opened it—defining literacy. I
would like for you to re-write your definition of literacy and present any new
insights you may have. My guess is that your definition is going to be broader
and much deeper than “the ability to read and write.”
II. Political and Ethical
If you recall from the introduction the first
stage of stasis theory involved defining a situation. Now that you have gained
a better grasp of literacy and some of its implications in the world the next
step is to complicate it further and consider serious questions about the
quality of literacy. Who has access to literacy? Whose type of literacy is
taught? Are there notions of “good” language use versus “bad” language use?
These are all question you may want to keep in mind as you make your way through
this chapter (and your life!).
Language is Power
As has already been discussed, literacy is
caught up with issues of power and politics. Those who are literate seem to
have a much greater chance at fighting oppression, gaining access to greater
economic means and functioning more productively and freely in the world. And
those that are illiterate are many times more readily controlled and
stigmatized. So, literacy is an issue that affects the power dynamics of all of
Language is Epistemic
Another reason why the issue of literacy is so
important is that it is fundamental in our creation and dissemination of
knowledge. In the past language was viewed as a sign system where words were
seen as exact representations of reality and which merely transmitted knowledge
from one person/place to another. Now, most linguists, compositionists and
sociologists will argue that there is no knowledge created outside of language
and that language creates the realities around us. That is not to say that a
rock or a mountain, for example, were created by language but that our
understanding and interactions with rocks and mountains are created by
language. Language is not merely a “dress of thought” it is the creator of
thought/knowledge. The way we see the world, interact with it and the people
around us is all created by language.
So if language is fundamental to our knowledge
and existence and language is power then literacy is not an innocent
phenomenon. It is central to our lives as human, social beings in real places
at real times in history. What the chapter will focus on now is discussing some
of these real-life situations where literacy and its power dynamics come into
Literacy and Power at
Two Historical Examples
During the French Revolution of the late 1700s
literacy was a big topic of discussion and it wasn’t because not enough people
were literate. Nowadays, when we think of a literacy crisis we presume it is
because standard test scores are down or our college or high school graduates
are not seen as being on par with other country’s literacy levels. But the
problem in this example was that too many people were seen as literate! Yes,
this may sound crazy but if we stop and consider our notion that literacy is
power then it makes sense. What follows is a statement by British commentator
Vicesimus Knox made in 1793 explaining this “problem”:
…the ‘lowest of the people can read.’ Political debates once confined to the
propertied classes…have now spread to the ‘cottages, the manufactory, and lowest
resorts of plebeian carousel.”
So, Knox understood that literacy could/would/did lead to
political involvement by those who were being oppressed and marginalized. And
notice his demeaning and elitist attitude toward those who were what we would
now call blue-collar workers.
The second example brings us back to the United
States and the days of slavery. Some of you may have read the autobiography of
Fredrick Douglas, a slave in the American South. In the book he gives an
account of what was said by his slave master to his wife after she had been
teaching Douglas to read:
you teach that nigger…how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would
forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of
no value to his master.”
The slave owner new that literacy would bring a new reality
to Douglas and that it would only agitate the slave owner’s position as powerful
oppressor. Truly, literacy was one of the most powerful tools used by slaves to
eventually gain access to knowledge and to freedom.
Two Contemporary Examples
From the mid-1990s to the present there has a
push by Ron Unz, a millionaire businessman from California, for an
English-only initiative across the country. According to his website “he
has now established a national advocacy organization, English for the Children,
to replace bilingual education with English immersion throughout the
country”(onenation.org). Unz seems to have the interest of students in mind by
pointing to data that suggests non-native speakers of English may learn English
faster if they are “immersed” into English instead of placing them in
Bilingual Education environments. But, if we are to once again consider how
language is power and how literacy and the control of it is political in nature
then we may begin to question the motives (realized or not) by those who push
for English-only initiatives. In a response to Unz, Josefina Tinajero, past
president of the National Association of Bilingual Educator writes:
Perhaps schools ought to be more reflective about what they want children to
learn—about what they want children to know and be able to do when they graduate
from high school. Bilingual education programs are virtually the only programs
where success is measured by their brevity; by how quickly children reach the
exit. It is because such programs are bad? Or because the primacy of English
is threatened? Or because the ability to communicate in two languages is not
considered an asset?
These are certainly valid question to consider and help us
understand that issues of epistemology and power are alive and well in the 21st
The second example is also one that captured
the public’s eye in the 1990s and which continues with much debate today. It is
related in many ways to the first example but is not identical. I speak here of
the issue of Ebonics. Ebonics is a term that was created from the two
terms “ebony” and “phonics.” It is also referred to as Black English or Black
vernacular. In 1996 an Oakland, California school board decided to recognize
Ebonics as a distinct language that should be treated as such in teaching
practices throughout the district. Many teachers in that district argued that
by using Ebonics they could better teach many of their students Standard
English, much in the same way that a Bilingual Education program might
incorporate Spanish to help Spanish speakers learn Standard English. There was
a bit of a national uproar. Many educators, administrators and politicians did
not want to see Ebonics as a legitimate language and certainly not one that
should be used in teaching practices. Here is a quote from Bill O’Reilly, a
prominent news commentator on the Fox News Channel:
Every school official who wants to use Ebonics in any way should be fired
While this next comment was
not directly in response to the situation in Oakland it shows certain attitudes
and assumptions about those who speak Ebonics. It also shows that criticism
crossed/crosses racial lines as the statement was made by Bill Cosby, a famous
African American comedian and television personality:
Everybody knows it’s important to speak [proper] English except these
knuckleheads… You can’t be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your
Cosby is correct, in
American society today chances are you won’t become a doctor if you speak
strictly Ebonics, but what then does that say about society? And, who decides
what is Standard English and what is “crap”?
Exercise 1.5 In a short
writing discuss your thoughts on the two Contemporary Examples just presented.
What do you think of an English-only initiative? How may this have affected or
affect you or someone you know? Do you think that an initiative of this kind
would help or hurt children? Do you agree that our society devalues
bilingualism? What do you think about the Ebonics debate? Should it be
considered a legitimate language? Would you call it something else? Should it
be used for educational purposes? Are those who speak it stigmatized in any
Why Attack a Literacy?
As you have probably realized there is not just
one type of literacy, there are multiple literacies present in our society. So,
the question presented in this section is Why attack a Literacy? An interesting
theory which recognizes the dynamics of power, and which was alluded to by Josie
Tinajero in the previous section, was put forth by John Trimbur in his essay
Literacy and the Discourse of Crisis. In it he suggests that literacy
crises (when there is, seemingly, some sort of national preoccupation over
literacy levels or the level at which literacy is being taught and learned) may
be directly related to issues of class and power. Trimbur posits that these
crises (approximately three by his account in American history, when he
published this piece in 1991) may be directly linked to a middle-class psyche
concerned with its status. He writes:
literacy crisis…concentrated middle-class fears of loss of status, downward
mobility, and the prospect of sinking into the working class or urban poor.
[L]iteracy was simultaneously reaffirmed as the middle classes’ primary hope of
upward mobility, social status, and respectability—a cultural marker to divide
them and their credentials from the poor and the working class below.
Trimbur makes us aware of at least the possibility that an
intrinsic part of attacking someone else’s literacy is self-interest. If the
dominant literacy (Standard English) is threatened then those who possess that
literacy do not want a shift in the literacy in power because that may mean a
shift in their position in the power structure.
Someone else who has thought and written much
about literacy is Keith Walters. In his essay Whose Culture? Whose Literacy?
he discusses how those in charge of literacy in the schools are simply pushing
their perceived notions of what type of language and knowledge they believe to
be important. He makes us aware that the term “standard” in Standard English is
a subjective term and that too many times it is those who don’t speak
“Standard” English that are labeled uncultured, illogical, improper and even
lacking in “morality and perhaps even wisdom.” As he puts it:
Of course, in the United States,
unlike in Britain, no single accepted accent, or way of pronouncing the
language, exists. Regional accents are tolerated and even cultivated in certain
areas as evidence of local pride. As in Britain and many other societies,
however, there is generally far less tolerance in the United States for class or
ethnic dialects than for regional dialects.
Walters wants us to understand something that is seemingly
right under our nose. We have been, in most instances, enculturated, to
believe there is a “proper,” intelligent way of speaking and all other ways are
inferior. This certainly seems caught up with issues of power.
Exercise 1.5 First individually, then in a small group,
consider the following questions and your thoughts on them. You may want to jot
down ideas on each, then after discussion with your group, expand on your
Do you believe that literacy and power are intertwined?
Is there a dominant way of speaking in the United States?
Are certain assumptions made about those who do not speak “Standard”
Do you think there is a bias in what information is placed in your
Once again, what is your definition of literacy?
Why do you think it might be important to defend the legitimacy of
different types of literacies?
“…imagination and political courage are required if literacy is to be
re-represented as an intellectual resource against injustice, a means to ensure
democratic participation in public life” John Trimbur
We are now at the final section of the
chapter. If you recall, the third stage of stasis theory involves considering
and implementing action. By action, it refers to the actual “doing something”
to affect the issue at hand; in this case, literacy. In this chapter you will
be asked to think about ways that you can affect literacy in ways you see fit.
Now that we are able to see the power struggle inherent in literacy we can
develop ways that can affect social change. Not too long ago (and even still
today) most courses in English and/or Composition were focused on the student
creating written products that were grammatically and stylistically correct, but
many “New” Composition classes are focused on involving the students in some
sort of public writing that has a real affect on society. So, now you are a
called upon to think about ways that you can do this.
But before we move on to your project, let me
start by presenting three occasions where people, just like you and me, decided
to do things that would affect literacy.
The national level: Bilingual Education
Depending on your situation, you may have
already heard of Bilingual Education programs. Many school districts throughout
the United States have implemented these programs to help non-native speakers of
English learn. And while these programs are now a basic part of many school’s
educational practices, that wasn’t always the case. Parents and educators were
among those that felt there was a need for these programs to help students
succeed. As we discussed before, there are those who are against these types of
programs but they are striving in many parts of the country. These programs did
not appear on their own, or out of thin air, it was people who wrote letters,
attended meetings, wrote essays, etc., that created Bilingual Education.
The international level: Cheap Computers
In November of 2005 the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology (MIT) unveiled plans to produce $100 laptop computers that run on
batteries that can be recharged by turning a crank on the side of the device.
It can also connect to the Internet wirelessly if there is a nearby user with a
connection. There hope is to bring “every child in the world a computer.” This
low cost computer may not be very popular in much of the United States but
imagine what it could do for countries that are not privy to the wealth of this
country. As Seymour Papart, a researcher at MIT put it, “There is no other way
that has been suggested of giving people a radical change in access to knowledge
except through digital media.” Just another example of people, in this case
people in the field of technology and computers, doing things to affect literacy
in the world.
The local level: Literacy Programs
Local literacy programs can vary in purpose and
size but chances are the city you are in, or are from, has some sort of literacy
program(s). They may be attached to a school or university. They may be part
of a community center’s offerings. They may focus on children or the elderly.
They may be used to help drug addicts or those that have been abused express
their thoughts and feelings. They may be directed toward those that lack
computer skills. In any case, these programs were started by people who saw a
need in the community. If you search on the Internet for literacy programs in
your area you will probably be surprised to see how much people are dealing with
this issue and implementing programs that address it in one way or another.
Now that you have seen a few examples of things
people have done to affect literacy I would like you to think about ways you can
do the same. Chances are you are not going to be able to create a national
organization that deals with literacy overnight, or develop cheap literacy
technology in a week, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can do.
And, it certainly doesn’t mean that you cannot develop ideas over your college
career or lifetime. So, your instructions are rather simple. Find a way in
which you can affect literacy in a manner you care about and start implementing
a plan of action. You can follow the outline below if you find it helpful.
Think about what you have learned about literacy and things you would
like to address and change.
Do research to get ideas of actions you can take and to better understand
what it is you are trying to accomplish?
Pick an action you would like to implement and get to work.
Here are some examples of things you can do, but certainly don’t limit
yourself to them: Write letters to local educators and administrators expressing
your feelings; Create a blog that address literacy issues; Develop a tutoring
program in your community; Begin to develop ideas about software you can create
that will affect literacy; Develop a game (board or electronic) that will help
children/adults with their literacy; Write a scholarly paper and present it at a
conference; Become politically active in your community.
I hope that this chapter has served as a good
introduction into the world of literacy. The way you think about literacy now
is probably quite different than the way you conceived it at the beginning of
the chapter. My hope is that you develop and implement a lasting plan of action
dealing with literacy and that you keep a critical view of language use with you
as you make your way through other courses and life. I have attached a Works
Cited page so that you can find the sources I used in this chapter to do further
Barnhardt, Jill. “Definitions of Literacy.” 5 December
Lapp, Diane (et.al). Teaching All the Children. New York:
O’Reilly, Bill. “Why do School Officials Hurst School
Children.” 20 July 2005.
Scribner, Sylvia. From “Literacy in Three Metaphors.”
The American Journal of
Education. 93.1 (1984). 72-81
Thomas, Linda (et. al.). Language, Society and Power. New
York: Routledge, 1999.
Tinajero, Josefina V. “Asking the Right Questions.” NABE
News: Message from
the President. 1 February 1998. 3
Trimbur, John. “Literacy and the Discourse of Crisis.” The
Politics of Writing
Instruction: Postsecondary. Eds. Richard
Bullock and John Trimbur.
Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook-Heinemann, 1991.
Walters, Keith. “Whose Culture? Whose Literacy?”
Diversity as Resource: Redefining
Cultural Literacy. Ed. Denise Murray.
Alexandria, VA: TESOL, 1992. 3-25.
Young, Jeffrey R. “MIT Unveils a $100 Laptop They Hope Will
Worldwide.” The Chronicle of Higher
Education. November 2005.
Robert Tinajero for English 6319: Dr. Helen Foster