The nature of literacy

Note: if you got here from Lauren Zook's "Foundations and Current Issues of Early Childhood Education", in spite of the two errors in the URL in the Wikibooks version (errors which I have now corrected), you may care to read what I say below and then ponder whether she correctly interpreted what I say or if she even read it! You can see her simplistic account of this page at My objection, basically, is to the multiple choice questions about my views, which lie somewhere between Bloom-zero and Bloom-negative.

Yes, I do say that literacy means having a love of language, but that was only a starting point, it wasn't an exclusive definition! Love of language is a sine qua non for literacy, but it isn't the whole story!!

If you want to know what literacy is, read or watch The History Boys and pay attention to Hector, near the end.

Being summarised by Lauren Zook has a lot in common with being made into a comic book, but it isn't as funny.

Background: somebody asked oz-teachers for opinions on the nature of literacy. I decided to strike pre-emptively, before the career literati got into the act. It may be relevant to note here that I failed my English examination at the Leaving Certificate at the age of 16, due mainly to my refusal to engage in the the standard littery crittery games. The following year, I did no work, read lots of Dickens to Kafka (not on the prescribed list -- I was working through the literary fiction shelves of the local library), played the examiners' game and got an "A". Because they don't know my initial examination results, publishers have been taking my books since the 1970s, and I now make my living by writing. Now read on . . .

Literacy is more than books, it means having a love of the language. Have you ever noticed how the best debaters are the best writers, and third speakers are the best of the best? I have, though I might be said to be biased, but a love of the language stands out from all the rest.

Love of the language was there already, before the books, as it is in the Celtic tradition still, and in most other traditions as well, when you dig for it. Homer wasn't literature at first, it was a monster gabfest written down later, and the same with Gilgamesh, the Brothers Grimm, Snorri Sturluson's Sagas (he just wrote them down), even Bill Shaksper's plays, where he adapted commedia dell'arte themes.

Loving the language is still a major part of literacy today as it was in the Australian shearing sheds and on the wallaby in the 1890s, when the world was full of men who recited their favourite poets. Today, to most of us, Rumpole is eccentric because he can quote one (only!) poet, where the shearers quoted many, and in full. Those shearers may not have read all that much, but they were literate. They used the language.

Literacy also involves a love of putting words together, assembling them and pouring them forth. Your own words if possible, or failing that, other people's, at least until you learn the art of assembling your own. Talking with care and passion, whether about football, fishing or whatever, it's still to do with words. But let's leave talk for a minute.

We turn now to the P word, to the paper stuff. Rummaging through the alphabet, linking words together, then realising that words can be put into patterns. I still recall the joy when I first realised that this dull and boring Shakespeare bloke made puns -- up until then I didn't realise that grownups did that sort of thing, and certainly didn't write it down (I thought then that Shakespeare was a writer, not a playwright). Or Dylan Thomas weaving his magic through Llaregyb (which is how he spelt it, being south Welsh), but again, that is spoken stuff.

The big one that everybody thinks about when they hear the L word is bits of paper stuck together. But if we look just at pen and paper literacies, I suppose what we have to aim for is somebody who wants to read, write, enjoys reading, loves writing, and is able to seek out the intricacies of and in the language, to draw inferences from it, to play with it. They are all context-driven: attitudes, wants and context-driven complex skills, but especially the inferences depend on context.

If you can infer, puzzle out other people's implicit assumptions, you are ready to start implying, setting other people up to make inferences from what you write. Now this was triggered by somebody who said not to mention the testing, but if I am even partly right, how would you set "objective" questions to test that sort of thing? With due respect, Minister, you spavined failed teacher of English, the tests are but a pale reflection, seen through a glass darkly, of what we know. You can judge literacy, you cannot test it.

Literacy in my unwritten book is an infinite capacity for rampaging gloriously through the language, but as we define it today, literacy has been restricted to rampaging gloriously over the pages, cut from three dimensions to two. I think that is a pity because it denies the oral and bardic traditions that nurtured the human spirit over four thousand generations, in favour of a more restricted written superstructure that has only been there as part of the human culture for about five generations, or maybe ten.

Superstructure? Yes, because the whole justification for making books lies in, and rests on, the oral linguistic tradition. The whole reason for reading (a word deriving from an Old Norse root meaning "to guess", I was once told) is to rekindle the flame of speech from the marks on the page before us, made by others. Who needs to be able to read? A "lecture" literally means a "reading". If we have the language by the throat, the rest will surely follow (Cuius testiculos habes, habeas cardia et cerebellum, as Gen. Westmoreland used to tell us.)

Now all we have to do is boil that down to a list of precursors, cocursors and postcursors of literacy, aids to rampaging gloriously.

Staying with the cognitive domain, we begin with the ability to scar a page with a burnt stick and the ability to interpret correctly the scars made by others on other pages and we work up. Maybe all the way to effective use of a computer as a tool to compose diatribes, but that comes late in the piece: we are looking at foundations.

We look at those capable of stringing sentences together, those capable of interpreting sentences by others, with varying complexity, we look for a power of word play, and a joy in it. We look for functional literacy too, the ability to extract information from text, whether it be surfing magazines, a financial report, or a Dickensian picture of slum life. We look for a willingness to continue reading SOMETHING, even the labels on jars and bottles.

We avoid the ruthlessly academic. That can come when they reach the groves of Academe. Reading Leavis is entirely unrelated to literacy, even damaging to it. Reading Leavis is what a certain class of on-the-make English teacher is best at, and that probably explains why literacy is in the trouble it is in right now.

I can still recall the "joys" of parsing -- I still bear the scars of it -- and I still don't understand it, while some of my classmates went with the herd, and could do parsing in their sleep -- all I could do was say "You're sheeps that parse in the night", to their great confusion.

I still recall the dubious "joys" of psycho-analysing Macbeth for the Leaving Certificate, which I felt was wrong, seeing Freud wasn't invented when W. Shakes was writing, but that was the hoop we had to jump through. Ugh to both of them. I would far rather have spent more time looking at how Holinshed influenced the play, wrongly as it happened.

I have the mind set of an engineer - if it works, it is beautiful. Anything that increases a command of the language is beautiful, anything that causes sinking feelings is an abomination. Forget the theories and grandiloquent words: let's look around for word things that capture young minds and entrance them, not pursue a new terminology for old ideas, designed to enhance the neologist's career prospects.

For me, literacy is command of the language, in whatever form, and however it is arrived at. If you would pursue literacy, I would commend that you develop a list of signs of literacy and then seek playful joyful means of arriving at the willing display of those signs.


But of course we can improve literacy merely by testing it, can't we?.
Back to the rest of the opinions, heresies and rants

This file is part of a series, written by Peter Macinnis, and last revised on May 6, 2007, when the original text was around ten years old.

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It may be freely reproduced for educationally useful purposes (you decide if it is useful), if the file is reproduced as it appears here -- I like people to know that it is me causing them annoyance :-)

For a more serious look at science literacy, see this article.