Literacy and numeracy have become the centerpiece of all our efforts, at least in word if not in reality. I must believe that those who trumpet the importance of these central competencies honestly desire improvement. And yet, however much we try, whether as government or within the system itself, no appreciable improvement is seen. Granted, the government and the assessment arm of the Department of Education point to improvements in literacy among Grade 2 students as proof that something is working; unfortunately, the presumed methodology for achieving this improvement is unclear and the validity of the reported “data” is, itself, easily challenged on scientific grounds.
Even assuming such purported evidence could be shown to be reliable, the fact remains that by the time students reach high school and graduate, literacy and numeracy among graduates remain questionable. Inevitably, I am forced to speak anecdotally from my experience as a classroom teacher at the high school level. In my almost 30 years in the classroom, I watched literacy among my students grow progressively worse. Assignments given and expectations that I had for Grade 11 students were impossible to have for virtually any of my students by the time I was in my last few years. Exceptions arose but they were few. My career as a teacher was spent teaching English language and literature at the high school level. As such, I have had a great deal of time to reflect on the issue of literacy and why it is that we see little in the way of real gains even as we graduate, on a percentage basis, far more of our population than we did 50 years ago.
While I have many complaints about methodology, I want to focus on the term “literacy” for a moment. The cavalier handling of the definition is especially significant. By that I mean that “literacy” is the very best example of a clearly defined concept muddied for purposes ranging from convenience to laziness. While I readily concede the flexibility of the English language (its willingness to adopt any word as its own from anywhere partially explains its dominance), the adaptation of literacy to purposes beyond its original meaning has confused one and all: teachers, students, the public, the powers that be. While it might sound compelling to speak of “teaching literacy”, such a thing is not possible.
Literacy is an acquired condition where one possesses defined abilities, namely being able to read and to write. To some this will seem a quibble but, to my mind, it is an indicator of an ongoing societal trend where language, supposedly the key to meaning and understanding, becomes, instead, a source of confusion and misdirection.