A digression on literacy

images-2While I feel I am digressing somewhat from the original focus of this lengthy, multi-part post, my last statement deserves explanation. Literacy – and its measure for the individual – has commonly been defined as the ability to read and to write. If you look the word up in a dictionary these days, chances are you will find an additional entry defining literacy in more general terms. For example, do a google search and you might find “competence or knowledge in a specified area”. As I indicated in an earlier post, this shifting and/or expansion in application is not new to the English language. Ours is a language especially adept at adopting words, even making them up, when the situation warrants.

Ordinarily, this presents few problems. That being said, commonly, new words and/or definitions result when new concepts appear or emphasis/application shifts. To “google” something exemplifies the former; the word “gay”, the latter. I contend that the application of the word “literacy” to virtually any competence has made it difficult for all those concerned about reading and writing skills (or language skills in general if you wish to expand that to include listening and speaking) to focus on the task at hand.

To repeat, you cannot teach literacy – it is a condition attained: one is or is not literate. The extent to which one is literate can be measured. So it is that New Brunswick is commonly said to have something in the order of a 50%-60% adult functional illiteracy rate. These are people who may be able to decode individual words but who find it difficult to make meaning out of those same words. Hence, they struggle with instructions, application forms and many of the minor reading and writing tasks encountered in modern life.

You can, however, teach people to read and to write. As soon as literacy is defined according to these very tangible skills, problems arise for the defenders of modern thinking in education. The cheerleaders for the latest trend in educational theory commonly decry restrictive definitions. The classic example remains the notion that writing can be separated into technical competence and obvious intent. If it hasn’t happened to you personally, chances are you’ve heard the story from someone of the child who brings home the paper with a very good grade, a paper rife with spelling and grammatical errors, errors which are discounted because the paper managed to convey the idea and/or the intent.

In the convoluted thinking of modern educational theory, the latter somehow is almost entirely disconnected from the need for actual competence in written conventions. It wouldn’t be so bad if the conventions themselves were reinforced and taught but, again, the thinking of the theorists is that doing so would disrupt the free flow of ideas. And so it is that students in the system can freefall through 12 or 13 years of public education only to find themselves joining the ranks of the functionally illiterate upon graduation.

Perhaps the greatest irony in all of this is the demand for technical competence placed upon students when the time comes for external evaluation, whether through provincial and/or international exams or through application to an employer. Is it any wonder that virtually every university or community college now requires that students take writing courses during their first year of study? And make no mistake, these are courses focused on the technical aspects of good writing, a fundamental element of LITERACY.


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