Whether literacy is a skill or social practice is a continued debate
Contemporary theories treat literacy as practices and relations, which connect people to each other and their worlds, let them discuss their experiences, and share their knowledge with others.
The methods of measuring and evaluating literacy are numerous and varied. However, they mostly observe how literate people are and do help to understand how people are literate. In this sense, the examples of Barton and Hamilton (1998) and Purcell-Gates et al (2001) are very demonstrative: they provide a profound insight into how people can be literate and how their literacy and their personal experiences and narratives interact.
Barton and Hamilton (1998) and Purcell-Gates et al (2001) measure and explore literacy in unusual ways. It would be fair to say that they do not measure literacy in a traditional sense of word. Moreover, they do not measure literacy at all. Rather, they implicitly assume that all individuals are literate.
They deny the relevance of traditional literacy measurements, which profoundly affect individuals’ self-efficacy and perceptions about their own literacy. Both methods of gathering the data about adult literacy erase the boundary between literacy and illiteracy. They leave little room for doubts about whether people are literate. The observe literacy in the context of real-life experiences and events.
Both methods provide unique information about adult literacy and the factors affecting it. They support a belief that there is no single literacy; on the contrary, there are multiple literacies, and no universal criteria can help to explain the variations and changes in adult literacy in different social and economic contexts.
Apparently, literacy is a form of social practices that link people to their environments and, simultaneously, help them to express and share information with others. In this situation, it is important to see how both tests measure literacy and what implications they carry for the future adult literacy research.
Barton and Hamilton (1998) and Purcell-Gates et al (2001) judge literacy, based (a) on the ways in which literacy is used in real-life situations; (b) the role of education in the development of literacy; and (c) the importance of real-life activities in the development of sound individual and group literacy.
In this sense, the example of Barton and Hamilton (1998) is particularly demonstrative: the authors do not measure objective literacy categories but re-evaluate the meaning of literacy through the prism of daily practices and decisions. Take a look at Harry: Barton and Hamilton (1998) are trying to create the fullest picture of his life. They ask Harry to describe himself (Barton & Hamilton, 1998).
They do not try to impose any criteria on him but, on the contrary, let Harry express himself in his own terms. Barton and Hamilton (1998) erase the boundary between educated and non-educated people. They reconstruct literacy through the broad set of individual experiences and beliefs.
Harry does not have any formal education but learns and acquires literacy skills through the analysis of books and authentic war stories (Barton & Hamilton, 1998). He has sufficient knowledge and skills to share his learning experiences with other, “educated” people (Barton & Hamilton, 1998).
Barton and Hamilton (1998) discuss how literacy helps people to make sense of their own lives. They describe people from the standpoint of their literacy successes, not failures.
Through his readings about the war, Harry makes sense of his own experiences and communicates them to others (Barton & Hamilton, 1998). Barton and Hamilton (1998) show how literacy can successfully validate individual experiences and voice the knowledge and concerns of the ordinary people.
Purcell-Gates et al (2001) use a different approach for literacy: unlike Barton and Hamilton (1998), Purcell-Gates et al (2001) are less interested in personal narratives. Rather, they try to understand the meaning of adult literacy practices. Purcell-Gates et al (2001) provide data about literacy practices in foreign- and native-born students in adult literacy classes in the U.S.
The authors explore the changes in literacy instruction and their implications for adult literacy. Again, real-life experiences and texts play the determining role in the development of adult literacy. Purcell-Gates et al (2001) explore the level of collaboration between literacy teachers and adult students – the collaboration that predetermines the success of decision-making between them.
According to Purcell-Gates et al (2001), the most important measure of literacy is the authenticity of the instruction or the degree of closeness between the literacy activities in the classroom and the most common literacy practices outside of formal schooling.
It should be noted, that different teachers pursue authenticity of instruction in distinctly different ways. For example, teachers engage adult students in the discussion of their experiences and needs (Purcell-Gates et al, 2001). Others ask their students to research information they need to succeed in their daily practices (Purcell-Gates et al, 2001).
Purcell-Gates et al (2001) provide empirical justification for using authentic instruction in adult literacy lessons and strongly recommend that a variety of real-life texts be used. Purcell-Gates et al (2001) suggest that, at times, real-life texts and authentic materials are used in non-authentic classroom activities. Yet, these activities do not reduce the relevance of literacy as a social practice.
Surprisingly or not, neither of the two authors measures literacy in a traditional sense of this word, i.e., through objective tests. On the contrary, the authors focus on the analysis of the real-life, authentic practices that help adult learners to achieve the level of literacy needed to cope with their daily social tasks (Hamilton & Barton, 1998; Purcell-Gates et al, 2001).
Adult literacy development and its implication on habits, identities, and subjectivities
Literacy is a complex set of social practices that invariably affects all life experiences. Literacy abilities never change alone but along with habits, identities, and subjectivities. The examples of such interdependencies are numerous and varied. In their works, Freire (1983) and Horsman (2006) provide a unique insight into the effects of literacy on adult identity development.
Freire (1983) reaffirms a simple truth that literacy learning is an act of politics, which is inherently creative. According to Freire (1983), literacy changes identities and subjectivities, as far as learning to write and read is essentially about learning to deconstruct and assemble a written expression of the things that can be seen orally.
For example, literacy helps adults to re-think their earlier experiences from a different perspective. Adults can write down their thoughts and memories, put them together, and read them. This movement from talking to writing is actually the same as the slow movement from the world to word (Freire, 1983). It also means that individuals are trying to re-write and transform the world, in which they live.
All these words, irrespective of their meaning, come from the world and the people, who seek to express their fears, anxieties, and demands (Freire, 1983). They come from the objects that fill in the surrounding reality (Freire, 1983). Literacy codifies these objects and makes them tangible. It reinforces the development of pictorial representations that give form to an oral word (Freire, 1983).
However, when words are moving from the world, they are also moving back into this world, changing its essence. Writing as a form of literacy helps to re-think experiences, make relevant conclusions, and never repeat the same mistakes. It is through literacy that individuals can re-organize themselves and their attitudes toward the world.
Freire (1983) suggests that reading the word is impossible without reading the world, but reading the world is extremely difficult without being able to read the word. The word and the world shape a reciprocal link. Literacy is more than merely learning the syllables and making words. Rather, literacy helps to fill in the gaps in our understanding of the world.
Take a look at how Freire (1983) re-reads his childhood experiences and some moments of adolescence and young manhood, when he was first offered a chance to explore texts and engage in restless searching (Freire, 1983). Now, these experiences shape the basis for developing new philosophies of literacy. They drive the creation of new literacy ideals. Freire (1983) deciphers the world and uses this knowledge to change this world.
What Freire (1983) takes from this world further turns into an effective driver of freedom in learning and education. Literacy helps to release individuals from the burden of oppressive depository education and knowledge delivery. Literacy expands adult students’ potential and supports them in their learning endeavors.
When they take this knowledge from the surrounding reality and write it down, they break up their commitments with traditional education. Literacy students can use their knowledge and understanding of the world to transmit the message of literacy to others.
This message changes and improves the world. Literacy students change their habits and gradually come to use the written word as the key to personal and collective change.
Horsman (2006) creates a different view of the situation. However, like Freire (1983), Horsman (2006) tries to create a picture of literacy in its entirety: she shows how literacy changes women and their social habits. Horsman (2006) suggests that literacy has a potential to reduce and address different social ills, including violence.
It should be noted, that violence is a serious impediment to the development of effective literacy skills in women. Violence experiences discourage and belittle women (Horsman, 2006). Through violence, women learn that they are “too stupid to attend literacy courses” (Horsman, 2006). Violence contributes to early learning failures (Horsman 2006).
Battered women cannot successfully enroll in literacy courses; they have considerable doubts about their knowledge and skills (Horsman, 2006). Eventually, battered women experience the sense of fear, each time they see a book: they are afraid of seeing their own stupidity there (Horsman, 2006).
Needless to say, women that are scared by their own stupidity can hardly achieve any relevant learning results. By contrast, those who succeed in meeting the basic learning objectives have a good chance to reconstruct their experiences and improve their wellbeing.
Again, literacy and identity create a two-way street, in which identity affects literacy and literacy, in turn, paves the way for the development of new, non-violent identities. In case of violence, literacy is always the sign of women’s ability to overcome fear and doubts. That women engage in literacy courses means that they are able to eliminate their fears and are willing to achieve something better in life.
In the meantime, women’s participation in literacy courses produces a multitude of effects on their subjectivities and identities. First, women realize that they are not stupid. Second, they use their writing skills to deconstruct the knowledge of violence and re-assess their experiences.
Finally, they can use their writing and reading skills to question the place of violence in their lives. They develop beliefs and practices that separate violence from education and contribute to the creation of good educational practices (Horsman, 2006).
We have seen complex interrelations of literacy and power, especially as institutions promote and push literacy development and as the powers of institutions to coordinate and regulate people’s activities that are carried in text-mediated processes. In this context, workplace literacy and health literacy shed some light on a complex relationship between literacy and power.
Take a look at health literacy: health literacy is a concept that is equally new and old (Nutbeam, 2000). The term “health literacy” usually denotes patients’ ability to comply with “the prescribed therapeutic regimens” (Nutbeam 2000, p.263). Health literacy must be functional, communicative, and critical: it must give individuals the power to read and write medical information, critically analyze this information, and participate in health activities (Nutbeam, 2000).
Health literacy gives the sense of power, which expresses through greater personal and professional autonomy and empowerment (Nutbeam, 2000). Health literacy gives the sense of personal self-efficacy in health-related questions and issues (Nutbeam, 2000).
People with high levels of health literacy have better chances to manage, preserve, and improve their health. This is one of the reasons why governments and health care institutions promote health literacy: the latter is fairly regarded as an integral element of health and social mobilization programs (Nutbeam, 2000).
Unfortunately, modern systems and programs of health promotion have lost the meaning of health literacy and its implications for power relations. More specifically, governments and health institutions impose their vision of health literacy on people. As a result, literacy is detached from the objective and subjective realities of life. Health literacy works not for but against people.
It is done on people, instead of being created by people (Nutbeam, 2000). The current state of health education is severely limited to media campaigns, which have little or nothing to do with health literacy. Health literacy is an important health goal, but it cannot be successfully achieved, unless health literacy programs involve various contents and different methods of learning and information delivery (Nutbeam, 2000).
In a similar fashion, literacy enables mastering workplace skills and tasks. Literacy in the workplace is a unique source of knowledge about individual abilities and skills. “I know my job” – says Rosa, a character of Belfiore et al (2004) book. It is the sense of being knowledgeable that gives the feeling of personal efficacy, confidence, and power to master workplace knowledge and skills.
A person with high levels of workplace literacy can successfully manage and subordinate even the most problematic workplace tasks. However, workplace literacy goes beyond the limits of understanding and control in the workplace.
It is through literacy that workers can (a) critically analyze the meaning, content, and significance of paperwork and (b) comprehend and comply with the basic strategies and requirements in the workplace. Given the complexity of the manufacturing processes, workplace literacy helps individuals to understand and follow safety requirements.
It is the power over the manufacturing process, which workplace literacy gives to employees. However, again, governments, institutions, and organizations impose a heavy burden of literacy requirements on workers. Most, if not all, workplace literacy strategies and systems lack employee participation, which makes these strategies and systems difficult to understand.
The prevailing majority of company and workplace documents are hardly ever straightforward (Hunter et al, 2008). “While corporations strive to ensure quality control by standardizing language and literacy practices, additional meanings take shape as people engage with the workplace” (Hunter et al, 2008, p.11). In this situation, comprehensibility of the workplace documents is very difficult to achieve.
Even the best literacy skills cannot guarantee that employees are able to master their workplace complexities and tasks. If that is the case, the feeling of power can be easily restored through employee participation in collective literacy actions and decisions. These collective activities can ensure that literacy gives feeling of ownership, which Ewing (2003) describes in his paper.
It is the feeling of owning cultural practices and social opportunities, which become possible and available through literacy. Certainly, “ownership” means different things to different people. Some individuals write letters, whereas others use written language to resolve their social problems (Ewing, 2003). Nevertheless, literacy and ownership are deeply related.
As of today, literacy exemplifies a multidimensional concept, which comes in a variety of forms. Literacies are numerous, and so are their implications for social practices and cultural decisions. Literacy demonstrates a remarkable social potential, raises individual self-efficacy, and drives the development of new learning philosophies. Literacy permeates all spheres of life and transcends the boundaries of personal knowledge.
It is through literacy that individuals can successfully achieve their social and cultural goals. Unfortunately, not all literacy practices and instructional systems are equally effective. More often than not, institutions and governments do not realize the hidden social potential of literacy. The methods of measuring and evaluating literacy are numerous and varied.
However, they mostly observe how literate people are and do help to understand how people are literate. Nevertheless, literacy continues to be one of the most important instruments of social mobilization. It signifies the growing power of knowledge and supports the movement against oppression.
We have seen how complex interrelations of literacy and power coordinate and regulate people’s activities that are carried in text-mediated processes. Literacy in all its forms and images gives individuals the power of decision-making. It reconstructs the reality, denounces oppression, and helps to improve the world.
Barton, D. & Hamilton. M. (1998). How they’ve fared in education: Harry’s literacy practices. Routledge.
Belfiore, M.E., Defoe, T.A., Folinsbee, S., Hunter, J. & Jackson, N.S. (2004). Reading work: Literacies in the new workplace. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Ewing, G. (2003). The new literacy studies. Literacies, 1, 15-20.
Freire, P. (1983). The importance of the act of reading. Journal of Education, 165(1), 5-11.
Horsman, J. (2006). Moving beyond ‘stupid’: Taking account of the impact of violence on women’s learning. International Journal of Educational Development, 26, 177-188.
Hunter, J., Belfiore, M.H., Defoe, T., Folinsbee, S. & Jackson, N. (2008). Quality control in the new workplace: Implications of ethnography for language and literacy learners. Retrieved from http://www.ameprc.mq.edu.au/docs/prospect_journal/volume_23_no_2/QualityControl.pdf
Nutbeam, D. (2000). Health literacy as a public health goal: A challenge for contemporary health education and communication strategies into the 21st century. Health Promotion International, 15(3), 259-268.
Purcell-Gates, V., Degener, S., Jacobson, E. & Soler, M. (2001). Taking literacy skills home. Focus on Basics, 4(3), 1-4.