influence on the family and therefore the future workforce. Some have had social or political purposeslike embedding revolutionarychange, changing the power dynamics between women and men, andextending democraticparticipation.
Concepts of literacy
Within the history of adult literacy education there are competing ideas of what literacy is and whatshould be done about it. There are at least four broad kinds of responses to the question of what isliteracy:1. Literacy means the ability
or the skills
to read and write (often called the competency approach). 2. Literacy means engaging in tasks that require the written word and are considered essential for life andwork (often called the functional approach). 3. Literacy means a set of social and cultural practices linked by the use of the written word (often calledthe social practices approach). 4. Literacy means a tool for critical reflection and action for social change (often called the radicalapproach).
Literacy as skills
much traditional schooling, where the focus is on skills such asphonics (sound
letter association) and knowledge like spelling and grammar rules. In adult literacy, theseare generally found in primer-based approaches. Definitions of literacy based on skills are often called
‘competency’ approaches. The
term is sometimes used loosely and confused
with ‘functional’ li
teracy.Tobe clear, the
term ‘literacy as skills’ is
used in this book.In the Organisation for Economic Co-
operation and Development’s (OECD
) International Adult LiteracyStudy (IALS) and similar recent initiatives, literacy is conceived as a set
skills. The literacy definition used in IALS surveys conducted between 1996
2000 has aprimary focus on skills, but recognizes the uses of skills in daily life:
The ability to understand and employ printed information in daily activities, at home, at work and in thecommunity
to achieve one’s
to develop one’s knowledge and potential.
The skills are viewed as generic and independent of the context in which they are used, so a skill used inone setting can be applied in another and can be measured though tests. Indeed, the IALS uses commontest items to measure literacy in different countries, providing comparative data across social, cultural,and economic boundaries. While the IALS has been the dominant measure of literacy skills in the North,it has also spawned similar kinds of literacy surveys in countries in the South.The IALS has given new life to skills-based approaches to adult literacy education in countries of theNorth including the UK and USA. In England the Skills for Life strategy is a skills-based approachreflecting the continued dominance of school-based understandings of literacy. In the USA many adultbasic education programmes have a similar focus on skills. The drive for performance accountability aspart of New Public Management, widelyadopted in such countries, requires measures of performance; theskills approach focuses on the kinds of skills that can be easily measured ins tandardised tests.
Critics of such approaches argue that literacy activities never exist in isolation but always within socialand cultural contexts, and that these shape particular patterns of reading and writing (Street 1984).The
literacy’s associated with different domains within a single society are different, and so are the literacy’s
of different cultural and social groups within and between societies. If this is the case then international
comparisons are inappropriate and misleading, and ‘skills’ cannot usefully be taught on their own.
As anthropologist Brian Street says, literacy is never simply a neutral and generic set of skills (ibid).
Literacy is always ‘ideological’ in the sense of being embedded in social, cultural, and political systems
and reflecting issues of power and identity. The literacy of schools and government offices may seemmore important than the literacy of the market-place. Power relationships mean that some literacypractices become dominant and others less visible and valued because they are associated with lesspowerful groups
like indigenous peoples, women, lower castes, or ethnic minorities.