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Concept of Literacy

Concept of Literacy

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Published by: tariqghayyur2 on Jun 18, 2012
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Concept of Literacy
The word ‘literacy’ has taken on many meanings. Originally
literacy simply meant reading and writing (sometimes aslittle as w
riting one’
s own name). But the term has expanded far beyond reading and writing. People oftenuse terms like
‘computer literacy’ to mean the ability to use c
omputers for tasks like word processing and email, and
political literacy
’ to mean understanding
how the political system works and how to take part in it. A Google searchturns up many more contexts in which the term literacy is used:
environmental literacy (for example www.enviroliteracy.org) 
information literacy(for example www.infolit.org) 
media literacy (for example www.medialit.org andwww.medialiteracy.com)
financial literacy (for examplewww.mymoney.gov andwww.jumpstart.org)
scienceliteracy (for examplewww.project2061.org) 
emotional literacy (for example www.antidote.org.uk) 
cultural literacy (forexample www.readfaster.com/culturalliteracy.asp) 
visualliteracy(for example www.ivla.org) 
health literacy(for examplewww.hsph.harvard.edu/healthliteracy) 
business literacy (for example www.business-literacy.com) 
The term ‘something
literacy’s of 
ten used to mean a sense of mastery of skills and knowledge in the
This use of the term literacy has some key elements in common with the original use of the term:
an element of obtaining access to information, which is often not so much about skills orknowledge as about power and participation;
a sense of two-way communication
for every ‘reader’ there is a ‘writer’. In areas like health and
financial literacy there is as much emphasis on helping the creators of information materials tomake them accessible, as on educating people to be able to read them
the concept of not just having skills but also understanding a topic well enough to be able to apply
it and use it in one’s own life;
an aspect of critical awareness (for example being aware of the source of the information, thepotential bias, how it might be used)Sometimes the overall concept of literacy includes numeracy, the application of mathematical activity insocial and cultural contexts. Numeracy is a parallel concept to literacy: it is based on a set of mathematical skills (like estimating, measuring, and calculating) but needs to be viewed much morebroadly in terms of how these are applied in life and shaped by the social and cultural environment.
Literacy learning through life
Adults use literacy for many purposes and acquire literacy in many ways. The motivation to improveliteracy in adult life is frequently connected to change, whether in personal lifeor in society. Adults mayrecognisea need to improve their literacy skillswhen theystart a new job, when their childrenstart school and want help with homework, when a relationship ends, or when they lose their usual forms of  employment. Societal changes demanding new skills in literacyand numeracymay include economic or forced migration,industrialization and the passing of subsistence economies and traditional forms of  labour, social and economic development, and deepening of democracy. Worldwide, fewer women thanmen are literate, as fewer girls attend school. When women become literate the power dynamics between women and men changeWh
at it means to be ‘literate’ has
shifted over the years. Where once it was enough to be able to write
name, by the late twentieth century it was clearthat more was needed in industrialized countries. Governments around the world have at different times identified the need to increase the educationallevel of their population, primarily through schooling but also through adult literacy programmes.These programmes have different ideological and political bases. Many aredesigned to up-skill theworkforce, whether directly or through improving the educational level of women and consequentlytheir
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
The idea
of’ literacy
skills’ underpins
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
of’ info
competencies’ or 
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
goals, and 
to develop one’s knowledge and potential.
 (OECD 2000)
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.
Literacy is also linked to language and identity. For example, many indigenous communities with theirown languages find it problematic to access the language of power. Literacy instruction in their ownlanguage may be more comfortable, and may reinforce their cultural identity, but may not address theirability to engage in the mainstream and with holders of power.
What we think
We accept the importance of mastering the skills and knowledge of reading and writing in literacyeducation, but recognise that these are not a single set of skills applicable in all circumstances. Learningthe skills is not enough: the focus of literacy education must be on application of skills in the lives of learners
Literacy as tasks
The recognition that literacy is more than an abstract set of skills to manipulate text led to a morecontextualised view of literacy as the ability to accomplish tasks in daily life. This approach has generallybeen described as
‘functional literacy’.
However, as with competency the term has sometimes been usedloosely.
The term ‘functional literacy’
was first coined by the United States Army during the Second
World War to indicate ‘the capability
to understand written instructions necessary for conducting basicmilitary functions and
tasks’. In
functional literacy approaches, the abstract ability to decode text is lessimportant than the ability to carry out life tasks
most often those related to work.The definition of functional literacy adopted at the UNESCO General Conference in 1978 is still in use,almost 30 years after it was created:A person is functionally literate who can engage in all those activities in which literacy is required foreffective functioning of his [sic] group and community and also for enabling him to continue to usereading, writing and
calculation for his own and the community’s development.
 (UNESCO 2005a: 30)
UNESCO’s Experimental World Literacy
Programmed (EWLP) in the 1970swas intended to promotefunctional literacy for specific groups of adults in key growth sectors of the economy within certaincountries designated as ready for economic
off’. It
was intended to distinguish this approach fromone focusing on individual needs or aspirations
the important ‘functional tasks’ were
to be defined bygovernment. Thus
the ‘literacy as tasks’ approach
to literacy education as promoted by UNESCO andmany national governments from the 1970s onward has a specific ideological connotation.Later programmes taking a functional literacy approach incorporated a wider array of tasks in spheresbeyond work, including citizenship, families, and community involvement. Nevertheless the functionalliteracy approach usually defines the important tasks in advance and from the outside.
Critics say that task-based literacy programmes have had limited success(Rissole 1999).They have failedto engage with the cultural and social complexities of literacy and by defining literacy so narrowly havefailed to engage learners or achieve lasting changes in their lives. Functional approaches to literacy tendto ignore differences and impose a uniform set of literacyactivities on everyone
the use of ‘he’ in
the definition is no accident. However, within any societydifferent groups and individuals perform different kinds of literacy tasks
women’s and men’s literacy’s
may be different, rural and urban dwellers, market traders and farm-workers may all engage in differentliteracy tasks. One size cannot fit all.
What we think
Functional literacy approaches take an important step toward focusing on application, not just possession,of skills. However, functional literacy programmes have often taken a narrow and top-down view of literacy tasks. They have ignored important differences rooted in social and cultural contexts. By startingfrom the outside in defining what is important to learn, they fail to nurture autonomous and reflectivelearners. Learning to carry out literacy tasks is not enough: literacy education needs to be more responsivetithe full range of literacy practices.
Literacy as social practices
social-contextual approaches

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