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Some writers regard literacy as a technology of the intellect, that it strengthens the

power of thought and contributes to the development of human consciousness, and

self-understanding. Provide a critical evaluation of this statement.

Keywords: Literacy, Language, Skill, Cognitive Processes, Education, Transmission

of Knowledge, Consciousness, Conscientisation, Freire

There is general acceptance that literacy brings about many benefits and empowers. What

is less conclusive are the ways in which literacy does so. Some writers regard literacy as

the technology of the intellect, that it strengthens the power of thought, and contributes to

the development of human consciousness and self-understanding. One can imagine how

this hypothesis may raise contention. It opens a Pandora’s box of difficult questions,

among them: Does being literate promote cognitive processes? If so, does this result in

heightened awareness? Does heightened awareness necessarily imply greater self-

understanding? How does literacy affect such changes; are these changes physiological,

psychological or behavioural in nature? How ‘literate’ does one need to be to set in

motion such developments?

To explore these various dimensions, we must first acknowledge that literacy

occupies multiple dimensions or spaces. As a functional skill, it has been equated with

social status and the opportunity for better employment; as a transformative skill, it has

been seen to promote thinking and habits conducive to continuous learning, and as a

political tool, it is seen to empower and liberate the learner from the oppression of

imposed servitude (Bantock, 1967, Freire, 2004, Kelder, 1996, Oxenham, 2004). At the

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heart of literacy debates remain the over-arching question of what constitutes literacy.

Earlier definitions of literacy, such as “the ability to read and write” (Oxenham, 1980, p.

15), put forward simplistic notions focused on the mastering of the alpha-numeric text.

This promulgated a view of literacy as an autonomous model; a “general, uniform set of

techniques and uses of language, with identifiable stages and clear consequences for

culture and cognition” (Collins, 1995, p. 75). Mass literacy campaigns, like those

promoted in the Third World under the auspices of organisations such as the World Bank

and UNESCO, lent primacy to the acquisition of language as a development goal in itself.

The promulgation of mass literacy was believed to “equate with overall development”

(Pennycook, 1999).

Mass literacy seemed to offer hope as an avenue in which to play catch-up with

the developed world. It was “expected to produce miracles among the poor – self-esteem,

empowerment, citizenship-building, community organisation, labour skills, income

generation, and even poverty alleviation” (Torres, 2003, p. 141, cited in Oxenham, 2004).

However, the promises of economic and social mobility associated with the acquisition of

literacy did not always eventuate as expected. Benefits accrued were neither uniform nor

universal. As Giroux (1987) cautioned, “literacy neither automatically reveals nor

guarantees social, political, and economic freedom” (p. 11). Royer (1994) and Kelder

(1996), in reviewing the experience of literate black slaves in North America and the

historical evolution of literacy studies respectively, refer to Graff’s use of the term

“literacy myth” (1987, p. 265); and reiterate that historically, how literacy has been

defined and linked to social, economic and political progress, as well as the development

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of cognitive skills, is mired in ambiguity. Hence, its mythical reputation for predicating

almost automatic or magical transformation has proven too narrow and simplistic to

capture the complexities of how literacy is actually acquired and practised.

As such, our exploration of literacy necessitates a broader conception. The

universalist or autonomous model of literacy mentioned above has been eschewed

somewhat; various relativist or situational models have been discussed in its stead in an

attempt to make sense of how literacy is embedded within diverse historical, cultural and

social contexts (Collins, 1995). In effect, we can no longer speak simply about literacy

but acknowledge that there are multiple literacies. The notion of multiple literacies has

come to the fore, fuelled in part by the dynamic changes brought about by globalisation.

As the world grows closer in terms of communication, the complications brought about

by the diversity of languages, the many ways in which people communicate and new

modes of communication have necessitated new literacy concepts. Literacy is no longer

restricted to mastery of the alphabet or numeracy; it “transcends the written word and

other representational texts such as visual art, television, information technologies and

photography…” (Rassool, 1999, p. 50), it encompasses “other forms of cultural

expression which do not use the spoken language” (UNESCO, 1999, p. 2) and includes

localised forms of literacy which reflect “the ‘applied’ nature of the skills” (Oxenham,

2004, p. 1). Literacy is therefore not a decontextualised psychological skill that is static in

nature; instead, “people are continuously modifying established literacy practices,

adapting them to new situations, and, at times, straightforwardly challenging and

sabotaging established literary practices” (Sheridan, Street and Bloome, 2000, p. 5). As a

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result, various expressions of communication beyond that of the oral and written varieties

are now formally recognised to constitute particular forms of literacy (UNESCO, 1999,


Nevertheless, literacy – regardless of how it is defined – remains a paramount

goal; it continues to underpin the universal human right to education: “it is a right and the

foundation for all learning” (UNESCO, 2006, p. 448). The development of a literate

culture continues to be credited with the empowerment of citizens and with the

development of political, economic, cultural and social infrastructure in nations. As

recently as 2006, the annual UNESCO Education for All Global Monitoring Report

touted the many potential benefits of literacy; among them, improved self-esteem in the

individual, expansion of democracy, preservation of cultural diversity, promotion of

gender equality and economic growth. It is evident then that the shining promises

associated with literacy have not lost their lustre; they continue to exert hope and remain

“fundamental to informed decision-making, personal empowerment, active and passive

participation in (the) local and global social community” (Stromquist, 2005, p. 12). As

literacy remains the cornerstone upon which systems of education are constructed,

discourses about literacy, language and education are rarely examined in isolation. In the

following sections, our inquiry into literacy and its impact on human development will

necessitate the use of the terms ‘literacy’ and ‘education’ interchangeably to reflect this

symbiotic relationship.

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Literacy: a skill or a cognitive process?

The brief examination of the various concepts of literacy above does not lead us any

closer to identifying how literacy may impact upon cognitive skills or greater self-

awareness. However, it does set the scene for our inquiry. For one, it suggests that the

issue of literacy, if viewed at surface level, can be deceptively simple. Secondly, the

various concepts of literacy highlight that literacy is not merely a thing to be acquired, it

is multidimensional and carries far-ranging connotations from communicative

competencies, cultural continuity to power relations.

When we engage with the written word, we are not merely concerned with text

construction, we ascribe multi-layered meanings to what is written and read and in so

doing, the act of writing and reading is at once symbolic, metaphoric and culturally

suggestive. Therefore, the potential impact of literacy on the learner is not confined to the

ability to make out letters or words; for the written and printed word carries within it “a

whole traditional culture of great verbal, emotional, and intellectual complexity”

(Bantock, 1967, p. 20). Hence, acquiring the technique that allows one to comprehend

letters, words, numbers or images is not the ultimate goal.

Method or technique by itself does not promote understanding; the learner

understands only when he actively reflects, questions and assimilates what is learnt. This

dialectical process between the learner and his learning is what informs true learning and

promotes consciousness (Chochol, 1968). Therefore, the process of how literacy is

acquired, developed and applied, the process of becoming literate if you will, is what

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provides insight into the power of literacy on the development of the self. In short, it is

not whether one reads and writes but whether one “understand(s) what one reads and to

write what one understands” (Freire, 1996a, p. 48) that suggests the degree of cognition

or consciousness. And what one does with what one understands is reflective of the

transformative power of literacy, for to “every understanding, sooner or later an action

corresponds. The nature of the action corresponds to the nature of the understanding.

Critical understanding leads to critical action.” (Freire, 1996a, p. 44).

Therefore, in exploring the impact of literacy on the intellect and consciousness,

one must acknowledge that there are two distinct and separate issues at stake. We need to

distinguish between skills, or operational methods or techniques, from cognitive

processes (Scheffler, 1991). Scheffler illustrated this differentiation through the example

of how basic mathematical skills are acquired and applied. He suggested that the ability

to follow a mathematical argument is not derived from acquiring mathematical skills per

se but that it also involved “psychologically significant skills” that are utilised and

required outside of mathematical problem-solving, such as “perceptual, symbolic,

inferential, mnemonic, questioning, strategic and imaginative capacities” (p. 73-76).

Scheffler therefore proposed that while skills can be taught, understanding or cognitive

processes cannot, because “there is no substance to the notion that there must be simple

rules for translating methods or operations into underlying psychological processes” (p.

72). To rephrase this, we can say that how we use our literacy skills may reveal how we

think but our literacy skills in themselves do not determine how we think. In this case,

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skill is separated from the cognitive process; how they may possibly correlate forms the

next section of our inquiry.

Literacy and the cognitive processes

Goody and Watt (1963), for example, have presented that literacy promotes rational

logic. They point to traditional literary societies such as Greek literacy society,

comparing this to traditional oral societies, for evidence of “characteristically analytic,

teleological and relational thinking (p. 341).” Their basis for the supposition that literacy

led to the development of rational logic rested upon their assertion that writing creates a

“different kind of relationship between the word and its referent,” one which created an

objective distance that engendered abstract thinking. It allowed the writer “to objectify

his own experience” (p. 339) and put down his thoughts for posterity and reflexive

analysis. Goody and Watt proposed that through the act of recording, one could engage in

critical analysis in a categorical, abstractive fashion; the past is viewed as distinctly

separate from the present, and thus, is freed from the constraints of the immediacy of

time. In their argument, traditional oral societies lacked in this regard and were therefore

“restricted to (the) impermanency of oral converse” (p.344). In so doing, they argued, a

literate society is “impelled to a much more conscious, comparative and critical attitude

to the accepted world picture” (p. 325).

Goody and Watt’s premise is echoed somewhat by Bantock (1967) who suggested

that to learn to read and write implies “modifications of consciousness” (p. 112) as the

written text afforded one the opportunity to “look forwards and backwards, to ponder and

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repeat…” resulting in the development of cognitive processes which were “sequential”

and “linear.” (p. 119) Bantock proposed that in this way “logic and structure came to

dominate over tone and feeling,” promoting greater introspection or “inwardness,” which

in turn “stimulated extended experience” (p. 120-121). Unlike Goody and Watt however,

Bantock went one step further and linked the cognitive processes to emotion and identity,

suggesting that the ability to read and thus, share (though from a distance) the

experiences of others, forged greater empathy and also created a sense of identity, with

the self and with others. While Bantock was steadfast in his acknowledgement of the

potential benefits of literacy for self-development, he was mindful that literacy, if offered

as a one-size-fits-all prescription, would “induce… a widespread apathy, once the basic

skills of reading and writing have been – often tardily – acquired” (p. 130).

In a scathing rebuttal, Halverson (1992) challenged Goody and Watt’s premise

that literacy develops logical thinking. By presenting several examples, such as the oral

practices inherent in Talmudic scholarship, he proposed that “logical processes do not

require abstraction” (p. 307). In so doing, Halverson refuted the claim that different

mental capacities were required to critically analyse information or order thinking when

dealing in written as opposed to oral form. Halverson argued that literacy skills and

cognitive processes are inter-related but not inter-dependent. His disagreement with

Goody and Watt’s literacy thesis had less to do with their assertion that the writings of

traditional literate societies provided evidence of rational logic; rather, that such

evidentiary proof was offered up as equating to causal proof. In Halverston’s view,

“languages do not think, only individuals do” (p. 314), therefore, just because rational,

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logical and conceptual thinking is evident in the writings of literate societies, it did not

establish prima facie cause for such thinking.

Instead, Halverson asserted that it was “a certain type of schooling, not literacy,

that develops the kind of rationality in question” (p. 312). Collins (1995) cautions

similarly, that it has been the “failing to separate effects of schooling from effects of

literacy” (p. 80) that has resulted in a misconception of literacy’s impact on the cognitive

processes. Therefore, if how literacy is taught, rather than the acquisition of literacy per

se, serves as a catalyst for the development of cognitive processes, it would also stand to

reason that pedagogy is the determining factor to what type of cognitive process is

promoted, practised and rewarded. Whether or not this process extends to increased

cognition or self-awareness is another matter. This further implies that there must be

pedagogies which promote cognition and some which do not. To elaborate on this point

for the purposes of clarity, it is my assertion that cognitive processes inform how a

learner thinks things through but this does not equate to cognition, or awareness of self in

relation to others. That is, how I think is distinct from what I think about in terms of

myself and others.

When Halverson suggested that a ‘kind of rationality’ was promulgated by a

‘certain type of schooling’ he was critiquing primarily Western-schooling environments

which promoted what he termed “modes of Western rationality” (p. 312). In brief, his

contention was that the kind of rational logic prized by Western academics was shaped by

teaching and learning contexts which promoted and rewarded the demonstration of a

particular form of deductive reasoning. As evidence of further proof, he referred to the

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results from the Vai Literacy Project conducted by Scribner and Cole (1981), where

comparisons were made between the performance of Vai subjects who were literate but

who had not received formal schooling to those who had received schooling. It was found

that the amount of schooling exerted the most influence on how students answered logic

problem questions. Therefore, in this case, literacy in itself was determined not to be the

influencing factor in the shaping of rational logic of the kind suggested by Goody and

Watt; rather, it was the learning context.

Education: knowledge transmission or promotion of consciousness?

If whether one is schooled influences one’s cognitive processes, what about those who do

not receive formal schooling? Rather than infer an inferior kind of rational logic or lack

thereof, it should be expected that someone who is unschooled and illiterate would

demonstrate a less standardised and predictable reasoning. Cognitive skills are evident

whether or not one is schooled or literate. Scribner and Cole asserted this when they


“The assumption that logicality is in the text and the text is in school can lead to a

serious underestimation of the cognitive skills involved in non-school, non-essay

writing, and reciprocally, to an overestimation of… intellectual skills….”

(Scribner and Cole, 1988, p. 61.)

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Scheffler alluded to the same when he proposed that method or skills should not

be mistaken for the cognitive processes. Therefore, we can surmise that how an

individual expresses reasoning, whether in song, through dance or other forms of

communication apart from reading and writing, is equally demonstrative, evidentiary and

valid. However, reasoning – and by extension consciousness – can be subverted or

expanded depending on whether or not the student is included as the architect of his own

learning. As Shor (1993) advanced, whether a student is allowed to critically examine his

learning, question and reflect upon his experience or interpret his own reality, will

influence his level of consciousness.

Indeed, it has been the contention of many writers that ‘schooled literacy’ often

results in a top-down transfer of standardised knowledge that does little to empower the

individual or promote his consciousness. In such cases, the goal of literacy is not to

promote cognition, raise awareness or allow the identity of the self to emerge, but to

subjugate learners to patterned thoughts and ideas, and by extension, to a bound reality; it

is education that “reproduces the dominant ideology” (Freire and Macedo, 1987, p.38).

An alternate pedagogy, one that empowers, is education that promotes teaching and

learning from the “inside out” (Freire, 1996, p. 48).

Giroux (1987, 1993, 2006) has, on numerous occasions, argued against literacy

which simply offers “transmission and mastery of a unitary Western tradition” (1987, p.

3) and pointed out, rather cynically, that this is a result of collusion between enterprise

and education to churn out workers for the job market; even going as far as to suggest

this reduces training costs for employers. Chonchol (1968) raised a similar point with

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regards to education; he cautioned against a perception of education as a “systematic

extension of knowledge” (p. 138), where the teacher is viewed as all-knowing and

students as mere recipients of knowledge. Chonchol suggested that such a conception of

education dehumanised as it did not promote consciousness within the student. Shor

(1993) termed such education as a process that domesticates and under-develops rather

than liberates the learner. Along this same cautionary vein, Collins (1995) has likened the

mass promulgation of literacy as a “hegemonic project.” In his view, this has resulted in

the “displacement of non-standard varieties of language,” the “discrediting of alternate

literacies” (p. 84) and reinforced social divisions pitting those who are literate against

those who are illiterate. The results can be disastrous. In referring to the Native American

experience for illustration, Collins suggests that literacy and schooling have perpetuated

“cultural genocide and self-loss” (p. 85). Hence, we can deduce that literacy or education

which transmits knowledge subverts consciousness for it is based on “a discourse of

recognition whose aim is reduced to revealing and transmitting universal truths” (Giroux,

1993, p. 178).

Instead, education that empowers and promotes consciousness must therefore be

one which respects the learner’s context, engages the learner as a free agent in his own

learning, and equips him with the tools to take necessary action for further self-

development. It must impart upon the learner a sense of self, a thirst for inquiry and

exploration, the ability to confidently assess and reflect upon his own learning, as well as

acquaint him with himself and the world about him (Bantock, 1976, Scheffler, 1991).

Scheffler (1991), in referring to Dewey (1961), concurred that the aim of education must

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“first and foremost… develop critical methods of thought. Its task is not to indoctrinate a

particular point of view but rather to help generate those powers of assessment and

criticism by which diverse points of view may themselves be responsibly judged” (p.

146). To do so requires enlisting “the student’s purposes in learning, so that the relation

of the various studies to his own choices may become evident” (p. 148). Undoubtedly,

the most well-known of pedagogies which exemplify the above would be of that taught

and practised by the Brazilian educator Freire. For example, the objective behind the

adult education program he coordinated in Recife was not focused merely on teaching

adults to read, but “how to read in relation to the awakening of their consciousness”

(Freire, 1996a, p. 43). Consciousness, according to Freire, meant “conscience of the

world” for this “engenders conscience of the self, and of others in the world, and with the

world.” Further, Freire stressed that “it is by acting in the world that we make ourselves”

(Freire, 2004, p. 72). In short, Freire advocated literacy education which not only

empowered but promoted a realisation of self and a demanded that one exercise one’s

potential as an agent for social change.

The basis of Freirean pedagogy lies in his belief that man is in a constant

dialectical exchange with himself and with his world, that “the role of man was not only

to be in the world, but to engage in relations with the world” (Freire, 1996a, p. 43). In

proposing this, Freire charged the individual as agent and interventionist in his own

reality and his own learning. He imbued the individual with the power of creation; what

was man made he termed culture, distinct from that of the world of nature. Hence,

whether one was literate or illiterate, he was not powerless; he was not subjugated to

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adapt to the reality about him. Instead, he had the power within him to create culture and

by extension, his reality. Therefore, upon acquiring the skills to read and write, another

avenue for participation is open to the illiterate. The act of communicating, of forming

words, of writing it down or reading become acts of culture. Thus the learner, through

creating literate culture, becomes co-creator of his reality by inserting himself into an

extended world, one which, if he were illiterate, he would be reduced to the periphery. In

this way, “literacy learners” become “active subjects” rather than “mere incidentals”

(2004, p. 70). Therefore, man first reads the world, then the word; after which “reading

the word implies continually reading the world” (Freire and Macedo, 1987, p. 35). In this

way, “literacy education,” equates to “an act of knowing” (Freire, 1996b, p. 128).

Knowledge and consciousness expands, for “the more accurately men grasp true

causality, the more critical their understanding of reality will be” (Freire, 1996a, p. 43).

Therefore, to be literate is to be actively engaged, not a state of attainment to be simply

achieved. As Giroux (1987) has suggested, “to be literate is not to be free, it is to be

present and active in the struggle for reclaiming one’s voice, history and future” (p. 11).

The use of literacy education in such a context empowers because it engages

individuals as “historical and ethical beings, capable of opting, of deciding, of breaking

away” (Freire, 2004, p. 73). Thus, it is pedagogy that champions hope, reveals hitherto

unseen choices and promotes possibilities. It propels the learner to engage with the

written word in such a way as to see literacy as not external from himself or reserved

specifically for the elite or literates. It challenges the learner to move from a limited

consciousness that suggests his situation is hopeless and fatalistic, to one of critical

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consciousness, where “men reflect about themselves and about the world they are in and

with” (Freire, 1996a, p. 81). It promotes literacy not as a skill to be mastered but as a tool

for expanding consciousness.

This approach to literacy, inherent in Freire’s pedagogy, has been applied by more

than 350 organisations in 60 or more countries. ActionAid, for example, utilises a

strategy called REFLECT (Regenerated Freirean Literacy through Empowering

Community Techniques), which allow for participants to express themselves through

various communicative means such as graphs, maps and the like. In doing so, participants

first learn to read their world before naming them through words and numbers. Upon

critically reflecting on their situations, the participants then prepare action points to

realise these into concrete results. Thus, the learner acquires not just literacy skills but

“an attitude of creation and re-creation, a self-transformation providing a stance of

intervention in one’s context” (Freire, 1996a, p. 48).


We have explored the many potential benefits of literacy, chief among them as to

whether literacy strengthens the power of thought, and contributes to the development of

human consciousness and self-understanding. In doing so, we have proven that literacy is

not a “monolithic technology with predictable social and cognitive consequences”

(Brandt, 1990, p. 25, cited in Royer, 1994). We have also established that historically,

how literacy has been defined and understood, has influenced how literacy has been

taught. When delivered merely as a means to transmit knowledge, it limits the learner’s

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exercise and practise of consciousness. We conclude that the power of literacy does not

lie in the ability to read and write, but rather to understand what it means to read and

write. It is only through understanding the larger implications of literacy that literacy can

be harnessed to promote consciousness and self-understanding.

“Literacy makes sense only in these terms, as the consequence of men’s

beginning to reflect about their own capacity for reflection, about their world,

about their position in the world… about literacy itself, which thereby ceases to

be something external and becomes a part of them, comes as a creation from

within them.”

(Freire, 1996a, p.81)

Word count: 4,103 words

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