Articles, Literacy, Reading

What is literacy?

Old man reading a newspaper while sitting in a park.

What do we mean by LITERACY?

LITERACY rates are a major concern across the world today, especially here in South Africa. Therefore, it is very important that we understand exactly what we mean when we talk about literacy.

Any confusion over the term ‘literacy’ is probably brought about by the fact that the definition of ‘literacy’ has evolved over time. Let’s start with what is traditionally understood by the word literacy.

The traditional / conventional definition of the word literacy.

Traditionally, literacy refers to the ability of an individual to read and write.

A long time ago, it used to be as simple as that. If you could read from a book and write a letter, you were regarded as literate. Being literate was part of being educated and back then education was reserved for the wealthy elite only. Thankfully, things have changed and over time school education and literacy have become accessible to many more people, to the point where it is often taken for granted.

Not so here, in sunny South Africa though, where due to history and poverty we are still fighting to improve our literacy levels and for the right to equal, quality basic education. Even in one of our economic hubs, Johannesburg, where money and resources are more abundant than in other communities, we struggle to create an even playing field for all.

This traditional type of literacy could be referred to as ‘language literacy’. Looking at it simplistically, language literacy usually begins with the development of speaking skills in young children. Speaking skills should then lead on to the development of reading skills and subsequently to writing skills.

Speaking skills appear to develop organically, without too much effort, because the child assimilates and absorbs spoken language through the environment with relative ease. This is as a result of daily exposure to the sounds of speech that they hear around them. They mimic those speaking around them, get corrected by experienced speakers and experience success as a reward for their communication attempts. For example, picture the cute toddler gurgling out ‘mama’ incoherently for the first time, as everyone claps and cheers with broad grins and shiny eyes, giving the child lots of attention and encouragement. Reward.

There are very few home environments where a young child is not exposed to language. However, there are many homes in South Africa where children are not exposed to reading, books and people writing extensively around them.

We must keep in mind that key to the development of language literacy is the development of reading skills. Reading skills evolve in a less organic way than speaking skills do, which requires greater effort. The development of reading skills depends heavily on environmental influences and the availability of resources, as well as explicit instruction. In South Africa it is more likely that a child will end up in an environment deprived of reading, rather than a home environment where they are deprived of spoken language.

This is why many children in South Africa do not learn to read well or do not develop high literacy levels, even though they commendably speak several different languages fluently.

Developing reading skills requires an environment …

  • where reading is modeled as part of daily life.
  • which is print-rich (in other words there is reading material readily available).
  • where the skill of reading is actively encouraged in the child through exposure, participation, enjoyment and routine.
  • where there is already some development in the understanding of the spoken word.
  • where the development of the ability to decode the written word is encouraged and fostered on a daily basis and not just left up to the school environment to instill in the child.
  • that does not encourage rote learning (learning by memorizing) of whole words but rather through the application of code knowledge and the use of encoding and decoding skills that have been taught.
  • where there is an understanding that reading skill development takes place on a progression, over time and takes work.
  • where lots of opportunity for practice is provided for.
  • where encouragement and praise is given, just like it is given when we clap for a toddler who utters his/her first few words.
  • where it is understood that over time the deeper meaning and subtleties of the language will develop through repeated exposure to vocabulary, which is seen in different contexts through reading.

All of the above leads to an improvement in…

  • the understanding of and correct use of spoken language for the purposes of communication,
  • as well as an understanding of and the accurate production of written language for the same purpose.

Reading involves:

The coming together of this awareness results in high levels of understanding and comprehension, which then results in greater reading fluency. Thereafter, the more a child reads the more exposure he/she gains to the written word, which then leads to improved verbal and writing skills. Overall, this means an improvement in general literacy levels.

We have to understand that schools can only do so much and therefore the exposure and work has to continue at home on a daily basis.

For further information on developing a culture of reading and why it is so important to read at home every day, please click here and here.

The modern definition of the word literacy

We have all heard of computer literacy or digital literacy. These terms are widely used and we understand these concepts well. The traditional definition of the word ‘literacy’ has became outdated or at least not inclusive enough.

Experts at a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) meeting proposed defining literacy as the “ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts”. (Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Literacy). My understanding of the meaning of ‘contexts’ is as a reference to platforms or technologies. So what the experts are saying is that literacy is now allencompassing of platforms and contexts. It involves being able to read, listen, speak, understand, interpret, identify, compute and communicate through speech and written text within various contexts or technologies.

Once again the focus is on understanding information in the written / printed form and producing coherent information back in the written / printed form, regardless of the context, technology or platform used. So believing that children do not, and will not, require traditional literacy skills in today’s world or the future, is completely unfounded.

In fact, if anything, there is even more demand being made on our traditional literacy skills than ever before as they are required to process a much greater volume of written information, on multiple platforms and at a faster pace.

Matthew Lynch at The Edvocate highlights and explains 13 different types of literacies.

  • Digital literacy
  • Media Literacy
  • Recreational Literacy
  • Diciplinary Literacy
  • Civic Literacy
  • Multicultural Literacy
  • Information Literacy
  • Functional Literacy
  • Content Literacy
  • Early Literacy
  • Developmental Literacy
  • Balanced Literacy
  • Critical Literacy

You can read the full article here. The solid foundation for the development of these literacies he refers to lies in traditional literacy, namely speaking, reading and writing.

Below you will see two further examples of some of the different types of literacies talked about today.

The point is that the development of these other forms of literacy in no way diminishes the importance of being able to read and write fluently, or the fact that traditional literacy is a foundation that needs to be built solidly in order for other literacies to develop effectively. Our language fluency and literacy levels can have a direct effect on our ability to further develop certain other types of literacies.

Literacy Advance defines literacy as follows:

Literacy is the ability to read, write, speak and listen, and use numeracy and technology, at a level that enables people to express and understand ideas and opinions, to make decisions and solve problems, to achieve their goals, and to participate fully in their community and in wider society. Achieving literacy is a lifelong learning process.

https://www.literacyadvance.org/About_Us/Defining_Literacy/

I appreciate the fact that Literacy Advance highlights the fact that achieving literacy is a lifelong journey, which allows one to make effective decisions, solve problems, achieve goals and to constructively participate in community and society.

What we take away from this is that being LITERATE no longer means that you can read, write and speak just adequately. It can now refer to how solid your reading, writing and speaking foundation is, and how this foundation enables you to further develop other literacies that allow you to participate effectively in society in a variety of ways.

As a society, we have to find ways to ensure that literacy is a given, that across rich and poor communities, enormous effort is put into ensuring that literacy, as defined in our modern context, can be achieved by everyone. It must NOT be left up to NPO’s to fill this role in pockets of poorer communities, where a difference is made, but to only the few that can be reached. There needs to be a well thought out, systemic plan in place to address this. It will cost money and time but in the long term, it will save money and resources that are being spent and used in other areas.

Additional links:

Further reading

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