The meaning of the term ‘literacy’ continues to be something of an enigma. It’s important to have an understanding of what constitutes literacy, and why we are so focused on it in our schools and the wider society.
At first glance, ‘literacy’ would seem to be a term that everyone understands. But at the same time, literacy as a concept has proved to be both complex and dynamic, continuing to be interpreted and defined in a multiplicity of ways. People’s notions of what it means to be literate or illiterate are influenced by academic research, institutional agendas, national context, cultural values and personal experiences.
Literacy is difficult to define, and to ideally articulate what it is. What we do understand is that the skills and understandings and thinking that are required to be literate contribute to personal and societal health and well-being.
Literacy is not a subject. Literacy does not have any of the qualities that subjects have, like a body of knowledge, or its own particular language structures and features.
A subject can be described as an area of disciplinary knowledge, skills and understanding, reflecting custom and practice within the discipline. The curriculum determines what young people will learn, and achievement standards describe the depth of understanding and the sophistication of knowledge and skill expected of students.
Literacy does not have these features.
But what is it?
When we think of literacy we tend to think of reading, writing, spelling, grammar, or numeracy. Literacy includes these things but is also a broad concept encompassing much more. It is the ability to use an ever changing set of tools in situations we experience. Literacy gives us access to opportunities, challenges, and enjoyment in our society.
In the NSW Department of Education, literacy is described as
‘the ability to understand and evaluate meaning through reading, writing, listening and speaking, viewing and representing’
We can see what literacy involves. But it seems to be almost impossible to define.
The UK’s National Literacy and Numeracy Strategies from 1996 to 2005 were established to improve the pedagogy and the quality of children’s learning in literacy and mathematics in every primary school classroom in England. This focus shifted to most western countries.
An explosion of activity around the teaching of literacy occurred. A ‘literacy block’ of teaching time was allocated in every primary classroom. This block of time was broken into intense, separate and often quite disparate, learning activities, all of which were intended to ‘improve’ literacy – this indefinable being.
Reading was a focus and activities included being read to, sharing reading, learning the skills of reading, practising reading, practising different skills of reading such as word recognition and letter-sound matching through games and exercises, and worksheets. Activities for writing, handwriting, spelling, grammar, speaking, listening, understanding types of text, were included, and students worked in small groups, pairs, whole classes, while teachers addressed and met all their needs. One teacher I have worked with said that by the time she had done all this other stuff with her students, she, ‘quite frankly’, didn’t have time for literacy. ‘Literacy’ teaching programs have become profitable.
But literacy is the capacity to apply the skills of these disparate elements into real-life and real-school situations. Literacy must have a context. This is where literacy occurs.
In Australia, a renewed emphasis on a national approach to curriculum has contributed to the recognised need for change. New syllabus documents have been produced, and various strategies to help incorporate the increasing numbers of outcomes that teachers are to address and students are to achieve, have been developed.
The assessment materials have most recently emphasised the disparate elements that are certainly components of strategies and understandings that students need to use in their learning.
The recent addition to national resources for supporting teachers and students, the National Literacy and Numeracy Progressions have been developed to support teachers to effectively work with students on the literacy within the requirements of subjects.
The progressions do not describe what to teach; they provide a detailed map of how students become increasingly adept in particular aspects of literacy and numeracy development. Learning area content and achievement standards continue to be the focus for planning, programming, teaching, learning and assessment in relation to the Australian Curriculum.
Teachers can be assured they are addressing the appropriate literacy development of their students within subject areas, that is, the contexts for literacy.
Further detailed support is available from national literacy and numeracy learning progressions (accessed 8/9/2018).
… better assist teachers to identify and address individual student needs according to the expected skills and growth in student learning at key progress points from the early years through high school, given the evidence of the spread of student achievement within any classroom. (Education Council 2015, National STEM School Education Strategy, p. 9)
The Australian Curriculum is designed to help all young Australians to become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens. In the Australian curriculum, literacy is referred to as being
fundamental to a student’s ability to learn at school and to engage productively in society.
https://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/f-10-curriculum/learning-areas/ (accessed 08/09/2018)
This is exactly what we want our students to become, and is certainly the goal of literacy.
The most effective description of literacy could well be this one:
‘As a concept and a practice, literacy is a horizon rather than a destination. We are never literate enough. Nor is literacy ever finished or complete. Literacy is fluid, slippery, multiple, and context-dependent … literacy is made flesh as it is embodied and enacted with real people and in real contexts, thus producing real outcomes and real contexts in the worlds we live in.’
Miller and Schultz, in English in Australia, Vol 49 No 3 2014 p.78
We need to use all the resources available to us to continue to help our students towards that horizon.
Australian Curriculum: https://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/f-10-curriculum
NSW Department of Education: https://education.nsw.gov.au/teaching-and-learning/curriculum/literacy-and-numeracy/teaching-and-learning-resources/literacy (accessed 6/09/2018)
Miller and Schultz (2014) in English in Australia, Vol 49 No 3 p.78