I was appointed to be a member of the State Literacy Task Force. We are charged with developing a proposal for a long-term plan to improve literacy across the board in Georgia.

Our first task, which we’re already behind on, is to define literacy.

I am not being flippant when I suggest as a definition the ability to find and use information. Yes, it’s totally colored by my day job as a media specialist, but think about it. If we charged schools and communities to make sure their students and citizens could find and use information, then we don’t have to get into reading and technology and blah blah blah. Do what it takes to make it happen.

In chatting about this with Kevin on Saturday morning, I allowed as how, despite what you might think, I was not interested in including padding like “self-enrichment” in the definition, because that’s not something the state has any control over, or vested interest in, if I were to turn all Antonin Scalia on us.

Then Kevin said something that I though was very important and I wrote it down immediately to steal: “Sort of like a Maslow’s hierarchy for literacy?”


So whattaya say, dear readers? Help me develop said hierarchy, and we shall be as gods.

68 thoughts on “Literacy

  1. Even if we didn’t want to create a direct analog to each of Maslow’s levels, I think his two main groupings of deficiency needs and growth needs are important in defining literacy, especially for the purposes of writing a strategic plan for the state.

  2. What instruments were used to determine that Georgia literacy is in crisis and, therefore, requires a task force? I’m not being off-topic, I promise.

  3. The CRCT reading scores as compared to the Lexile ranges of the texts for each grade level. Our “Meets Standards” numbers are consistently below the reading level of the textbooks they’re being asked to read. I was impressed, if not surprised.

  4. Our “Exceeds Standards” scores are above the Lexile ranges, so it’s not a crisis exactly, but we do need to be proactive on behalf of the entire citizenry.

  5. The child is curled up by a window, reading. We get closer. We’re standing over the child, looking down and seeing past the child’s head to the words on the pages. Suddenly, the child looks up, startled. Then a bashful smile. A look down at the open book. A look back up. A bigger smile.

    “You can read it in their faces. They can read it in yours.”

    A loving pat to the child’s head as he or she resumes reading.

    Georgians for Literacy

    …something like that.

    I mean is this about changing the lifeworld, the culture, or the actual mechanics of instruction?

  6. The only thing that concerns me about using Maslow’s hierarchy as our template is that ideologically it is very much focused on the individual as monadic entity. Literacy should be defined against a social (and maybe even political) horizon.

    Also, literacy allows those who seemingly struggle well below that high rock of self-actualization to fashion substitutions, stop-gap measures, food substitutes, in order to make do. And you do not have to be reading at the highest Lexile level to arrange such substitutions.

    Using information? I’m not being oppositional for its own sake when I say I want to think about that one and say a few things.

  7. Agreed. I’m not saying use Maslow as a template exactly, just as a model. We can take this mysterious Norwood’s reading of Maslow (coping information, helping information, empowering information, edifying information) and monkey with it. Yes, reading is dyadic, but as you say, it’s not necessarily self-actualizing. What I’m proposing is levels of literacy, divided into “deficiency needs” and “growth needs,” and approach the state’s interests that way.

  8. And if I haven’t made it clear, I don’t believe we should teach children to read so they can enrich their lives. I believe we should teach them to read so they can survive.

  9. I’m with you on that. In fact, the next thing that occurred to me was likening literacy to a public health issue like good pre-natal care. If an infant’s immune system is compromised at the get-go, sometimes there are no restorative measures you can take with the child, no matter how aggressive you go. The “mother” has to ensure the system is not compromised. She transmits that. Literacy has to be “inherited” from the lifeworld of the “parents.” If you wait till the kid is in some instructional setting, it is often too late. Literacy is a nursery outfitted beforehand. Literacy has to be a part of the lifeworld waiting for the child.

    The village that raises the child is, in part, a village to be read and interpreted.

    From a psychoanalytic point of view, you’re talking about loving and consistent sublimation of the drives through “symbolic castration.” A child is literate once he or she understands the phrase: “One doesn’t do that.” Yes, “One…” is the key. That’s the abstract pinnacle that must be reached. Hence a fundamental link between literacy and the Law, like it or not.

    Now, from the view of phenomenological psychology, the best way to define literacy is to do some qualitative research into people’s experiences. Can’t use “literacy” as a descriptor, though. Not basic enough; to fraught with agendas. You ask a sampling of folks to describe an experience in which, say, they “understood something new by reading.” Or in which they felt like they had to “read to survive.” Then you study their responses and look for common structures, even in accounts in which the experienced is dismissed as such. From there you can begin to formulate a definition of what it might mean to “live” literacy.

    What I’ve just done is formulate definitions through my own needs for self-definition and mastery, as was done with “information” and “hierarchy of needs.” It’s okay. That’s the kind of term we’re dealing with.

    If we’re thinking in terms of a scale, take the phrase “literacy is necessary for survival.” I could imagine rating a person’s “response” to that phrase. I could see a matrix for “verbal” responses, “written” responses, degrees of interaction between verbal and written with the “highest” being the ability to verbalize, elaborate through writing, evaluate verbally the written product, and then revise the written product based on the verbal evaluation. You could evaluate in terms of appreciation of metaphor, citing of evidence, use of other sources, ability to dispute or question assertion. Etc. In other words, to be prompted to access information as part of your response to the phrase would be somewhere on the scale.

  10. Consumption, identification, evaluation, selection, (rejection/acceptance), production.

    These are ideas about a progression of literacy. At the initial level, “finding” information may be about the ability of the subject to consume material on a written/drawn/whatever page placed in front of them by others. “Progress” along the continuum might include ability to find, evaluate, evaluate “successfully”, and eventually produce material of their own (progress from consumer to producer)

    Not sure where this is going, but you guys have encouraged freedom to spew, so spew I have.

  11. Here’s a thought experiment I jotted down on one of my printouts somewhere: Imagine yourself plopped down in Moscow. Define literacy. Or, to put it more succinctly: Определите грамотность.

  12. It’s funny you should throw us into such a situation. Even before your first mention of the word “survival,” I was imagining framing reading instruction as a series of increasingly challenging tasks that required the student to read and process information in order to survive. Sort of like really old-school rpg’s.

    In other words, a subtle motivation using fear. If you’re not literate, you die.

  13. Not sure this is where you wanted to go, but when I visited Paris a couple of years ago, I spent 20 minutes wandering around one of the train stations there because I had failed to prepare in on crucial way: learn street/directional sign French. After 20 minutes, I had an important context clue that “sortie” meant exit (or something close enough for my purpose). I didn’t have these problems in Germany that trip or this one, as I knew enough of the language to get around, read menus, whatever.

    It really depends on your objectives (mine was travel), but in at least a metaphorical sense, the first step to “finding and using information” might be the language of the signs. But to jump on Dale’s (intentional I’m sure) example, we probably don’t want to bypass the alphabet.

  14. Yes, it was intentional. Once literate, even hyperliterate as we are–Maslovian transcendentals if you will–you cannot pretend to understand illiteracy and its problems. So put yourselves in an alternate setting where you are illiterate and define your way back to transcendental status.

  15. Re: illiteracy and its problems. Let me borrow Jameson’s notion of “the political unconscious.” The shadowy aspect of literacy is a turmoil of shame and resentment linked to literacy’s secret history as a means for ruling and propertied classes to subject the “common folk.” Consider the origins of written culture in Europe. Consider the use of literacy laws in our country to prevent African-Americans from voting. Consider the kid who gets beaten up because he actually tries at school. Consider the vague guilt and dis-ease we can feel in situations where someone’s ability with “letters” is revealed to be kind of deficient. Literacy has nasty legacy that runs alongside the promise of “freedom” and self-liberation and “success.” That is there, too.

  16. Hm. The nasty legacy you describe is hardly attributable to “literacy,” but merely the usual societal struggles for power, and in any case has nothing to do with our definition. What, we should try to write “…but only teach the empowering parts”?

    In other musings, it occurred to me that what I do with the kids here at NX, making them learn to look up their Accelerated Reader book in the catalog and use the call number to find it (rather than browse the shelves for some colored sticker), is a “read to survive” tactic.

  17. Merely.

    Mastering cat bat rat proceeds on apace, I would think. Most teachers can stumble through the mechanics of that in the classroom. Your notion of hunting down information makes me wonder: literacy involves the ability to fashion instructions to guide others. Link between “teaching (formulating and transmitting knowledge)” and literacy. So a feedback loop is involved, perhaps. Makes me think of cybernetics and the notion of transmitting a message with minimal “noise.” Literacy ensures the creation, transmission and reception of messages in a culture with minimal corruption by noise.

    How do messages communicate? How does a reader receive? Cat bat rat as messages or repositories of knowledge is pretty lame. Learning cat bat rat is not literacy.

    Companion to the survival rpg approach: formulate messages to transmit to other parties in order to get them to carry out very specific actions or behaviors. Not by pointing and guiding or illustrating with desperate gestures, but by fashioning guides and instructions and text.

    Yes, literacy is not solely about mastering the instrumentality of language. But it does introduce one to the resonance and power of words.

    This is way out of the box. Teach children how to use hypnosis. There it is very much about using the word to both instruct and evoke, to guide, to conjure. If you can write an hypno-therapy script, you’re literate. I kid you not. Let me show you a collection of such scripts some time.

  18. And, to anticipate a reservation. Such scripts are very rational and structured. If one can write a legal brief, one can create such a script.

  19. Well, my question then (repeated at my blog) is the function of literacy? Literacy for its own sake? (Not unlike your defense of the arts education in the arts speech- arts for the sake of arts, not for using them to increase math scores)

  20. How do we place this? A Night at the Opera was on TCM while I was paying some bills. Son and posse was home for lunch. They are watching a bit, enjoying. Son and I framed it as “worth watching.” My son says to friend, “Groucho reminds me of you, the way he comes out with these one-liners.” Friend, a high-school senior, says, “You mean that guy there with the mustache and glasses?”

    Issue of literacy?

  21. As I am already godlike, I’ll just sit around and let you know if it’s right after you get done.

  22. I’m interested in what you come up with and what ‘political’ definition is accepted. Somewhere along the years I got so caught up in ‘incorporating technology’ that I think I lost focus on the information literacy part of my instruction….hell Im struggling with just finding literature that most of my students CAN read, let alone want to read.

  23. I like Marc’s musings.

    I like the deficiency aspect tying into the existential aspect. The key to literacy is understanding that one does literally need to locate, process, and communicate information. At the metaphysical level, if we cannot do those things, if we cannot distinguish/create sense from nonsense, then we cannot BE. People who are deficient in literacy cannot maintain sufficient control over themselves and so let others do their thinking for them, they become automatons and cease to BE.


  24. I’m sorta with C-Diddy; but, gosh darn it, I think he’d have a heckuva time makin’ that argument with those hard workin’ hockey Moms and Joe six-packs out there. You betcha.

  25. I want to change the direction of the conversation slightly.

    My field is science, so my colleagues and I moan and groan over the appalling lack of scientific literacy of adults in our country. And what about mathematical literacy? Isn’t the ability to do math right up there with the ability to read in our school curricula?

    That is why I like the phrase “to locate, process, and communicate information” in C-Diddy’s last post, and I would emphasize the word “process”. In my classes, I try to show/train students how to process information scientifically, while a math teacher shows students how to process patterns.

    But I specifically bring this up these other forms of literacy (besides reading comprehension) for another reason. Some reading this blog who are *not* science-minded or math-minded may say to themselves, “I don’t like science, and I know I’m not scientifically literate. But why should I be? What’s the big deal?” In the same way, a child, teenager or adult could say, “I don’t like to read, and by someone’s measure, I’m illiterate. But why should I be? What’s the big deal?”

    Literacy is a matter of degree. I’ve never read Shakespeare; does that make me illiterate? I don’t read contemporary novels; does that make me illiterate? I can’t comprehend the back of a cereal box; does that make me illiterate?

    I’ve never taken a calculus course; does that make me mathematically illiterate? I can’t rearrange an algebraic equation to isolate a variable; does that make me mathematically illiterate? I can’t balance my checkbook; does that make me mathematically illiterate?

    So I can’t read Russian. My ‘illiteracy’ is not a problem for me, as long as I don’t go to Russia.

    It may help to define literacy if we can clearly understand what we mean by the concept of illiterate.

  26. A recent reading has opened my mind to concepts of literacy in some pretty meaningful ways. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to attach the entire article, which appeared in the Harvard Educational Review in 1996, by a group of language and literacy educators who called themselves the New London Group. You may be familiar with this piece or maybe not. I’ll include the abstract and if you want a copy of the whole thing, just send an email to Enjoy…

    A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures

    In this article, the New London Group presents a theoretical overview of the connections between the changing social environment facing students and teachers and a new approach to literacy pedagogy that they call “multiliteracies.” The authors argue that the multiplicity of communications channels and increasing cultural and linguistic diversity in the world today call for a much broader view of literacy than portrayed by traditional language-based approaches. Multiliteracies, according to the authors, overcomes the limitations of traditional approaches by emphasizing how negotiating the multiple lingustic and cultural differences in our society is central to the pragmatics of the working, civic, and private lives of students. The authors maintain that the use of multiliteracies approaches to pedagogy will enable students to achieve the authors’ twin goals for literacy learning: creating access to the evolving language of work, power, and community, and fostering the critical engagement necessary for them to design their social futures and achieve success through fulfilling employment.

  27. I want to play off something in the abstract Daniel has given us:

    … the authors’ twin goals for literacy learning: creating access to the evolving language of work, power, and community, and fostering the critical engagement necessary for them to design their social futures and achieve success through fulfilling employment.

    I like this idea that we create access to the language of work, power, and community (because it’s all political, my dears), and further, fostering their critical powers. I like “fostering” because I am very prepared to present a framework of literacy for the state that proclaims that it is the state’s responsibility (because of its vested interests) to remedy its citizens’ deficit literacy needs, but although we may define the growth needs, it is not the state’s responsibility to achieve those. After all, society does not expect every citizen to reach the upper echelons of Maslow’s hierarchy, do we? I think it is incumbent upon the state to foster the skills necessary for a person to move all the way up, but it is not our responsibility to push or pull them to the top.

    I can already feel arguments against this position forming in my brain, but I will let others make them.

  28. I’ve only just started reading the New London Group article, but the fact that it was writting in 1996 is interesting, because they seem to predict that we’re going to be faced with an explosion of ways to gain information. Remember that 1996 was the summer that I was the Macintosh computer lab instructor at GHP, and it was the first summer we had access to the internet. In fact, I did a in-service for the faculty because most of them had never seen it! That was also the first summer we had a “web site.”

  29. From the New London Group paper:

    … shrill claims and counterclaims about political correctness, the canon of great literature, grammar, and back-to-basics.

    This discussion will not go there. Thank you.

  30. The New London group consisted of 10 educators who originally met for a week in 1994 to address the interplay of what they term “multiliteracies,” schools, the workplace, and their impacts on individual life chances in society. Their main arguments were that “new forms of communication mean there cannot be one set of standards or skills” and that “effective citizenship and productive work now require that we interact effectively using multiple languages, multiple Englishes, and communication patterns.” As such they claim that schools regulate discourse, and have the ability to greatly influence interactions among people of different cultures, languages, disposition, etc. and are the “basis of a new norm.” Based on the premise that knowledge is heavily contextualized with specific settings, the authors assume what some might call a culturally responsive approach to literacy and language, promoting a “meta-language” for talking about language in ways that include everyone and give everyone access to the discourse of schools and the workplace. In this regard, all perspectives are taken into account although this approach definitely goes against the grain of mainstream language classes, at least in my experience of U.S. schools.

  31. For what it’s worth, I don’t find everything in this NLG article useful, but I do think it’s extremely important to complicate the notion of “literacy” and grapple with the suggestion that many people who form complex ideas and relationships in their minds don’t always communicate those using this invention called standard English. I believe Dale’s initial attempt to define literacy actually tends to this perspective without taking 35 pages to say it. Locating, understanding, and using information transcends many different ways of speaking. Recognizing this, especially at the state level, means greater access and agency for people whose opinions and ideas may not be heard if we rely on a very narrow conception of what it means to be “literate.”

  32. BTW, what’s wrong with back to basics? I’m concerned, in teaching ballet, that my students have a foundation in the basics. When they leave my care I want them to be prepared for whatever direction they want to pursue. I want them armed with as many tools as possible.
    I think there is something to be said for common experience. If the goal of literacy is to validate what the student already knows, I’m not sure what is the point. Validation can be a tool; but aren’t we trying to teach?

  33. I haven’t read the report, yet, but I already agree with the notion of there being “multiple” literacies. And yet, I have been in situations in which I have encountered messages from various other “media,” and I have found myself thinking, “Man, if only the people responsible for this had ever picked up a book–new possibilities for multi-valence and structure and subtly and more elaborate articulations…” Yes, God help me, I’ve thought that. Am I just being some alienated, nostalgic, middle-aged person bemoaning my own belatedness? Or is there something there that might inform the structure of “literacy” that could be a factor in all manner of “literacies?”

  34. Although I’m certainly a novice in the area of dance instruction, I think there may be a useful analogy here. Imagine a scenario where one type of dance, let’s say classical ballet, is the only form of dance valued by society and nothing else is considered to be worthwhile, expressive, creative, etc. In doing so, this approach towards dance completely misses out on all the rich complexities and contributions so many other forms have had and continue to have across many different cultures. The same thing can happen if we subscribe to the idea that there is one way, and only one way of being deemed “literate.” For me, it doesn’t end at validating what someone already knows as the final goal, that’s only the beginning of a much larger process by which individual experiences, perspectives, and ways of communicating are all appreciated, considered to be “valid,” and used to further multiple understandings of how people express themselves. The same could be said using music, political views, religion, or anything else as the example. Having said this, I don’t believe the NLG groups claim a relativist philosophy where every idea is equally thoughtful, articulate, and expressive. Rather, I think they mean we should be careful not to immediately dismiss ideas simply because they aren’t communicated in a way that fits whatever language is taught as the “standard” way of speaking. Whose standard? And how do certain groups claim dominance over ways of communicating that shut out other equally valid forms of expression?

  35. I take the point. I guess I’m less interested in deconstructing the notion of what is literacy and more interested in determining what we are trying to solve.
    In what area of life are we trying to help students become literate? Are we concerned with literature? In that case it might be helpful if the student has a command of the language. If we are talking about math, it might be helpful to learn basic arithmatic.
    When things become so esoteric, I become worried that we’re missing the forest for the trees. I think it is helpful for teachers to become literate in the world students live in: lulz, facebook, and so forth, one may use this literacy to connect with students to grease the wheels. Still, there’s an inherent lack of frankness when in the role of ‘educator’ that inhibits meeting the kids where they are; this is easier for me since I don’t have to play by the same rules. This is one of the reasons I like GHP and one of the first things I told my kids is, ‘I’m not going to lie to you.’
    That’s all I can type for now, I’m in a field outside of Athens drinking beer I smuggled in from Colorado.

  36. The basic thrust of the Task Force is reading, but we also want to make sure that we do not exclude, as both Daniel and Benjie have been pointing out, other “literacies.” However, I personally, and there are others on the committee also, don’t want to come up with a definition that gets bogged down in technology and “privileging” and blah blah blah. That’s why I like the bare bones definition of “finding and using information.”

    Others have added the intermediate task of “understanding” or “comprehending.” Necessary? Or implied in the “using”?

    Still, everyone so far seems to be leaning heavily towards my old friend metacognition, which is teachable, learnable, and improvable in all groups of learners. What a paradigm shift that would be!

    Benjie, the last time I heard the phrase “a field outside Athens” used, beer was not what was involved. I will not say how long ago that was, but I’m pretty sure you were in elementary school.

  37. Whether theoretically or artistically valid or not, an understanding shared by many dance teachers (B chime in), a working day-to-day rubric, is that a foundation in ballet is an excellent preparation for almost all forms of dance (even urban flaves to some extent). Teachers thinking in terms of singular foundations that cut across forms. Are they unenlightened and politically incorrect to think this way?

  38. Hee hee Dale. I don’t think you would have been disappointed; having not just fallen off the cotton truck myself, I had to leave at an embarrassing 9:30.

    marc: No!

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