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. I just had a coversation with my Mom, she’s a drama teacher, she thinks learning to read is the first step with an emphasis of learning vocabulary and context. “If I can read, I can learn physics.” I mentioned that you don’t need language to learn dance, she said you might need to read to fnd out how to get to the studio. Ha.

  2. Regarding the metacognitive domain: one of the most effective activities I’ve had for increasing literacy (at all levels- comprehension up through evaluation)- this year is the incorporation of an activity I picked up on the internets called “says/does” analysis. It is a structured active reading. In performing the activity, a student takes a passage, short or long, and on the left hand side of the passage (novel?), the students summarizes what the author is saying. On the right hand side, a second commentary is run highlighting the rhetorical choices an author makes; the decisions the author is making; her/his purpose, etc. It is a very simple concept, but I have seen quantitative improvements in my student’s ability to close read and comprehend as a result of using this activity on a regular basis.

    (p.s.- there have actually been TWO hot men at my gay bar tonight. TWO. Did I talk to either? Alas, no, but I humped them with mine eyes.)

  3. Here are some ideas coming at this from the standpoint of a foreign language teacher.

    Language learning is typically divided into 5 areas: listening, speaking, reading, writing and culture. The end goal of language instruction is communicative competence, which is achieved through a series of meaningful learning activities. This is the currently accepted and used language acquisition terminology, but instead of just sounding good, it also means something.

    A literate person should be proficient in the 5 areas above. Culture, AKA cultural awareness, is the skill or understanding that allows for or enables transliteration. I think this ties in well with the notion of multiple literacies, which came up in previous posts.

    Communicative competence, which can be “fostered,” divides into 4 categories:
    1. Grammatical (there’s the alphabet, words and rules!)
    2. Sociolinguistic (context, what is appropriate and what isn’t…)
    3. Discourse (cohesion and coherence)
    4. Strategic (the ability to communicate effectively)
    To find out more, look up Canale & Swain, 1980.

    A fun activity: If you open an intro language textbook and compare the table of contents to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, you’ll see several similarities. Intro language courses begin with language needed to meet physiological and safety needs. After these basics are learned, language instruction shifts towards the topics of self and others, which overlaps with the third and fourth stages of Maslow’s hierarchy.

    This makes sense, I just hadn’t thought about intro material in this way before. Good thing I don’t teach ESL anymore.

    Approaching a definition of literacy from the standpoint of deficiency needs, ala Maslow, can work. Mix in the idea of communicative competence, which breaks down into skills you can assess, and you may be able to round out your current working definition of literacy as the ability to find and process information.

  4. I like the idea of adapting the above into a “hierarchical” structure and relying on its intrinsic guidelines and rubrics. The idea of shifting everything into the “information” paradigm still doesn’t sit well with me. Must think on’t.

    #6: What do you want?
    #2: We want…information.

  5. Or is it:

    #6: Do you expect me to talk?
    #2: We want…information.

    Actually, that one works even better to express my ambivalence.

    What say we to thoughts of a “working vocabulary” and it’s role in reading, writing and speaking? I can’t help but think the processes by which a student acquires and builds a working vocabulary might have something to do with fundamental literacy. And I imagine there’s a relationship with syntactical facility.

    I use Peter Handke’s play Kaspar with my Gheepers for 20th-century theatre history, and I actually think it might illustrate something for us. Let me find my copy and consult.

  6. Time for a saavy leftist slogan to addle you white-wine sipping liberals out there: They don’t want an educated workforce; they want an indoctrinated workforce.

    Increased literacy could lead to increased awareness of existing conditions among the disenfranchised. Careful what you wish for.

    Just heard a thing on the radio about a recent study looking at factors that affect infant survival beyond the first year. A correlation was found between infant survival beyond the first year and the mother’s education level. Yes, by all means, Duh, but I thought it was fortuitous after my recently likening literacy issues to pre-natal care issues.

  7. If we use a model of focusing on the self then expanding to include universal understandings, we can even throw in Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. Very similar. And themes of cultural responsiveness are found throughout, much like the ideas behind a concept of multiliteracies. I agree that learning ballet, jazz, classical music, etc. are great entry points towards understanding dance and music. That’s different from saying one genre of music is worthwhile and should be used as the basis for judging one’s ability and other forms are not. Same with the concept of literacy. I believe Dale’s definition of “finding and using information” is a simple yet effective way of communicating this point. If we were to say “using standard English for finding and using information,” then we’re privileging one way of speaking over another for what I believe are arbitrary reasons. And now Marc, I must get back to my nightly recitations from the Communist Manifesto.

  8. I just realized how to articulate my concern. Fixing the ability to find and use information as our contouring concept implies we will only be, to a certain extent, rats in a maze (though Dale, I know, has provided us with a lovely Brie to sniff out, just above room temperature, perfect consistency). Being in relation with a language (no matter the language, no matter the domain of application) opens up the possibility of generativity, of creation, of making meanings and not just seeking them out, and of being able to recognize that actively engaged capacity in others (that pesky “social dimension”). Sure, we can be “creative” in our ability to seek out and deploy information, but there’s something essential in that capacity to…utter something…that undergirds all information architecture.

    Yes, Daniel, exactly, Marx’s distinction between superstructure and base.

  9. Ah, but, you might ask, isn’t Honea just falling back upon bankrupt concepts and trying to privilege the whole metaphysics of presence implied in a spoken logos. Might sound like it (hah, SOUND like it), but Derrida’s project in Of Grammatology was not to explode our attempts to add to a physiological understanding of linguistic competence. That’s more where I’m headed, into the acquisition of a behavior. I’m not trying to say the Word is more essential than the Archive. But the Archive is vast and its mastery is a monumental achievement for any individual (illusory mastery, rather–still a grand achievement)–a delicious, culturally desireable capacity, to be sure, but the essence of literacy? Is it too complex to move deeper into the logos as “genetrix?”

  10. It seems you’re reading this as Skinnerian, which of course it could be, but if we’re approaching this from a deficits vs. growth basis, remember that we rats can generate and create in a societally meaningful way only after we’re literate. The person who cannot decode those black marks is blocked from any real access to meaning.

  11. And my intention is to limit our Task Force’s plan to meeting deficit needs in the population so that they have the tools for their own growth management.

    We’ll see how successful I am.

  12. I agree, but I also think the infant first hears the mother tongue in a surprisingly fertile and constructive (constitutional) bond and then, later, begins to see the words of prophets written on subway walls. The first intimate exchange is not a pure task of decoding. Decoding is a way to put literacy to use. And might logical operations with signs, while certainly universal, be more a mathematical facility than a language facility? Are we talking about two intertwined “reading” skills?

    I’m whole-heartedly behind your efforts. I’m just having fun. It’s all good.

  13. Dale, re: comment #63, I may have missed this in the train of comments, but have we identified what the deficits in our Georgia population are?

  14. Nope–neither is what we’re talking about here concerned with that. We’re defining literacy in a hierarchical kind of way that, like Maslow’s, split between deficit and growth needs.

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