Redefining Literacy

The National Literacy Conference in the Glasgow Hilton Hotel  today was a great opportunity for many people with influence in Scottish education to hear some clear messages about the issues confronting literacy teachers in the new age, particularly in the keynote speech from Professor David Booth, Chair of Literacy at Nipissing University (no smirking!), and Professor Emeritus and Scholar in Residence at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto- isn’t that the longest job title you’ve ever seen?david-booth2

Professor Booth, the author of many significant teacher reference books and texts in all areas of language development, had the audience hanging on his every word, with a combination of sardonic humour, knowledge, awareness and pragmatism. I am sure the video will be put online at Learning and Teaching Scotland’s Literacy website in due course, but in the meantime I will try to summarise the key points of the presentation:-

  • For many students, comprehension has become a question and answer activity with no time to enter into a dialogue with others to construct meaning
  • We need to think again about the definition of  “illiterate” – would it apply to someone who can’t read sheet music? charts? knitting patterns?
  • Effective teachers enrich their courses with texts that are new to the students while at the same time building opportunities and respect for the students’ own texts
  • As teachers and librarians we have magical powers to ensure that young people experience texts that can change their lives in different ways
  • All of us need to think about the text we have experienced by interacting with others. We change ourselves as we rethink, retell, or re-imagine the original text
  • We need to teach our students what an act of literacy means, and we model our own attitudes and behaviours as we work alongside them
  • The page form may be replaced by text that rolls vertically but the image has not replaced the alphabetical code
  • There is not one definition of literacy since literacy practices are multiple, and shift according to context, speaker, text, and the function of the literacy event
  • Our traditional way of thinking about and defining literacy will be insufficient if we hope to provide youngsters with what they will need to be full participants in the world of the future
  • Most of us in education spend hours each day reading and writing on a computer while celebrating the book as the most important learning tool in the students’ world
  • The disparities between the plugged-in or wireless electronic bedroom and the traditional school contribute to the alienation many students feel about what goes on in their classroom
  • Many people are confused about the difference between literacy and literature. Too many parents and teachers regard only novels, poetry and so-called literary non-fiction as literature
  • We need to move towards supporting readers’ decisions about the print resources they select – their newspapers, magazines, their work and organisational materials, and what they read for fun and games
  • The literature canon has not altered much over the last forty or fifty years. The same novels are used without much awareness of gender or equality issues, and are often read and analysed chapter by chapter
  • Literacy is a foundation of citizenry in any language, a right of freedom
  • We want to encourage critical thinking in our classrooms, to create situations with the texts we offer that require students to engage in critical and co-operative conversations
  • We want to encourage our students to become more critical in their use of all media, including the internet
  • Critical literacies ask us to examine how particular texts work, what choices the author made, the intent of the publisher, the point of view expressed, the omissions and the biases
  • What many students value as literacy texts can unintentionally be dismissed or demeaned in school. And yet their deep involvement with and dedication to computers, magazines, CDs, videos, card collections and hobbies can offer us entry points into their lives as readers and writers

I hope that has given you a flavour of some of the key issues under discussion today. The good news is that the re-definition of literacy (or literacies) and texts, is the foundation of the new Literacy and English framework in Curriculum for Excellence, an excellent place from which to start.

Watch and listen to Professor David Booth talking about literacy education here.

See also Engagement in Reading: Lessons Learned from Three PISA Countries in the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy.


7 thoughts on “Redefining Literacy

  1. I really like that list of dot points. Interwoven through them, is the importance of talk about text to develop comprehension, thinking and literacy skills. I think that too often, class discussion about reading and the act of modeled, shared and guided reading gets pushed to the backbench of importance in the curriculum. In my opinion, it is a highly important aspect of pedagogy and not just something that should be seen as “filler” or a minor addition to learning experiences.

    I also like of the dot points reinforce the valuing of multi-modal and popular culture texts as valid forms as well as the importance of teachers valuing texts that are valued by students. An article I read a few months back by Brozo, W.G., Shiel, G. & Topping, K. (2007), commented on how the PISA study showed that reading engagement is a crucial factor in educational success. Creating “meeting points” for educationally valued texts and literacy practices and those texts and practices that students value and bring in to school with them in their “cultural schoolbag”, is crucial in engaging students who may otherwise be disengaged by curricula and pedagogies that lack student choice and relevance.

    Brozo, W.G., Shiel, G. & Topping, K. (2007). Lessons learned from three PISA countries. In Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 51 (4) pp. 304 – 315

  2. Thanks for the observations Peter. I’ll add the link to the article from the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy to the post.


  3. Pingback: National Literacy Conference 2009 « Mr W’s Blogging Great Thing

  4. Thanks for the comprehensive list of points. Much fuller than I would have managed.

    I really wish I could get more of my colleagues to engage in the discussions that Booth is inviting us to have. The need to change so many things has been recognised by Curriculum for Excellence, but I hear so many teachers saying they are ‘waiting for the answers’. They cannot see that the answers are right in front of us, like the ‘hockey players’ that Booth referenced!

    There are too many people making judgements about the lack of worth of anything that isn’t a ‘book’… they are never going to cope with the new literacies!

  5. Bill, once more you have created a lovely summary – especially helpful for those of us who weren’t there. I have referred to your post on my blog. Thank you.
    Much food for thought.

  6. Bill/Mr W/Niall,

    “I hear so many teachers saying they are ‘waiting for the answers’. They cannot see that the answers are right in front of us”

    Or actually inside their heads………..

    “they are never going to cope with the new literacies!”

    a) new forms of old literacies, surely?

    b) …but they will cope, given time and confidence.



  7. I’m going to be really controversial here, but was the curriculum review perhaps the opportunity to debate, not the place of subject specialists in the secondary school, but the definition of “subjects”, especially in this case English. Having taught English for thirty years I was never certain what exactly was expected of me and in what proportion – handwriting? grammar? literature? media? If we didn’t have English teachers, surely it would have tested that commitment to universal responsibility for literacy development. And wouldn’t it have allowed for the study of English literature as a specialist subject for anyone who was interested enough? Don’t get me started on Home Economics! Analyse that subject title for 21C.

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