The objective of this paper is to provide a general discussion on how literacy can be understood from different perspectives. Just the like the proverbial 5 Blind Men of Hindustan who described the elephant albeit incompletely and relative to their experience, literacy can also be understood from different perspectives. We may say that though all these perspectives are correct, they are also at the same time all inadequate to describe the whole phenomena of literacy.
Yet by bringing all of these perspectives together, we can come with a fuller picture and definition of what literacy really is. It is the aim of this paper to come up with a more complete understanding of literacy. In the end, we will bring together the different perspectives and come up with a wider view. Eventually it is hoped that through this, a better understanding of literacy can be achieved. Yet in the end, the definition would still be incomplete for literacy is a process and learning never really ends.
The point however is to live it at its utmost definition and contribute to its enhancement. There are four perspectives that will be dealt with in this paper with which literacy is tackled. These are: 1. Literacy as a skill; where cognitive skills in speaking, reading, writing, and functional literacy are discussed 2. Literacy as socially situated; where literacy is defined by the specific social context from which it springs. 3. Literacy as a process of learning; where literacy is seen as a lifelong and unending process
4. Literacy as text where critical analysis of the social constructions are processed.
Literacy as a skill The Cognitive science perspective on literacy looks at literacy mostly as reading and writing skills where reading must become like second nature and automatic while at the same time having a very accurate interpretation. The brain must be able to process reading as fast as it can and in the most precise comprehension as possible. This skill must be practice in order to have mastery over it (Abadzi, 2004).
Writing on the other hand is another skill which is intricately connected to a particular syntax of a specific linguistic script which are meaning-based and sound-based (Barton, 1994). An example of meaning based writing is the Chinese character which is not an alphabet but a representation of what is being referred. An example of sound-based writing is our current alphabet based on the Greek system of writing assigning vowels and consonant sounds to actual letters that would signify meaning. This is considered to have technological superiority over other forms of script (Olson, 1994).
There is a belief that writing is more superior to speech because it is the actual transcription of the spoken word. Thus the cognitive argument emphasizes on the significance of literacy in society’s advanced capacities and progress. However this view has been criticized. To quote from Olson: ‘The focus on literacy skills seriously underestimates the significance of both the implicit understandings that children bring to school and the importance of oral discourse in bringing those understandings into consciousness in turning them into objects of knowledge.’ (Olson, 1997 cited in Street 2004)
Thus one needs to factor in oral competencies together with reading and writing skills in looking at literacy as skill (Robinson, 2003). Numeracy skills also have to be added as an important component of literacy. Literacy skills must also include those that enable access to knowledge and information such as skills in surfing the internet, technological skills, computer literacy, among others (Lankshear, 2003). This new view paved the way for the concept of functional literacy which can complement the limitations of the skills based perspective.
Functional literacy is defined by the World Congress of Ministers of Education on the Eradication of Illiteracy, Tehran September 1965: “Rather than an end in itself, literacy should be regarded as a way of preparing man [sic] for a social, civic and economic role that goes beyond the limits of rudimentary literacy training consisting merely in [sic] the teaching of reading and writing. ” (Yousif, 2003) Functional literacy is most often linked to development which not only means teaching reading, writing, ‘rithmetic and speaking, but also knowing how to go about in society such as finding a job.
Literacy as Socially Situated The ethnographic perspective to literacy looks into the practices of literacy in different cultural and social contexts. This perspective has been coined NLS or New Literacy Studies (Gee, 1999). This perspective looks at ‘the everyday meanings and uses of literacy in specific cultural contexts and links directly to how we understand the work of literacy programmes, which themselves then become subject to ethnographic enquiry’ (Street, 2004). This perspective looks at literacy not only as a skill but as a social practice which is socially constructed and imbedded in the culture of society.
It argues that reading and writing are not neutral skills but based on concept of ideology, identity, being and knowledge. Thus this perspective emphasizes on the social situatedness of literacy. This is a more culturally sensitive approach where there is no single and universal definition of literacy but only in the social context wherein meaning is derived from (Doronilla, 1996). Most often than not the classification of illiterates are done on traditional societies on the hunting and gathering mode of economic production.
However we cannot impose this definition on their lives because the applicability of being “literate” on their culture is not going to be very significant. Thus there is a call to review the literate-illiterate dichotomy. In a study by Sylvia Scribner together with Michael Cole in (The Psychology of Literacy, 1981) on the functions of literacy in Vai of north-west Liberia, they argue that literacy will only be fully understood within the context of the people’s social practices (Barton, 1994). The argument is such that being literate means that one can navigate well in his or her social world.
In traditional societies, learning to read and to write is not as compelling as learning to hunt and survive in the forest. The criticism levelled at this approach is that it emphasizes too much on local context without factoring in external forces such as colonization, religious evangelization, economic globalization and others (Brandt, 2002). Others also question this overemphasis on cultural difference when literacy should be encouraging peoples of the world to integrate and create meaningful social, economic, and political linkages (Maddox, 2001).
Anthropological and ethnographic researches looking into the communicative process reveals that it is the local contexts that define literacy and that the texts can only be produced within specific cultural and social perspectives. Thus literacy should not be imposed from the outside as a dominant discourse but should naturally development from one’s culture. Literacy as a process of learning The constructivist perspective looks at literacy as a continuing process rather than an end product. Knowledge is seen as continually evolving and being socially constructed in the process of doing.
This looks into the perspective of the learner and how he or she makes meaning and sense from his own experiences. In this perspective, critical reflection is the key to individual and social transformation. This was developed by Kolb in adult education where the design is experiential and learning begins by personal reflection (Kolb, 1984). Paulo Freire is one of the main theorists propounding on this perspective. I quote from Paulo Freire, “Every reading of the word is preceded by a reading of the world.
Starting from the reading of the world that the reader brings to literacy programs (a social- and class determined reading), the reading of the word sends the reader back to the previous reading of the world, which is, in fact, a re-reading. (Freire, 1995)” For Paulo Freire, literacy is not a matter of learning to speak, then to read then to write. These are all part of the learning process. Literacy is such that it gives meaning to our life and to our world as we continue to be part of the never ending process of social transformation.
The whole process of interpretation and meaning giving should not be without conscientization and resolve to higher action. Part of Freire’s pedagogy is praxis which is a combination of theory and practice where literacy can dialogically transform the world (Freire, 1995). For Freire literacy originates first and foremost, from the social practices of man and his actual encounter with the world. Literacy as text Linguists, educationalists, and literary theorists look at literacy from the perspective of it being the ‘subject matter’ (Bhola, 1994)) where the nature of the given texts are created and used by individuals.
These texts may vary in terms of genre and subject, the levels of difficulty in the language being used, and in ideological content which can be explicit or hidden. This perspective looks at literacy where texts are bound together in intertextuality where people’s practices and texts intertwine. Thus the texts have the power to reproduce social practices such as social inequalities, gender relations, and racism among others. This is referred to as discourse.
Others improved this perspective by also including non verbal communication, gestures, body language are part of the communication process where different cultures and contexts can change the interpretation of meaning (Kress, 2001). Thus people choose ‘representational resources’ on a case to case basis depending on what situation and what context. To illustrate, even the theories of literacy are themselves embedded in the assumptions and values of institutions and individuals. This perspective requires a critical reading of the text as social constructed and at the same time socially recreating society.
Meanings are constructed according to social binaries and collusion of different values and forms of life. The criticism levelled at this perspective is determining its applicability in multi cultural settings and in a rapidly globalizing information society where the internet serves as a main medium bridging different cultures. Moreover, this perspective tends toward nihilism if we begin to look at all text being socially constructed, one may conclude that there neither defining value nor stable foothold to culture. Literacy as a Dominating Ideology
Neo Marxists levels its attack on the idea of literacy itself as a western and dominating ideology that creates social inequalities. This is being done by derogatory classification of “illiterates” without even looking at their specific culture and life forms from their own point of view. Literacy as an ideology is said to impose a standard created by the First World which brings with its own economic system of capitalism as already accepted. Thus the space of indigenous peoples for discourse is reduced only to a certain level of “literacy” from which they can discourse.
Those who cannot speak the educated language are silenced. Technical discourse is preferred over experiential discourse. Bringing it all together If we look at the various perspectives in which we have analyzed literacy, we can see some common denominators in which all these perspectives can agree upon. These are: 1. That literacy should involve the whole range of human communication skills such as reading, writing, speaking, counting and even non verbal communication and the study of proxemics and body language as forms of representation. 2.
That literacy is contingent on the needs of the learners and the needs of society. 3. That literacy must be able to empower and engage the people and must thrive within a positive learning environment. Yousif gives general definition of literacy based on these 4 perspectives: “Literacy is a technical capacity and a social act whose principal focus is reading, writing and numeracy as a step in a lifelong learning process that can lead to creative expression and conceptual problem-solving skills.
Its principal objective is to enable the individual to achieve his goals and to contribute to the welfare of his community (Yousif, 10-12 June, 2003). ” If we examine the definition above we will observe that at the core of literacy are cognitive skills but it does not end there. The definition of Literacy further reaches out to creative expression, the ability to navigate the social world and survive, and conceptual problem solving. This definition further affirms the social roots and origins of literacy as human beings are social beings. As individuals they have to make meaning and interpret communication. As social beings, we need to be part and contribute to the welfare of society.
As literacy is integral to culture and society, it is also a lifelong process of learning for human society is never static. The Significance of this definition This definition can prove to be very significant in the conduct of literacy efforts all over the world. While literacy efforts may stress on cognitive skills at the beginning, they should also emphasize on self actualization and social transformation as a direction. Literacy is also seen not as an end in itself but a lifelong process directed at creative self expression, psychological empowerment and self actualization, critical engagement, and social transformation.
Literacy efforts should also look at the applicability and practicability of literacy programs on the actual life situation and culture of the people. There is no generic formula for literacy and the point of literacy programs is to make human communities a better place to live in. While however accepting such diversity, we also have to take note that the mass media through the information high way is literally changing the communication landscape of the world.
Thus we need to be open to learning how to navigate through fast developments while being critical of dominating discourses that flood the media.
Education for Freedom During the last 300 years when the industrial revolution began, dramatic advances had made it a requirement for people in the modern world to have formal education in the schools. Before that, the transmission of learning and skills happened via oral tradition and the socialization of the young. Today, educational institutions are a must and acquiring formal education is already a necessity among the young.
With the study of the different perspectives on literacy, we now know that literacy does not only mean skill but also competency. However, competency is not enough if one is to reach his highest potential. One needs critical self reflection to examine the deepest roots of our society and social life in order to change it. Thus literacy means gaining knowledge to understand the world and analyze society. Yet again the process never stops. For in the end, knowledge is useless if it has no goal and direction. The only worthwhile direction of human knowledge is none other than Freedom.
This is what it really means when we say that reason has finally triumphed; where the world lives on free discourses and what matter is what’s right and not who’s right. This is where literacy brings not only development but also freedom and a better world guided by wisdom and reason. As information society increases global communication and makes the world smaller, so must the free exchange of culture and knowledge proceed without discrimination but with respect so there would be a diversity which is a unity in itself guided by the highest kind of literacy we can ever imagine.