What is literacy and why is it important?

The TLC at the Beach conference at Myrtle Beach was an opportunity to discuss literacy, online learning and technology in education

A) So, the first question is what is Literacy?

In one presentation I heard that the 21st century definition of literacy had to become much broader, to include health literacy, numeracy, computer literacy, media literacy, and on and on.

I raised my hand to say that I felt that literacy was the ability to make sense of written text or something like that. This was not a popular view amongst those present.

Fortunately, in a presentation the following day, on the international comparison of literacy and life skills in different countries, the definition of literacy agreed with mine, so I am sticking with it. Literacy is the ability to read. Highly literate people read well. Those who struggle to read, have low literacy. If people read well, they will more easily learn about health, computers and other things they need to learn. Why confuse these concepts?
Why is literacy important?

Many studies in different countries have shown that literacy more less determines success in life, and first of all in school. I heard from an adult education maths and science teachers who pointed out that any student who can read well, can be taught maths and science. I also learned that the language used in maths and science textbooks is of a higher, more difficult, level than the language used in literature texts.

This is based on a something called the Lexile Famework, which has established a Lexile scale of reading competence in readers, and reading difficulty in texts. Most high school and college math and science textbooks are much higher on this scale, than literature text books and fiction. So if you can read well, you will have an easier time at maths and science, and if you cannot read well, you may well struggle.

What is more, the modern work place, with modern technology and modern manuals, requires a higher Lexile level than jobs like teaching, or even higher than entry to university.

The Lexile level is based on the number of multiple syllable words, long sentences, the use of the passive mood and other such factors in a given text. I wonder how accurate this scale really is.  I have always felt that the reader’s familiarity and interest in the subject were better indicators of the difficulty of a text for a given person trying to read it.

I know that the millwrights or electricians at our sawmill in Northern Alberta will have an easier time reading a manual for one of the modern and complex machines in the mill (supposedly very high Lexile level), than reading novels by James Joyce or Humberto Eco (which supposedly have a lower Lexile leve), for example. They are motivated to read the manual and not motivated to read Joyce, and they have some background in the equipment.

I am not saying that literacy is not important. It is, and it does correlate closely to academic and professional success. I think that it is mostly about words, and the ability to use them to communicate, in reading, writing, listening and speaking. I wonder if our “known word” count in LingQ is not just as useful as the Lexile level. Perhaps not.

It is estimated that between 40-50% or more of the people in many developed countries do not read at the level required by modern jobs. Somewhat of an exaggeration no doubt. Yet many people struggle with reading. Around 40% of American school children, throughout the school system and in college, read “below the grade level”. Most of these people would have more success in life if they read better.

The question is how to improve their reading skills. It seems to me that most people, if they wanted to read and read a lot, the problem would be solved pretty quickly. I suspect that very few of these people cannot decode letters. They just do not read enough for whatever reason.

Literacy is big business. Large sums of money have been spent by governments, and by private foundations, to improve literacy. Very little improvement has been noticed. At our first session at Myrtle Beach every participant (several hundred or more) received  bag with about 5 kgs of publications, repeating more or less the same message about literacy, research on what works in teaching literacy, how to teach literacy, etc. There are many many organizations doing this research and putting out publications. Yet there is no improvement in the literacy levels of school leavers in the US, and probably other countries are not so different.

I think that online delivery of literacy programs holds up some promise, and that will be something I will discuss in the next post.


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