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Reasons for my Literacy, Part 2: what is literacy?

August 9, 2016

For many, literacy means being able to read and write; something that you learn on entry to school. For those who learned this skill quickly and easily, little thought may have been given to whether there are different types of literacy or to difficulties with literacy. Becoming literate is seen a singular and linear process that begins by decoding simple words which increased in complexity as you master the skill. However, rather than considering literacy to be a single entity, Rassool (2009) considers that instead, literacy should be viewed through multiple lenses, seen as something organic and context-driven. Literacy therefore may vary from place to place, through different identities and continues to change over time.


The arena of literacy and literacy development is a highly contested one, one which includes various professional disciplines. The dominance of a perspective is closely linked to political party politics, which each discipline jostling for position. Currently, the chosen method for early literacy teaching is through the use of phonics training.


To examine what literacy is, it is useful to look at some key perspectives. For those who were born pre-1970, experimental behavioural psychology (EBP) influenced educational frameworks. Their view of literacy is based on the cognitive processes required, namely phonological and graphical awareness, morphology and spelling – primarily from a within-child perspective. Literacy in this sense is the analysis of how the sounds in words link to the letters of the alphabet as a means of learning how to read and write (Rassool, 2009).


The psycholinguistic model also looks at sounds but focuses on the reading process. This model links the graphic, the syntactic and the semantic, believing that these systems interact and cannot be viewed in isolation. Using this perspective, the EBP model could be viewed as reductionist. Simply learning to decode and recode cannot confer understanding of the text, nor explain the necessity to follow grammatical rules. Literacy is more than being able to ‘bark at print’, or to produce words without consideration of the sentence in which they reside.


The EBP model is perhaps better considered as forming the bare bones on which becoming literate can be hung, or put another way, the skeleton framework. The psycholinguistic approach adds flesh to the bones, with literacy being co-constructed between reader and text, based on existing knowledge and cultural tools; a philosophical approach attacked by EBP as having no empirical base (Rassool, 2009). It can be argued that neither can fully produce literate people on their own, isolated from context. A lack of consensus as to what constitutes a minimum level of literacy needed to achieve ‘functionality’ only serves to further confuse matters.


Clearly, what constitutes literacy and literacy difficulties is far from clear-cut. However, acquiring the basic skills to decode and encode words is an essential starting point. Taken in isolation however, these skills are not enough. Knowledge of syntactic and semantic features of text is needed for words to make sense.  Difficulties in literacy may be at an individual level, but also includes not having acquired a level of functional ability sufficient for the context in which an individual wishes to operate. It cannot be assumed that being literate in one arena means that a person is literate in all arenas. Literacy therefore may swing from being able to read and understand basic words through to understanding the contextual meanings requires for study at university or beyond.



Rassool, N. (2009) ‘Literacy: In Search of a Paradigm’ in Soler, J., Fletcher-Campbell, F. And Reid, G. (Eds) Understanding Difficulties in Literacy Development: Issues and Concepts, Sage: London/The Open University: Milton Keynes

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Bren Prendergast   Education Advocate (SEND)