Thursday, October 25, 2007

"Literacy" Considered Harmful

I think we're well past the point in this community where use of the word "literacy" is helpful in communicating one's meaning. It is a crutch, a cliche. If everyone would stop using that word we'd be forced to be more clear about our ideas.

Phrases like "new literacies," "digital media literacy," or "21st century literacies" don't really mean anything. If "literacy" was removed from the lexicon, people would be forced to come up with more specific ways to express themselves.

And we'd also get rid of annoying redundancies like "writing literacy." "Writing" is just fine, thank you.

Also, the whole habit strikes me as self-defeating, because traditionally, only early elementary teachers think of "literacy" as actually being their job. High school English teachers, for the most part, know nothing about "literacy" and don't want to.

Of course, a new word would have to be invented to describe the ability to read and write, but I think the inconvenience would be worth it.

If you want a better framework for understanding reading, writing and the discipline of English, you need to read Textual Power: Literary Theory and the Teaching of English, by Robert Scholes.


Will Richardson said...

But don't you have to be able to do something with the writing? Communicate clearly? Appropriately? Literacy applies a standard to the writing, doesn't it? Why is that harmful? I agree that literacy is being bandied about rather loosely in this conversation, and I'm as guilty of that as anyone. But what would you suggest as a replacement? Just "writing" doesn't really cut it.

Tom Hoffman said...

Why doesn't "writing" cut it?

Will Richardson said...

Um...'cause my 10-year old daughter is "writing". And if she's not writing, what is she doing? What's your new word? C'mon...give it a shot at least.

Tom Hoffman said...

I think what you're writing about is writing in different genres and/or media.

Gnuosphere said...

How about "source literacy"?

Tom Krieglstein said...

Hey Tom,

I know this post is almost 2 years old, but wanted to get a clarification from you.

I get that using 'literacy' in 'digital literacy' doesn't work very well and from an Etymological perspective might even be incorrect.

So do you have the same feelings about using 'literate' as in 'Digitally Literate' or seen as different meanings though from the same root?

Tom Hoffman said...

I think leaning on "digitally literate" is also likely to make your thinking and people's understanding of it mushy.