Transliteracy, plain language & post-structuralism

Notebook entry #7

On Thursday, October 27th, Mount Saint Vincent University held a panel discussion entitled Transliteracy: Information Literacy, Digital Fluencies and Pedagogical Strategies as part of its Literacies as Ways of Knowing series.

I looked forward to this discussion because I thought it would teach me loads about information technology. As I sit here writing this blog on my laptop, I have my smartphone to my right and a cordless phone to my left. I can easily spend all day on the computer writing, checking and responding to emails, checking the news on Facebook and Twitter and following the various links I find there. Still, I know I am barely scratching the surface of what new technologies offer. So I was really keen to learn more about all this digital stuff.

But I learned that that’s not really what transliteracy means. According to Production and Research in Transliteracy, the group that coined the term, it means “the ability to read, write, and interact across a range of platforms, tools and media from signing and orality through handwriting, print, TV, radio and film, to digital social networks.”

So transliteracy is about being able speak, read, write, use sign language, and interpret messages from a wide variety of technologies, including those that come free with our own bodies, and to use those technologies to convey our own messages. In short, it’s about people talking to people however they choose to do so.

That made me think of transliteracy in a completely different way and brought me back to plain language. I think the key to all this is communication. Yes, there are more ways to communicate than ever before but it’s still communication. That means plain language writers like me have more research to do.  We already try to find out as much about our audiences as we can but some things we may have overlooked, and certainly things our clients overlook are

  • How do members of our target audience want to get information?
  • Where do they look for information?
  • How do they organize their own information such as appointments, tasks, etc.?

For example, a legal-aid lawyer friend of mine told me that her clients keep all their information on their mobile phones. These are often single parents of young children who travel by public transit. Yet all the information given to them by government is either on paper, in the form of a booklet or brochure, or on the web as a PDF version of that paper.

Imagine going home after a stressful meeting. You’re on the bus,  juggling your purse, a stroller, a child or two, and paper. The best time to read that information may be on the bus as the children may be occupied or sleeping. When you get home, you may not have a computer with which to access the PDF files and your papers may be soggy from rain or tears, crumpled, torn, or lost.

In that situation, wouldn’t you want a mobile phone app? And wouldn’t you want that app to be free? And wouldn’t you want that free app to be accessible on your phone, not just on the higher end more expensive phones?

We have to be careful that, as one panel attendee said, we don’t let the technology drive us, we drive the technology. For example, on October 15th my family and I attended  Nocturne: Art at Night in Halifax. It was wonderful to be downtown with so many people taking in the free art shows but we didn’t get the full experience. That’s because this year, Nocturne developed an app for iPhone and iPod Touch that made the experience more interactive. Not having these devices, we could not participate.

I ran into a similar situation at Halifax Citadel in the summer. Some museum installations had QR codes that offered more information about the installation, often a video. But to get the information you needed a mobile phone with a camera and specific software. Because my phone is two years old, it does not have the software and I was unable to get the added information.

In both cases, I think those who added the apps and the QR codes thought they were a doing people a great service offering them added information and experiences on a platform that they are already using. I mean really, who doesn’t have an iPhone?

So here’s where I bring in our classroom discussion about post-structuralism. In class, we talked about the various ways people are privileged or lack privilege and how, those that have privilege are blind to it.

I think that may be what’s going on with the four forms for communication I’ve talked about: the paper, the PDFs, the apps, the QR codes. How much has privilege blinded the information providers to the barriers the platform itself puts up to the information?

Bureaucrats work with paper all day and have computers at their desks and printers that they can use. Many have computers at home. Many carry brief cases and travel to and from work and appointments without their children. So having some extra paper is not a burden and if it gets wrecked, it’s no big deal, they’ll just get the PDF off the web.

Artists seem to love Apple products and it didn’t come as a surprise to me that both the Atlantic Film Festival and Nocturne had iPhone apps. Because they see these devices so often in their everyday lives, they are blind to the fact that not everybody has them and because they see it as an added bonus, they don’t notice that people may feel left out if they don’t have the device.

Finally, QR codes are a great way to put added information into a museum installation, particularly videos, without having to set up monitors and listening posts. I’m sure curators see loads of people in museums taking pictures of each other and installations with mobile phones so they may have assumed that all phones have the same capability. And, like those behind Nocturne, they may see it as an added bonus. But that may not be the way the patron who has paid the same entry fee as someone else feels when they cannot get the same experience because they don’t have the correct device or software.

So while many people a the Transliteracy panel discussion seemed to discuss transliteracy from the viewpoint of the receiver of information, I look at it from the point of view of those who provide information. It is up to us to do two things:

  • make sure that we understand the reasons behind using particular technologies to give information to people and to make sure that these technologies are a good fit
  • be conscious of our own privileges and how they may blind us to barriers others may have to receiving information in particular ways

Reflections on Literacy

I started this blog as a way to promote myself as an independent plain language writer. But, like many first-time bloggers, I lacked the time, focus, and discipline to keep it going. What I do have is a basket-load of good intentions. I will complete the incomplete pages of this blog … someday … soon?

But, for now, I will use this space to fulfill a requirement of my first course in the Master’s of Education in Literacy program that I started just last week. My first course is Literacy Learning I taught by Dr. Susan Walsh. One of the requirements of this course is to keep a notebook, making entries once a week. In the notebook, and on this blog, I will “reconfigure [my] beliefs and understandings about what it means to be a teacher/learner of language and literacy.” The notebook entries must bring together at least two of the following:

  • required course materials (readings)
  • my own experiences with language and literacy
  • other reading resources or class work
  • at least one lecture from the MSVU Literacy as Ways of Knowing lecture series

Notebook entry #1 2011-09-19

For this entry, I will bring together the following:

I only began to think about literacy in the last five years when I began working as a plain language consultant. My work involved taking complex messages from government and turning them into language accessible to “the general public,” or a particular audience usually perceived as having lower literacy skills than the government workers with whom I contracted. Literacy, for me, was defined as the ability to read and understand a written document. From there I began to understand “the general public” as having various levels of literacy:

  • excellent readers – those who can read anything as long as it is written in an official language that they understand
  • good readers – those who can read most things but have some difficulty with complex texts
  • poor readers – those who can read if they work at it. They have a better understanding of documents written simply and clearly
  • non-readers – I would have called these people illiterate

What I discovered during my first class with Dr. Walsh was how narrowly I had defined literacy. I have always been considered to be someone with a flair for language. I learned to read before I went to school. In elementary school, I was moved out of my regular class to study Language Arts with the grade ahead of me. In university, my English professor asked me to major in the subject. I went on to work as a  journalist, and later, a freelance writer. By this time, I came to consider myself as pretty darn knowledgeable about the English language. But I walked into Literacy Learning I for the first time and learned that I didn’t know the basics: that there are six dimensions, I like to think of them  as three pairs of dimensions, of English Language Arts:

  • viewing and representing
  • listening and speaking
  • reading and writing

All this time I thought of literacy as reading. It was only very recently that I even considered writing as literacy. I have played with representing insofar as that can be done on paper, but that was the extent of it. I had never even thought of the remaining dimensions. That was my first eye-opener.

Then I read Friere’s The Importance of the Act of Reading and my eyes were opened further. Until I read it, I thought of reading as reading the written word – decoding letters and punctuation to find the meaning behind the symbols. But Friere begins by talking about reading the world. While he talks about it from his personal experience as a child in Brazil reading the world around him, I realized that we all read the world before we read the word, and we derive meaning from the things we see around us.

When I was a child, and my family had taken a day-trip somewhere in southern Ontario, a specific neon sign ( I don’t know what it said) against the night sky told me that I was close to home. I immediately felt warm and comfortable and usually fell asleep soon after seeing it and woke up in the driveway of my home. Likewise, after a long car trip, my own children see a tall building near MicMac Mall and know that home is near. If they have been bickering, they stop. For a few minutes, everyone in the car is quietly content.  What we saw in our minds was a sign that said: “You are almost home.” Until I read Friere, I never thought of those experiences as reading. Now I can’t stop thinking of all kinds of activities as reading:

  • infants read facial expressions before they read anything else
  • we are expected to read body language without anyone teaching us and we are judged harshly if we are unable to do so
  • long before there were meteorologists, farmers and fishermen read the weather
  • my brother-in-law can read space and instinctively know how one thing fits into another until he has built a shed, laid a floor, or installed a door

I agree wholeheartedly with Friere that we need to be able to read the world before we can truly read the word. We need some understanding of the world around us before we can see how that world is reflected in the squiggles on paper called writing.  The world and the word must meet. If they don’t, there can be no understanding.

Dr. Harste touched on this during his lecture when he said that children focus on what interests them. “If a kid can’t see himself in literacy, he’s not going to be literate,” Harste said.  Because my interest is in communicating important and complex messages to people deemed “less literate,” I took his message to heart. Somewhere along the way, too many people were missed on the road to literacy. For some reason, the lessons stopped resonating with them and they stopped seeing themselves in literacy.

Harste said something else during his lecture that also struck a chord with me. He said that if you want your child to sound like a teacher let him hang out with teachers and if you want your child to sound like a lawyer let him hang out with lawyers. His point was that we all learn the pragmatics of language, the rules of language use in a context, from that context. I believe this is true but that is has also become the bane of modern communication. Lawyers spend so much time talking to other lawyers that they’ve forgotten how to talk to everyone else, which is why even the most literate among us have trouble deciphering legislation, regulation, and contracts. The same is true of the medical profession, the financial sector, and government. All of whom have forgotten that the end users of their documents, “the general public,” need to see themselves and need to see their world reflected in those documents for them to be able to read and understand them. In my view, among the so-called “educated,” too much effort is placed on pragmatics and not enough is placed on semantics — what does the document actually mean?

I used to think that you needed to listen before you could learn to speak and that you needed to read before you could learn to write. Dr. Harste and Natalie Goldberg have shaken that belief as well. During his lecture, Harste showed a slide of three pages of “writing” by preschool children. Without a a recognizable word on any of them, everyone in the lecture theatre was able to spot the one from the United States, the one from Israel, and the one from Saudi Arabia. The children, who couldn’t read yet, already knew so many things about writing. It was clear from the examples that they knew what the letters of their language looked like, they appeared to know which direction to write in (left to right or right to left) but more importantly, they knew what writing was and they knew what it was for — to convey meaning. Later examples of early writing showed that children were immensely creative with their writing; one invented a letter for “s” when is sounds like  “z,” and another invented a punctuation mark to convey sadness.

Goldberg’s advice to writers? Writing is a voyage of discovery. Yes, it has structure but that structure cannot be imposed from the outside. Through writing, the writer discovers the structure and allows it to grow organically.

Both Harste and Goldberg appear to be in agreement that one learns to write through the act of writing without external constraints or limits. This appears to apply equally to children just entering the world of letters as it does to adults. What is sad for me, is that so many people appear not to have had that opportunity. Perhaps the constraints and limits placed on them at school stifled their vision of themselves as writers. Sadder still, is that their other literacies (visual, digital, environmental, cultural, musical, technological, etc.) are granted less or no importance and these people are therefore deemed “low-literacy,” or “illiterate.”

It seems to me that our challenge is two-fold:

  • to redesign the way reading and writing is taught in schools so that more people see themselves in literacy and stay on the road
  • to recognize and accept other literacies and use these to communicate important messages to the public

I will leave the first item to the teachers in the class. I believe the way to address the second item is to spend as much time with adults considered to have poor literacy skills as Harste spent with young children to find out how they read their world. We can then use that information to design ways of communicating complex but important everyday information to them. This may mean that rid ourselves of the notion of “the general public” and communicate to smaller audiences. It will be expensive, but I think it will make us all more literate.