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.

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