A Definition of Literacy?

Last summer at a meeting of representatives of NCLE stakeholder organizations, those gathered discussed a number of foundational and constitutive questions about the future shape and direction of the Center’s work. Among those questions was this one: “What should be the Center’s working definition of literacy, given its goal of improving the teaching of literacy practices that are at the heart of learning in all school subjects?”  

As we talked, I jotted the following definition on the sheet of paper in front of me:

Literacy is the ability to use available symbol systems that are fundamental to learning and teaching—for the purposes of comprehending and composing—for the purposes of making and communicating meaning and knowledge.  

As I attempted to shape a definition that would work for representatives of teachers of mathematics as well as for teachers of English language arts, for teachers of physics as well as for teachers of physical education, I was reminded of Raymond Williams’s keywords project (Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, 1976, 1983). Williams began his work in the middle of the last century by studying more than a hundred familiar words rich in meanings—words like culture and equality—from a historical, sociological perspective rather than from an etymological one. The words whose history and use he researched were ones that identified social practices, beliefs, value systems, and preferences. They were polysemous words used in concurrent contexts to communicate both technical and popular meanings—interlocking, various, often contested, even contradictory meanings.

Literacy was not one of the words that Williams studied originally or in his later, expanded work. It isn’t one that currently appears in the Keywords Project that other academics have taken up since Williams’s death. But it is a term that historians have demonstrated has been used to communicate various and different meanings over time, e.g., reciting written texts, comprehending them, reading them, composing them, and so on. And it is a word that is used currently to communicate a variety of practices and beliefs that are highly valued in our society. It is a word whose meaning exceeds lexical definitions of it.

Contribute your thoughts about the meaning of literacy and the challenges of attempting to name a single, all-encompassing definition by adding new comments to this initial compilation of reflections: http://www.literacyinlearningexchange.org/defining-literacy.

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