Intro: Last year while reading about dyslexia I encountered an article called “The Ecology of Dyslexia.” It described the different views taken of dyslexia, based on training and motivation (i.e. parents vs. educators vs. neurologists vs. individuals with dyslexia) and the importance of understanding these differing groups, and of depending on each of their areas of expertise. In the same way it would benefit information professionals to consider the ecology of reading — the varying views and definitions taken by the academically inclined, by the educationally motivated and by the emotionally charged.
Definitions of literacy:
- There was a time when you were considered literate if you knew how to sign your name
- Humans have not been reading for that long; the majority of people have not been reading for very long at all
- Rich countries are not necessarily those with the highest literacy rates
- NEA report
- Educators use fluency as key measurement — reading text with speed, accuracy, and expression (National Reading Panel, 2000)
- We are now being given ever-expanding definitions of information literacy, some of which go so far as to include indicators of social behaviour and belonging
- Reading and writing are in fact less related than we might think. (We learn a lot about the brain by studying people with brain injuries, identifying which area of the brain has been affected and determining which functions have been harmed.) In The Brain That Changes Itself, Doidge describes a patient of famous neurologist Aleksandr Luria, who, after having received a bullet in his brain, could write but could no longer read, the former being an intentional activity while the latter is mainly perceptual.
- The Ball & Moeller hypertext article stresses the need for other measurements of literacy aside from academic literacy — understanding links, design and navigation are every bit as important to “reading” most of the text that comes at us these days as knowing where the index will be in a book; Schroeder’s Table of Comparison of Institutional vs. Student-Perceived Academic Literacies shows the difference between what instructors think they are teaching and what students are learning. Ball and Moeller argue the need for “critical literacy skills” that address reading of not only academic formatted papers, but new media as well.
- Mark Twain quote: “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.” What is the use of being literate if you don’t make use of it? Is knowing how to retrieve and interpret information a good measure?
- There is no rigid definition — it is a concept in flux.
Evaluating of these definitions:
The moral of this story, simple as it is: reading is different for everyone. Our own personal experience is likely different from other people’s, in some ways. Not everyone enjoys reading — enjoyment of the reading experience becomes an important measure of the print literacy experience. If it were up to me, I would promote the idea of literacy, or at least functional literacy, as one requiring a definition based on an individual’s needs and environment. Is this person happy with their level of literacy? Is he or she able to read to his or her children? Is this person able to gain and interpret reliable medical and community information? (Illustration: A dyslexic university student can get government funding to purchase her own personal computer, scanner, OCR software, text-to-voice and voice-to-text conversion software. If this person is fully competent with computers, is able to scan her textbooks and play them back in audio form so as to have the textbook read to her, dictate her paper and have it automatically transcribed, use screenreader software to access blogs, FaceBook and Wikipedia and every other source of information a university accesses, is this person still functionally illiterate? These technologies may not be 100% reliable yet, but they are infinitely closer than they were ten years ago. In ten more years, what will our definition of functional literacy be?)
We can — and should — assume that the definition of literacy will continue to evolve (expand on this).