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Talk-ED: With tongues hanging out


It never ceases to make me wonder whether or not we have become daft when I see constant references to this kind of “literacy” and that kind of “literacy”.

We see that “financial literacy” is needed to enable those who struggle with money – actually this seems largely to be a euphemism for “managing without much money”. To use computers well you must be “computer literate” by being steeped in “digital literacy”.

In fact the web tells me that there seems to be myriad varieties of literacy – scientific literacy, cultural literacy, mathematical literacy (this could be numeracy perhaps) global literacy, visual literacy, media literacy. And thus it all becomes clear.

“Literacy” no longer means being literate in the old sense of the word. A literate person was one who could read and write (long ago this meant a little bit of both) and these days the expectation is that this will be to a high level. It was the purpose of schooling to make people literate and that of tertiary education to make people elegantly literate.

Clearly “literate” and “literacy ” these days simply mean being able to do something, or know about it, or to have learned the appropriate behaviours.

It is a simple truth that literate people, genuinely literate, have the tools to be good at all those other things without too much initiation into the secret societies of managing money, working a computer, getting along with others and seeing through the media.  If our education system was turning out literate people across the board, because it clearly does this with many young people, it would not be necessary to add the complications of all those spin-off varieties.

Of course each new literacy that comes along creates another area of specialism that protects the turf – and this might be one of the very strong tendency to see each area of knowledge and activity as a “literacy”.

Those who can read, write and be articulate can tackle most things. For a period of my life I had a block of land that had sheep on it, bred ducks, had an orchard, grew flowers and vegetables and all the other trappings of “the good life”.  My neighbour would laugh at me saying “You are always reading a book to find out how to do something.”  He never understood the pleasure that this observation brought to me – of course I would do this, a literate person uses the tools of their literacy to acquire further knowledge.

And there’s the rub. As access to tertiary education expands for a variety of reasons there is  growing evidence that increasing numbers of students are arriving in the academy ill-prepared for the tasks that face them. This is not to say that they are illiterate (seemingly also a kind of literacy) but that they have not developed the skills of literacy to a point where they meet the demands of study at a university level.

So tertiary institutions have to accept the fact they they are increasingly in the business of literacy and get on with deciding how this is going to be tackled. Early responses saw the establishment of “Learning Centres” and “Academic Assistance” programmes but these carry with them the issue of relating what is being taught to what needs to be learnt. The best of such approaches are adequate but no substitute for delivering elements of literacy development right inside the programmes being taught in the various disciplines.  Embedded literacy is the current, favoured approach.

This is not a new idea – remember the language across the curriculum approaches developed in the 1960s?  That spawned a whole lot of English for Academic Uses and “English for …….” books and programmes.  Some of these may have worked but you can’t cope with issues that have become mainstream by clipping stuff on at the edges.

And to make this whole language thing even more of a challenge – the changing ethnicities of the demographics and the exponential increase in the presence of international students in classrooms meant that students introduced all the issues of English as an Additional Language into the mix.  And “bi-literacy” became yet another kind to consider – being literate in two languages.  This is actually a bit of nonsense – to a very large extent being literate in one language transfers to the skills of literacy in another, provided that the other language has a presence in the teaching setting.

Students seeking to understand a second language continually ask of themselves the question “In what ways is this new language the same as or different from the language I already know?”  Having teachers and tutors who have facility in the home languages students bring into the classroom helps with this.  You do not learn English as a Second Language by ignoring the first language!  We are very slow to recognise this and it is as much an issue for tertiary as it is for the schooling sector.

There has long been a saying among linguists – “If you speak many languages you are multilingual, if you speak two languages you are bilingual, if you speak one language you are English.”  Issues of multiple language do seem to trouble the Anglo-Saxon education systems rather more than they do to others.

Vygotsky put it nicely – “thought is not merely expressed in words but come into being through them.”  If our education institutions are in the business of increasing the capacity to think then they have to accept that they are in the business of language development – at all levels and across all disciplines.



Published inEducation

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